Abrasive anti-Muslim comments by Bharatiya Janata Party MP Meghraj Jain that earned him a summons from the Rajya Sabha Ethics Committee have sparked a discussion within the Jain community about whether they actually deserve the minority status they were granted three years ago.
Meghraj Jain, who is from Madhya Pradesh, told a press conference in Ratlam last April that the decision to give Jains minority status was a “conspiracy by the Congress’’. Asserting that Jains belonged within the Hindu fold, he claimed that the Manmohan Singh government had decided to classify Jains as a minority a few months before the 2014 general election even though a survey had not been carried out to elicit the community’s views on the subject.
By being declared a national minority, Jains can claim government scholarships, business loans for entrepreneurs and have the right to manage their own educational institutions, among other benefits.
But Meghraj Jain seemed especially annoyed that minority status puts Jains “on a par with a very violent community”.
He elaborated: “We are pure vegetarian. We can’t even kill ants, and if they do get killed we make atonement...It’s an insult to the Jain community...I am talking about Muslims...They kill goat...kill cow...they eat meat daily. We were made to sit with them.’’
Meghraj Jain’s views might not have become widely known had a Congress leader from Madhya Pradesh not complained about them. Shahid Modi sent newspaper clippings and a recording of the April press conference to the President, demanding that the MP be suspended from the Rajya Sabha for making a statement “deliberately for social, religious and political polarisation’’.
On Monday, Jain was called to explain his statement to the Rajya Sabha Ethics Committee, led by Karan Singh. However, the hearing did not take place, presumably because Singh is not in the country and two of the committee’s 10 members have left the Rajya Sabha and not been replaced yet. The Hyderabad office of Telugu Desam Party’s T Devender Goud, a member of the committee, said they had not been informed about the hearing.
In an interview to Scroll.in, Jain stuck to his views. Reminded that the demand for minority status had come from the community, he countered: “So what? We are such a vast community. Some four people demanded it. Was a survey done to see if the entire community agreed? We share Vedic practices with Hindus. We perform the Navagraha puja, call a pandit for our weddings, we celebrate Navratri...How are we a minority?”
As Scroll.in has previously reported, Muslims have been central to the Jain community’s discussions on minority status. A petition filed by the Akhil Bharatiya Jain Mahasabha in the Supreme Court in 2014 claimed that the government “has adopted appeasement policy towards Muslims and in the name of the minorities all the benefits are being given to this community whereas other minorities are not being given the same benefit and status”.
Jain complained: “The term ‘minority’ has come to mean Muslims, you know that.’’
Asked about Meghraj Jain’s comments, the reactions of Jain community leaders ranged from embarrassment to anger.
Sunil Singhi, a BJP leader from Ahmedabad who was appointed the first Jain member of the National Minority Commission in May, could only say, “No, no, no, no...That may be his personal opinion. I don’t agree at all. Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis are minorities too, apart from Muslims. At any rate, we are a minority in terms of our numbers, it’s not a question of religion.’’ Jains make up 0.4 % of India’s population.
Lalit Gandhi, president of the All India Jain Minority Cell, agreed with Meghraj Jain that Jains followed many Hindu practices. “We are part of the Hindu mainstream, we share their culture,” he said. “In Maharashtra, for example, many of us celebrate the Ganpati festival. Where is the question of sitting with Muslims?’’ However, he emphasised that the Jain religion was distinct from Hinduism. “Many judgements have asserted this,” he said. “Ask any of our religious scholars.’’
At the same time, Gandhi, who had co-authored a presentation to the National Minority Commission listing out the specific demands of Jains a year after they were declared a minority, expressed anger at the MP’s dismissal of Jains who had asked for minority status. “Does the entire community ever ask for anything?” he asked. “It is always a handful of leaders who do so. Those like Meghraj Jain who do not want to avail of the minority status need not, but they should not prevent the rest from benefiting from it. This demand was fulfilled after a long struggle.’’
Noting that 30% of Jains live below the poverty line, Gandhi said lakhs of Jain students had benefited from scholarships meant for minorities. “Everyone forms a wrong impression of us seeing just the 10% super-rich Jains,’’ he said.
Dhanpal Solanki, a Mumbai-based lawyer who has been a vocal proponent of Jain minority rights said while Meghraj Jain was entitled to his opinion, “his remarks have no constitutional or legal sanctity’’. Solanki felt his community had not benefited as much as it should have since it was declared a national minority. On the contrary, he said, it has been at the receiving end of animosity from other communities. The main reason, the lawyer said, was the demand made every year by some Jain politicians that slaughter houses be shut for the entire duration of the nine-day Jain Paryushan festival. “These are emotive issues,” Solanki said. “These politicians should focus instead on the difficulties being faced by poor Jains.’’
Although none of these leaders spoke about Meghraj Jain’s views on Muslims, a post by the Vishwa Jain Sanghatan on its Facebook page, which is being circulated within the community on WhatsApp, says that by bringing in the irrelevant issue of Muslims’ food habits, Meghraj Jain had tried to create a rift between Jains and Muslims. The post adds that the MP should know that during the just-ended Navratri, animal sacrifice was carried out in many important Hindu temples. The post asserts that Jainism is a separate religion, and attributes the MP’s remarks to his desire to get a second Rajya Sabha term. Jain’s term ends in April 2018.
Meghraj Jain’s view that Jains are not a minority echoes that of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological parent of the BJP with which the MP has been long associated. The RSS places Jains within the Hindu fold. The 15 states which had granted Jains minority status before the Union government did were ruled by non-BJP parties.
Despite this, Jains have traditionally been BJP supporters. They have been particularly active in the campaign to ban cattle slaughter. Meghraj Jain was chairman of Madhya Pradesh’s Cow Rearing and Cattle Promotion Board, with cabinet minister rank, from 2004 to 2011. And everyone interviewed for this report expressed satisfaction with the cattle slaughter bans imposed by BJP’s state and central governments.