Dominant ethnic groups  – ethnic and/or religious and/or cultural – are best placed to play a major role in the transformation of a specific ethnic, religious or linguistic identity into a national identity.

The dominant ethnic group (an ethnic group in its broadest sense embraces religious and cultural commonalities, as well as belief in a common descent and language) may not necessarily be numerically superior to other ethnic groups but its control over the political and socio-economic levers of power allows it greater leeway in shaping national identity. The Sunnis constituted the dominant ethnic group in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s rule, although they were a minority ethnic group compared to Shiites. Similarly, the Alawis in Syria, being a minority ethnic group, could prevail upon the majority of the population.

These minority ethnic groups, in their efforts to cultivate and sustain their predominance, very often resorted to coercion through the state’s security mechanisms, such as the army and police, and denied political participation to other ethnic groups. However, the leaders of the dominant group also believed that sole reliance on brute force could backfire and invite revolts. Hence, they were engaged in constructing a national identity which would transcend the identity claims of any particular ethnic group and provide a sense that the leaders in the position of power were working toward fulfilling national objectives. For instance, the Baath regimes in Iraq and Syria made efforts to promote Pan-Arab identity to deflect attention from their minority status and neutralize claims of the majority ethnic group.

On the other side, where the dominant ethnic group constituted the majority of the population, the indigenous and emotive appeal allowed such groups arguably a more central role in explaining, as well as shaping the cultural and political developments of a country than subaltern minorities. A claim to indigenousness favors the dominant ethnic group in garnering the support of the masses and in seeking assimilation of other groups into its ethos and lifestyles. The majority ethnic group is better placed and happens to be the dominant ethnic group in most countries.

In a democratic set-up, the leaders of the dominant ethnic group, due to their control over the modern state, are able to provide a veneer of Enlightenment norms such as liberty, equality and justice to their identity claims. Exhortations of the liberal thinkers as well as leaders that loyalty to the political community is necessary for effective governance also helps the dominant ethnic group in gradually transforming their culture into a national culture. However, it is germane to note that at no time in the evolution of any cultural group was there anything like unanimous agreement on defining what it means to be a member of a particular cultural group. Further, any definition that acquires a high degree of consensus within a community at a particular point in its history is subject to redefinition as a consequence of either internal conflicts of interest or ideology within the group or as a consequence of external changes that affect segments of the group differentially.

In his book Language, Religion and Politics in North India, originally published in 1974, Paul Brass acknowledged that the pre-existing cultures or religious practices were not infinitely malleable but emphasized how the role of the elites of the ethnic groups was instrumental in defining, sustaining and providing strength to a particular version of culture. He argued: “In the course of the social and political development of the Muslim community in India during the 19th and 20th century, the symbols used to define its boundaries have varied depending upon the elites who have done the defining.”

While South Asian states such as India and Nepal hark back to the settlement of the Aryans (Hindus) in the subcontinent, which occurred around 5,000 years ago, as the nodal point of history, Sri Lanka, Burma and Bhutan trace their roots back to the mainstream acceptance of Buddhism

On the one hand, while the dominant ethnic groups remain engaged in a process of reviving, constructing and adapting their identities and political strategies to the evolving context of modernity, the groups, in a way to assert their primacy, selectively emphasize specific periods of history favorable to them on the other. For instance, the dominant ethnic groups of the South Asian states chose and focused on the historical phase when the religious collectivities constituted their dominant population notwithstanding their history of a common civilization.

The rediscovery of an appropriate past when the dominant ethnic group constituted the national mainstream has been crucial to the sustenance of the group’s predominance. While South Asian states such as India and Nepal hark back to the settlement of the Aryans (Hindus) in the subcontinent, which occurred around 5,000 years ago, as the nodal point of history, Sri Lanka, Burma and Bhutan trace their roots back to the mainstream acceptance of Buddhism.

