The government's decision earlier this week to recognise Jains as a religious minority will go a long way towards boosting the community's sense of identity and paves the way for a better appreciation of Jainism's contribution to Indian philosophy, art and literature, said experts.

The cabinet decided on Monday to add Jains to the list of groups recognised as religious minorities under the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. Buddhists, Christians, Muslims, Parsis and Sikhs now enjoy this status.

Once the government notifies its decision, the Jains, a group that has only five million members, will become India's sixth religious minority.

As a religious minority, Jains will have the constitutional right to administer their own institutions, reserve places in their institutions for community members and teach their religion at these institutions, all of which will help deepen the group's sense of identity, said Rishabh Sancheti, 30, a Supreme Court lawyer and community member.

Some Jains had been reluctant to press for minority status because they are seen as a wealthy community that does not need the financial benefits that such a classification would provide.  "They thought they might be seen as pursuing economic gain, and this would be bad publicity," said Peter Flügel, the chair of the Centre for Jaina Studies at London's School of Oriental and African Studies.

But, Sancheti urged, "People need to understand that getting minority status is not the same as getting reservation."

Indeed, the benefits of the decision are mostly intangible, say experts. It could encourage a wider recognition of Jainism's enormous contributions to Indian history, culture and philosophy, said Manish Modi, a Mumbai-based Jain scholar and publisher who has translated a large number of Jain texts from Prakrit and Sanskrit into English.

More than a third of Indian paintings are Jain, three of the five classic texts in Tamil Sangam literature are Jain and the book widely acknowledged as the first autobiography in an Indian language, the Ardhakathanak (The Half Story), was written by a Jain from Agra called Banarasidas, in Brij Bhasha, he said.

"We have a past that cannot be dismissed," Modi said. "Our contributions to Indian thought and culture deserve to be acknowledged fully."

In practical terms, the cabinet's decision merely strengthens the recognition that a dozen states are already giving to Jainism as a minority religion. But since some states with Jain populations still do not accord the group minority status, about one-fifth of the country's Jain population is outside the ambit of this recognition, said Sancheti, who has been following the debates about this issue since his days as a law student. After this week's decision, this will cease to be a problem.

In 2005, in response to a writ petition asking for minority status for Jains, the Supreme Court had ruled that states were the appropriate authorities for determining whether to give a group linguistic and religious minority status. A review petition is now pending with the court. The government's decision this week makes this petition partly irrelevant, said Sancheti.

The original petition, filed by a Mumbai-based Jain named Bal Patil, who has since passed away, had asked the three-judge bench hearing the case to recognise Jains as a national minority.  The Jain demand for minority status is almost a century old, his son, Rahul Patil, said.

In addition to declining this demand, the bench also observed that Jainism was not an independent religion and was merely a reform movement within Hinduism, such as the Brahmo Samaj, said Sancheti.

This caused more than a little consternation within the Jain community. Sancheti himself wrote to about 40 scholars around the world asking them for their opinion, almost all of who replied that Jainism was a distinct religion, he said.

In one email reply that Sancheti forwarded, Phyllis Granoff, a professor at Yale University, said, "As a scholar of Indian religions I would not hesitate to say that Jainism is a distinctive religious tradition and not a 'reform movement' from within Hinduism. It is closer in fact to Buddhism than it is to what we call Hinduism. Indeed Jainism emphatically rejected the authority of the Vedas and vedic ritual as a means to salvation. "

This week's decision therefore has "significant symbolic value", said Flügel of SOAS. He added, "Many Jains will be happy now."