This Article is From Apr 14, 2015

Modi's Second Swipe at Secularism While Abroad

(Siddharth Varadarajan is a senior journalist and analyst.)

Since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister last May, he has criticized, or mocked, 'secularists' and secularism in India on two occasions. Strangely, each time while speaking to NRIs on foreign soil.

Last year in Tokyo he said that his gift of the Gita to the Japanese emperor was likely to trigger a controversy back home. "Our secular friends will create a 'toofan' (storm) that what does Modi think of himself?" he claimed. "He has taken a Gita with him that means he has made this one also communal."

Now in Berlin, the Prime Minister has blamed (false notions of) "secularism" for neglecting the use of Sanskrit in India. "There was a time when German radio used to have a bulletin in Sanskrit..but not in India...where there is such a storm over secularism that even Sanskrit has been roped into the controversy" the PM was quoted by NDTV as saying. Modi went on to suggest that respect for secularism and Sanskrit cannot go hand in hand. India's secularism is not so weak that it will be shaken just because of a language," he said.

I have written earlier on about Modi's Gita comment but before I get into the merits of his argument on Sanskrit, I want to raise a small point of information. Earlier this year, his government moved hell and high water to prevent a young woman, Priya Pillai, from going to London to criticise an Indian mining project before a foreign audience. So isn't it hypocritical for Modi to target secularism, a guiding principle of the constitution and polity of India, when he's abroad?

Pillai, who works for Greenpeace India, was stopped from boarding her flight at Delhi airport and the word "Offloaded" was stamped on her passport. She later found that the Intelligence Bureau and Ministry of Home Affairs had issued a look-out circular against her. Mercifully, the Delhi High Court rejected the absurd arguments presented by the Modi government to the effect that citizens are free to travel only if they do not indulge in any "anti-India agenda". If it is "anti-India" to criticize a mining project or the pursuit of "growth", why it is not considered "anti-India" to criticize secularism? On Twitter, Modi bhakts have rushed to his defence, claiming the PM was attacking not secularism but pseudo-secularism and 'sickularists'. But Greenpeace could easily say it is attacking only 'pseudo-growth' and corporate skullduggery, and not the actual development prospects of the country, as the government has alleged.

As far as I'm concerned, I welcome a healthy debate wherever it may take place. If the PM or Priya Pillai want to argue about the Mahan mining project or the relationship between Sanskrit and secularism in London, Berlin or Delhi, so be it.

Let us now consider the facts. Germany launched Radio Deutsche Welle's language programmes for non-German audiences worldwide in the 1950s and added Sanskrit to its bouquet of broadcasts beamed at India at some point in the 1960s. Why did it do so? Perhaps to add novelty value at a time when Indian listeners were more likely to tune in to BBC, Radio Moscow or even Radio Ceylon (which was the only contemporary broadcast source for the forbidden fruit of Hindi film music thanks to the puritanism of All India Radio). The fact that Germany had a long tradition of scholarship in Sanskrit would have made the task easier.

In India, the official Sanskrit Commission set up by the 'secular' Nehru government in 1956 made a series of recommendations, including the promotion of Sanskrit in the private and public media. According to All India Radio old-timers, however, the public broadcaster's news bulletins in Sanskrit started only in 1974, when Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister. This was around the same time, ironically, that the Congress leader was busy amending the constitution to introduce the word 'secular' in the preamble! While 'secularism' or 'pseudo-secularism' may or may not have prevented Sanskrit broadcasts in the past, we can say with some degree of certainty that it does not appear to have been an impediment from 1974 onwards.

So what prompted Modi to stir up this pointless, muddle-headed debate on secularism and Sanskrit during a trip that was otherwise meant to be about promoting 'Make in India'? Could it be because of the bruising controversy triggered last year by his government's hasty decision to replace the teaching of German in Kendriya Vidyalaya schools with Sanskrit in the middle of the academic year? Perhaps. But then why praise Germany for respecting an ancient Indian language (and attacking Indian 'secularism' for not) if we have nothing to show in return other than the gutting of a popular teaching programme for German? Or could it be that Modi, despite the conscious image makeover of the past year, simply dislikes the 'S' word and gives vent to this allergy when abroad because it is less likely to create a controversy back home than a comparable statement made in India?

Classical languages are a treasured part of our national heritage and should be taught in school, not as a substitute for modern Indian and foreign languages but for their intrinsic value. Sanskrit may not be spoken any more, but the language spawned an enormous volume of philosophical, poetic, dramatic, political, religious and scientific literature, only a fraction of which has so far been translated. Future generations of Indian scholars can and must be trained to read and translate this literature, and the government must take every step to ensure this happens. But what Modi must not do is mix up this important national goal with the battles he wants to fight over Hindutva and secularism. Fight those battles by all means. But please don't make Sanskrit a pawn.

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