National Commission for Minorities: Issue of Constitutional Status

National Commission for Minorities has been in existence for 38 years and there were recent debates on scrapping this body.

Important Facts

  • Officially, there are 6 minorities in India viz. Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis and Jains.
  • The Union Government set up the National Commission for Minorities (NCM) under the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. The commission is made up of a Chairperson, a Vice Chairperson and five members. Unlike other bodies like NCSC and NCST, NCM has no constitutional backing or status.
  • Some state viz. Andhra Pradesh, Assam , Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Delhi , Jharkhand, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Manipur, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal have also set up State Minorities Commissions. Their offices are located in the State capitals.

Questions for Analysis

  • Why some call National Commission of Minorities as White Elephant? Why there are demands to fix it or scrap it?
  • Why Constitutional status matters in functioning of such a body? Are there any practical differences between NCM and NCSC/NCST just because of constitutional status?
  • Has NCM made efforts to get a constitutional status for itself? What was government’s response?
  • What should government do?
Why some call National Commission of Minorities as White Elephant? Why there are demands to fix it or scrap it?

In a book titled Minorities Commission 1978-2015: Minor Role in Major Affairs authored by former NCM chairman Tahir Mahmood, NCM is frequently referred to as a toothless tiger, white elephant, sarkari puppet and to the extent “National Commission for Tokenism”. It has been in existence since 38 years but it seems to be an act of tokenism. The minorities find the body ignorant about to the problems that different minority groups face. Among other things, it suffers from an acute lack of expertise in many areas. There are several practically issues.

Firstly, NCM does not have a constitutional status which if would be given would give NCM autonomy and clout it needs to carry out its functions effectively. This is contrasting to other bodies such as NCSC/NCST, which were although set up later; were promptly given constitutional status. Currently, we have two separate commissions for SCs and STs. In contrast, NCM had got a statutory status only in 1992.

Secondly, NCM continues to be treated as a glorified government department but its recommendations are routinely rejected or simply filed away and forgotten. Therefore, it is also called a Minority Commission which definitely has only minor roles to play in major affairs!

Thirdly, the commission lacks transparency.  There’s no prescribed selection process for making appointments with the Cabinet Appointments Committee arbitrarily picking up names from a list suggested by the “nodal” ministry. The whole system has been contrived in such a way as to allow the government to appoint anyone to any post.

In the view of the above issues, there has been demands to revamp NCM and rather than making it simply a glorified body, its needed to give more tooth to the commission.

Why Constitutional status matters in functioning of such a body? Are there any practical differences between NCM and NCSC/NCST just because of constitutional status?

To understand why constitutional status matters in working of such bodies, we take examples of NCSC and NCST. Both of these are constitutional bodies, have vast powers including powers of a civil court; the power of investigation into all matters related to the safeguards provided for the SCs/STs under the constitution or any other law or any order of the Government. They also have the power of inquiry into specific complaints with respect to a deprivation of rights and safeguards of SCs/STs.

On the other hand, NCM was made a statutory body in 1992 via the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. It works under the Ministry of Minority Affairs, and before the formation of this ministry it came under the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Theoretically, all the commissions are autonomous from government but practically they lack effective autonomy. This is evident from the functioning of NCM and also the operations of state minority commissions which are dependent on state governments. Besides the lack of autonomy, in the case of the NCM there is no machinery or powers for proper investigation of complaints. Its entire work is contingent upon the goodwill of state governments.

Another issue that has the potential of further reducing the effectiveness of the NCM has been the growing number of commissions that overlap with the mandate of this commission and thereby reducing the remit of this commission. For example, in 1988, the formation of new Commission on Linguistic Minorities cut into the work of NCM, which was restricted to only religious minorities. What was the net outcome of this was that the concept of minority was restricted to just religious minorities.

Has NCM made efforts to get a constitutional status for itself? What was government’s response?

NCM has often complained lack of powers and makes strong pitch for parity with other such panels in the country. It argues that it can discharge its mandated function fully and effectively only when it is invested with instrumentalities, particularly, the power to inquire and investigate at par with other commissions. Further, NCM had also proposed a constitutional amendment bill which would give it constitutional backing. In that proposed bill, it asked for following powers:

  • To inquire, suo moto, or on a representation presented to it by a member of any of the notified minority communities regarding any atrocities.
  • Powers of investigation and power to use the services of any investigation agency of the central government or any state government.
  • To intervene in any proceeding including related to violation of constitutional safeguards of the minorities pending before a court with the approval of such court.
  • To visit, under intimation to the state government, any jail or any other institution under the control of the state government, where members of notified minority communities are detained or lodged.
  • To participate and advise on the planning process of educational and socio-economic development of the minorities.
  • To present to the president, annual reports
  • To spread minorities rights literacy among various sections of society and promote awareness of the safeguards.

So far, the government’s response has been lukewarm. The above bill is as good as dead.

What should government do?

If there are no vital powers of inquiry and investigation, even after the constitutional status NCM would be a toothless tiger. What is needed is to accord it several powers so that it is not on will of the states to look into the matters related to its work area. Further, there are some practical problems which hinder passing of constitution amendment bills. Firstly, there are sensitivities involved in defining a minority state-wise. For example, currently, in seven states / UTs viz. viz. Jammu-Kashmir, Punjab, Mizoram, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Manipur, Lakshadweep, Nagaland, Hindus are in minority. To get such bill passed, the government will need redefinition of minorities and such a move may be vehemently opposed by all communities. Thus, instead of that government can amend the existing law and allow it to inquire into specific complaints with respect to deprivation of rights and safeguards of minorities, and to investigate and monitor all matters regarding safeguards provided for minorities under the Constitution or under any law. This will bring NCM with National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) which itself is not a constitutional body but has wide powers.

Second, once NCM becomes a powerful body, an issue would come – who should {or precisely, from which community?} preside the body. To solve that problem, the post of Chairman and Vice chairmen can be rotated amongst the members of six notified minorities of the country.