In his work National Identity (1991), Anthony Smith emphasized that nations are built around “ethnic cores” or “dominant ethnie” which furnish the nation with its legitimating myths, symbols and conceptions of territory. He asserts: “Many states have been formed in the first place around a dominant ethnie, which attracted other ethnies or ethnic fragments into the state to which it gave a name and a cultural
character.”

India and Pakistan

The dominant ethnic group in India (Hindus) is a minority ethnic community in Pakistan and the dominant ethnic group in Pakistan (Sunni Muslims) is an ethnic minority group in India. Both have been accused of threatening their respective minorities, reflecting their historically adversarial relationship.

The dominant ethnic group in Pakistan has not only been allegedly involved in persecuting minority ethnic groups but undertook sustained efforts at assimilating minority groups. The issue of religious conversion in Pakistan caught headlines recently when two girls, Raveena and Reena, and their spouses complained to the Islamabad High Court on March 25  about alleged harassment by police days after their father and brother alleged that the girls were underage, abducted, forced into changing their religion, and then married off to Muslim men. However, the court ruled that the two Hindu sisters from Sindh province voluntarily converted to Islam. It stated that Nadia, 18, and Asia, 19, who were previously known as Reena and Raveena, respectively, were adults and free to make informed decisions for themselves according to Pakistani law.

Irrespective of the ruling of the Pakistani court, there are credible reports which point to the persecution of religious minority groups by the dominant ethnic group in Pakistan. According to the findings of a 2015 report by the South Asia Partnership-Pakistan in collaboration with Aurat Foundation, at least 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. The report stated that the conversions take place in the Thar region, particularly in the districts of Umerkot, Tharparkar,
Mirpur Khas, Sanghar, Ghotki and Jacobabad. The numerical strength of Hindus in Pakistan has dwindled over a period of time.

In sharp contrast to 1951 when Pakistan had 15% Hindus, the number had shrunk to 1.6% by 1998. While the Human Rights Commission in Pakistan reports that 20-25 young Hindu girls are apparently abducted and converted every month, the Pakistan Hindu Council estimates that
about 5,000 Hindus being deprived of a dignified existence leave for India every year.

Professor Saswati Sarkar, a US-based academic and researcher on Hindu persecution in the subcontinent, said: “This decimation is the outcome of sustained legal and social discrimination ever since the creation of Pakistan. On the legal front, only Muslims are eligible for the position of president or prime minister of Pakistan. The sharia court in Pakistan has promoted religiosity and strengthened fanatics.”

Human rights records released by the US State Department back in 1992 observed in a comparative analysis that if human rights were considered to be abused in India, then the situation in Pakistan could only be described as “appalling,” with victims “brutalized” on a systematic basis. The State Department accused Pakistan of persecuting minority Hindus, Christians and Ahmadis.

A United Nations report in September 2018 accused India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of using coercion, discrimination and inflammatory language against religious minorities, referring to its emphasis on Hindutva ideology. UN Special Rapporteur Tendayi Achiume, an independent human rights expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council, submitted a report on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance. As per the reports, the BJP “has been linked to incidents of violence against members of Dalit, Muslim, tribal and Christian communities.”

According to a 2018 report by Persecution Relief, a Christian group documenting anti-Christian violence in India, New Delhi recorded 736 incidents of attacks against Christians in 2017, more than double the 348 incidents reported in 2016.

The introduction of a subsidy program by Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, for the Hindu pilgrimage to Kailash Mansarovar in 2017;  the BJP’s alleged systematic exclusion of Muslim candidates from contesting elections (the party fielded only seven Muslims out of 482 candidates in the 2014 general elections, reducing the Muslim representation in Parliament to 4% and did not field any Muslim candidates in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections);
the party’s refusal to condemn the growing problem of cow vigilantism in unambiguous terms; and some leaders’ indulgence in Ram Mandir (temple) rhetoric have been viewed as systematic attempts at appeasing as well as promoting the sway of the dominant ethnic group to the exclusion of the minority ethnic community.

The government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been accused of forming a 14-member committee of scholars to rewrite history suitable to the dominant ethnic group – the Hindus – after coming to power.