NEW DELHI - The Union Cabinet on Jan 20 agreed to grant the Jain community the status of a “national minority”. This fulfills a long-standing demand by the 7-million-strong community that has sought to maintain its religious and cultural identity. The proposal, pushed by minority affairs minister K Rahman Khan and Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, could be a politically attractive one for the UPA government, months ahead of a general election.
As a religious minority, Jains will qualify for constitutional safeguards and special policy attention alongside five other such religious minority groups: Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and Parsis. Under the Constitution, religious minorities enjoy special rights. For example, under Article 30, they can manage their own educational institutions without interference or opening them up for reservation for students from other communities. They also become eligible for funds under the government’s minority welfare programs. In India, 15 per cent of all funds under various programs must be targeted towards minorities. Jains, an otherwise affluent minority, were fighting for “national minority” status mainly to protect and promote Jainism as a distinct faith and culture. Along with Hinduism and Buddhism, it is one of the three most ancient religious faiths in the subcontinent. Although Jainism has many shared concepts with Hinduism and Buddhism because of a common cultural background, scholars agree that the Jain tradition constitutes an independent faith. Jains already enjoy minority status in 11 states. In 2005, the community’s representatives had moved the Supreme Court seeking a similar status nationally, a proposal backed by the National Minorities Commission. However, the top court had left the decision to the Centre.