Friday, February 13, 2015

Religion-Based Controversies Under the Modi Government: Are They Being Blown Out of Proportion?

A very unfortunate incident of a murder of a Muslim youth in the Indian city of Pune in the province of Maharashtra by some Hindu extremists attracted the attention of the international media but should not mislead anyone into believing that this signifies anything to do with Modi being prime minister. As has been mentioned earlier, both Hindus and Muslims lose their lives in sporadic hate crimes in India (sporadic hate crimes take place in many countries, including England), and in this case of an isolated murder, arrests have promptly been made by the police. In any case, law and order falls within the domain of the provincial governments, and Maharashtra is governed by the Congress party.

Modi did condemn the murder. Indeed, more recently, there were Hindu-Muslim riots in Sahranpur in Uttar Pradesh, but again, law and order falls within the domain of the provincial governments. An anti-Muslim hate speech by BJP member Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh over the issue of “love jihad”, i.e. Muslim men trapping Hindu women to marry them and make them embrace Islam (a certain instance of this nature  apparently did unfortunately take place in the province of Jharkhand), wrongly generalizing all the instances of Hindu women marrying Muslim men within this ambit, received some attention, but NV Naidu, a minister in Modi’s cabinet in the central government, clarified that the BJP as a party had no aversion to inter-religious marriages. It is also relevant that the strategy of making “love jihad” the core issue did not translate into votes in the recent by-elections in Uttar Pradesh and Adityanath himself lost the election in a Hindu-majority constituency!

Also, the BJP as a party distanced itself from a comment of one of its members to the effect that India’s acclaimed Muslim tennis player, Sania Mirza, is Pakistan’s “daughter-in-law” and therefore, the ruling government of the province of Telangana (which is of a party in opposition to the BJP) blundered by appointing her as the brand ambassador of the province, and that BJP politician’s statement was just based on the fact that Sania happens to be married to a Pakistani man, and this remark was also strongly and rightfully criticized by the Indian media. Sania continues to the brand ambassador of the province of Telangana.

More of such divisive statements have indeed been made by members of the BJP, including one from a minister who declared that all Muslims and Christians in India should identify themselves as descendants of the Hindu deity Ram, failing which they are bastards, and only those voting for the BJP are true Indian nationalists, and another one from a BJP member praising Nathuram Godse, the Hindu extremist who killed Mahatma Gandhi, but in both cases, there was outrage from the opposition parties, and even Modi explicitly condemned the former statement, leading these politicians to retract their statements, which shows that Indian democracy is functioning well on this score. Modi has reverentially invoked Gandhi’s name in many of his speeches, and such statements, while being offensive and certainly worthy of strong condemnation, do not actually have any bearing on the regular lives of Indians, irrespective of religion. Indeed, there are bizarre remarks passed by politicians across the globe that are not accepted by their parties, like US senator Todd Atkin’s remark about “legitimate rape” not leading to pregnancy, British parliamentarian John Parker passing a sexist remark or British councilor Barbara Driver saying that you should enjoy rape if you can’t stop it! Modi has even issued a very stern warning to BJP members against irresponsible statements.

There has also been some hue and cry over Mohan Bhagwat, a leader of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu rightist outfit (which is unfortunately often wrongly equated only with its most extreme elements) known for its association with the BJP, addressing the nation on a Hindu festival on national television, the opposition being on the legitimate ground that Bhagwat isn’t a part of the government machinery but even the Congress party, when in power, had indulged members of a sister think-tank, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation, in a similar manner) but nothing in Bhagwat’s speech was against secularism or democracy. In fact, he said -

‘Humanity can live a happy, peaceful and beautiful life only when we understand and follow the principles of loving and respectfully accepting the plurality inherent in nature; move with a sense of coordination, cooperation, empathy and dialogue and adopt the path of non-violence and constitutional middle path instead of practicing unilateral fanaticism and violence in our practices in matters related to ideological and religious conduct.’

