Modi needs to do more to reassure minorities especially Muslims that Hindutva hotheads will be reined in.
By N. Jayaram,
After the prime minister recently addressed members of the Syro-Malabar church in New Delhi, newspaper headlines were predictable and almost identical: “Modi reaches out to Christians…”, the front-pages proclaimed. Some Christian notables felt obliged to declare they were “delighted” with Narendra Modi’s speech.
His address followed more than eight months of lobbying on the part of Christians who had been alarmed by attacks on churches in the capital. More significantly, as many observers pointed out, it followed plain-speaking from US President Barack Obama during his late January visit regarding religious intolerance in India. Bearers of foreign direct investment in the West also needed to be reassured.
“My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence,” Modi told the gathering.
The last five words from Modi’s quote betray his inability as yet to jettison the standard issue shibboleth he ingested during his years as pracharak (preacher cum campaigner) of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – that Muslims and Christians are out to forcibly convert Hindus out of existence. Included in the RSS definition of Hindus are Adivasis or indigenous peoples of India, with no permission sought from them for such labelling. For millennia India has witnessed the birth of myriad belief systems, sects and cults, philosophies and cultural practices as well as jostling and competition among them. Brahminical Hinduism of the kind the RSS is inspired by after all prevailed over home-grown Buddhism and Jainism.
There was another seemingly even-handed statement Modi made:
“My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly,” he said.
Over the past few decades under the dispensations of the Congress as well as the Bharatiya Janata Party and allied parties there have been numerous pogroms against Muslims, Sikhs and – on a smaller but no less lethal scale as in Kandhamal in Orissa – Christians, not to mention Dalits and Adivasis. In others words India’s minorities have been at the receiving end of much incitement to hatred, with few tit-for-tat attacks on their part. There have been instances of alleged attempts at stoking violence by Muslims in Karnataka, Andhra and elsewhere but whose authors were soon found to be members of the Sangh Parivar, their mischief thwarted in time. Much is made of hate speeches by Asaduddin Owaisi, head of the Majlis Ittehadul Muslimeen. He is more than matched by a battalion of hate-mongers from among the Sangh Parivar and its allies – Pravin Togadia, Ashok Singhal, Pramod Muthalik, BJP MP Yogi Adithyanath and numerous snarling Sadhvis including a minister under Modi, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, she of the infamous Ramzade vs Haramzade remark.
Modi invoked India’s hoary past to claim adherence to tolerance.
“This principle of equal respect and treatment for all faiths has been a part of India`s ethos for thousands of years. … Our Constitution did not evolve in a vacuum. It has roots in the ancient cultural traditions of India,” he said.
Jason Keith Fernandes, who divides his time between Goa and Lisbon, where he is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for International Studies, has picked holes in this myopic view of the inspirations that lay behind India’s constitution-making.
“There was no recognition of the fact that the Constitution of India was in fact born via inspiration from universal modern values. The fact that equal respect and treatment is marked out as a feature of ‘Indian ethos’ only underlines the Indian nationalist allegation that religious violence was brought into the subcontinent via the Christians and Muslims,” is his withering verdict on Modi’s speech.
Another pertinent issue is raised by John Dayal, general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council, namely Modi’s choice of a Christian audience rather than a Muslim one.
“Muslims outnumber Christians in India by a factor of five. So, a public address at a gathering of Muslims may have been more effective in repairing the damage done to his image by the 2002 Gujarat riots and the recent abuse of Muslims by popular BJP leaders in the party’s electoral campaigns and public programs,” says Dayal.
Amit Shah’s hand in encouraging anti-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar prior to the last general elections and his implication in numerous encounter killings in Gujarat made him an unwelcome choice as BJP president. Modi can yet rectify that. He could also instruct his officials to stop heaping false terror cases against Muslim youth and take a look at the Sachar committee recommendations on ameliorating the social, economic and educational condition of Muslims.
Modi might want to pay heed to Reserve Bank Governor Raghuram Rajan’s recent words of advice. Incidentally, as a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund and son of a former top head of the Research and Analysis Wing, there are few more steeped in the establishment. Some newspaper reports of Rajan’s remarks at the DD Kosambi Ideas Festival in Goa touched on his reference to Hitler having provided Germany with extremely effective administration but then having “efficiently and determinedly taken it on a path to ruin, overriding the rule of law and dispensing with elections”.
Rajan’s stress on the rule of law and the need to check majoritarian oppression went under-reported.
“The rule of law is needed to prevent the tyranny of the majority that can arise in a democracy, as well as to ensure that basic ‘rules of the game’ are preserved over time so that the environment is predictable, no matter which government comes to power. By ensuring that all citizens have inalienable rights and protections, the rule of law constrains the majority’s behaviour towards the minorities,” Rajan said.
Has the prime minister’s attention been drawn to this speech?
Will Modi remain a closet RSS pracharak, a proponent of Hindutva chauvinism, or will he grow into the prime minister’s chair taking his oath to uphold the constitution seriously, securing all the freedoms enshrined therein for all of its citizens including the minorities, Adivasis and Dalits?
The writer is a journalist now based in Bangalore. He has worked for the Press Trust of India and Agence France-Presse. Follow him @n_jayaram