PM Modi's Olive Branch to his Critics

Published: February 18, 2015 15:57 IST
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(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)

After eight months of silence decried by all of us in the Opposition and by most commentators, Prime Minister Modi has finally raised his voice against the growing climate of religious intolerance unleashed by a rampant Sangh Parivar. Addressing a Christian congregation in New Delhi that was meeting to celebrate the elevation to sainthood of two Catholic figures, Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia, and doing so in the wake of mounting concern over the vandalization of six Catholic churches in and around the capital, Mr Modi spoke clearly. His government would not "accept violence against any religion, on any pretext," he declared unequivocally. "I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard."

And about time too. Many of us had expressed concern about the damage the irresponsible statements and actions of the Hindutva brigades were doing to Mr Modi's development agenda. The attacks on the churches were symptomatic of a far larger problem that was leaving all minorities feeling insecure. Foreign leaders were taking note too, with President Barack Obama telling a Delhi audience that "India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith" and commenting adversely on religious intolerance in India at a Prayer Breakfast on his return to the US. This was clearly not the way the Prime Minister wished his government to be perceived.

"We consider the freedom to have, to retain, and to adopt, a religion or belief is the personal choice of a citizen," Mr Modi averred. "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. My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions."

While foreign reporters were quick to portray this as a gesture to Christians and other minorities, rebuking his own followers in the BJP and Sangh Parivar, who had gleefully led the ghar wapasi and love jihad campaigns and repeatedly affirmed that India was a Hindu country rather than the pluralist land of Constitutional practice, some Indian commentators saw it also as Modi signalling to the minorities that they too should look beyond minority rights to India's ancient heritage of tolerance. After all, he said: "My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority [italics added], to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions."

It is striking, in this context, that the PM used the words "without coercion or undue influence", which some see as a swipe at alleged inducements offered by Christian proselytizers to low-caste Hindus. These four words echo his citing of a declaration made at an Inter-Faith conference at The Hague on 10 December 2008, along the same lines. There is comfort there, surely, for those Hindus who claim to be alarmed about the galloping pace of Christian and Muslim conversions of their co-religionists.

On the whole, though, there was less here for the Hindutva elements than for others: this was the speech every Indian pluralist was waiting for the PM to make. "Equal respect for all religions," he went on, "must be in the DNA of every Indian. ... I appeal to all religious groups to act with restraint, mutual respect, and tolerance in the true spirit of this ancient nation which is manifest in our Constitution."

Lest his speech be seen as responding to Obama's tutelage, the PM was firm in affirming the indigenous roots of Indian religious tolerance. "Our Constitution did not evolve in a vacuum. It has roots in the ancient cultural traditions of India. The principle of equal respect has been a part of India's ethos for thousands of years and that is how it became integral to the Constitution of India.... As Swami Vivekananda said: 'We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true.'"

That was a welcome reminder to those Hindutva activists who have been advocating Hinduism as a badge of identity rather than a set of principles and traditions which are at odds with their narrow-minded bigotry. Modi reminded them that "We believe that there is truth in every religion. Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha vadanti."

The speech was welcome, but the real challenge for Prime Minister Modi, as I tweeted immediately yesterday, will be to get the Sangh Parivar to live up to it. The fact remains that the Modi regime has given free rein to the most retrograde elements in Indian society, who are busy rewriting textbooks to glorify Hindu leaders, extolling the virtues of ancient science over modern technology, advocating ghar wapasi, and asserting that India's identity must be purely Hindu. Majoritarian communalism, as Nehru had long recognized, is a fundamental threat to our pluralist democracy. But as a lifelong RSS pracharak, Modi had devoted himself to the very worldview he has now repudiated. Does he really mean it, or will this be yet another fine speech completely divorced from any action?

I have often pointed out the fundamental contradiction Mr Modi faces, of advocating liberal principles and objectives whose fulfilment would require him to jettison the very forces that have helped ensure his electoral victories. The tension between his indulgence of the Hindutva brigades and his responsibilities as Prime Minister of India had become increasingly apparent. It was affecting not only his credibility as an effective leader of a government committed (as he reminded us in this speech) to "sab ka saath, sab ka vikas", but also his ability to attract the goodwill and investments of foreigners increasingly alarmed by media reports of mounting intolerance. This speech implies the crossing of a Rubicon: he has made his choice. Government and development must prevail, at least in the short-term. Hindu zealotry can wait.

Indeed, in parallel with the Modi speech, Hindutva leaders have been appealing to the faithful to cool their ardour for intemperate statements and extreme actions. On Sunday, VHP international president Raghav Reddy called on all Hindu leaders to restrain themselves; the next day, VHP joint general secretary Surendra Jain added, "No one should create any roadblock for the PM through any statement, as he is working to realize the aspirations of this country." To add to the impression of orchestrated messaging, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat declared that India's diversity was to be celebrated and chided those who were speaking of Hindu women as baby-manufacturing factories. Mr Modi's speech sets the capstone on a clear and unambiguous policy that development will take precedence over minority-bashing.

Obviously there are short-term political calculations involved as well: the Budget Session of Parliament begins on 23 February and the Government's legislative plans can't afford the kind of disruptions that were provoked during the winter session by Hindutva extremism.  The Delhi election results, which were in part a rejection of the Hindutva message in favour of AAP's welfare and development advocacy, have also boosted the morale of the opposition. Mr Modi has learnt his lesson, and heeded his critics. His conciliatory speech offers an olive branch to his critics.

This doesn't mean that the lifelong RSS pracharak has abandoned his commitment to Hindutva or auctioned off his convictions like his controversial name-striped suit. Rather, it suggests that if Hindutva wants to triumph in the long term, it can only do so on the back of a government that is seen by the Indian public to have delivered development. For now, at least, that means swallowing the "garv se kahon ki hum Hindu hain" message in favour of "sab ka saath, sab ka vikas".  If such an approach gets Mr Modi the results he seeks, the Hindutva brigades may rise again. Everyone will be keeping their powder dry.

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