An issue that many left-liberals have chosen to overlook is the cancellation of some Kashmiri Hindus’ pilgrimage to a lake in the Kashmir valley they regard as holy, due to protests by Muslim rightists in Kashmir, to which the government of the Muslim-majority province of Jammu and Kashmir gave in, which was wrong (though the pilgrimage took place later), and that too happened with Modi as prime minister. Moreover, the home minister in Modi’s cabinet adopted what was arguably a rather evasive and insensitive approach to this issue, and this was certainly not a Hindu rightist approach.

It is indeed shameful that Modi has appointed some people accused of complicity in riots as ministers (though not in the home portfolio dealing with law and order), but there is nothing to suggest that that would translate into any anti-minority policy, and official government policies discriminating against any minority religious grouping would automatically struck down as unconstitutional by the judiciary, and any discrimination in implementation of policies can also be brought to the notice of the judiciary.

There was also some outrage over a government advertisement on India’s Republic Day (26th January) in 2015, which had watermarked the text of the preamble to the Indian constitution without the word ‘secular’, as was indeed the case before the insertion of that word by way of a constitutional amendment in 1976, though this is certainly not in the least to say that India was, in the vaguest sense, theocratic prior to that, for the constitution, under Article 14 and Articles 25 to 28, gave the religious minorities equal rights in every possible sphere, including of propagating their faith, and even the preamble, even before the usage of the word ‘secular’, referred to justice, liberty (specifically mentioning liberty of thought, action, belief, faith and worship) and equality for all Indians and fraternity between all Indians, as also explicit cultural and educational rights to the minorities under Articles 29 and 30, and it was contended by the BJP that the advertisement, on the occasion of India’s 65th Republic Day, used the original, un-amended preamble for commemoration purposes. However, a clear diktat has been issued by the BJP-led central government that only the amended preamble shall be henceforth used for all government purposes, in spite of ultra-rightist Hindu party Shiv Sena demanding the removal of ‘secular’ from the constitution, to which no heed has been paid.

There was also an incident of India’s foreign minister Sushma Swaraj suggesting that the Bhagwad Gita, a Hindu scripture, be declared India’s “national book”, the way the peacock has been declared to be India’s national birdand the tiger India’s national animal, but Modi rebuffed the idea, saying that the only “holy book” of the Indian government is the Indian constitution, which talks of secularism.

Also, a great deal is being made out of the ‘ghar wapsi’ (home-coming) campaign being launched by some Hindu rightist outfits (which are known for their proximity to the BJP) appealing to Indian Muslims and Indian Christians to embrace the faith of their ancestors, Hinduism. However, the supposedly secular intellectuals criticizing this have no qualms about the activities of Muslim and Christian missionaries (the percentage of Muslims and Christians in the Indian population has only risen since India’s independence in 1947), and if everyone has the right to propagate their faith under the constitution, why should India’s Hindu majority be deprived of the same? And if coercive or fraudulent methods are employed by some Hindu rightists, then the provincial governments, which are, in very many cases, not of the BJP, can and indeed should take action. In fact, in Kerala, a province governed by the supposedly secular Congress party, the government has accepted that none of the Muslims and Christians converting to Hinduism have done so under any duress.

More recently, a great deal has been made of vandalism of five to six churches in Delhi, but there is no evidence to demonstrate that these were hate crimes by Hindu rightists, rather than being plain acts of theft. Also, Modi has clearly and emphatically condemned the same, and a probe is on.

We should avoid making a mountain out of an anthill and should not jump to bizarre conclusions. I do understand that so many controversies taking place within less than a year is problematic, and something the BJP should be weary of, but to write off India’s opposition political parties, moderates within the BJP, the media, the judiciary and the rest of the civil society, and to say that India’s secular democratic constitutional setup is on the verge of undergoing a demise, or even that India’s religious minorities are facing any serious problems in their day-to-day affairs, is not on.

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