Narendra Modi’s politics can appear to be a bundle of contradictions.
On one hand, he tells a Sufi conclave in Delhi that Islam is a religion of peace – a contention which has long been strenuously opposed by the BJP and the RSS – and, on the other hand, all hell is breaking loose over the virtually compulsory diktat of the RSS to every citizen to prove his patriotism by saying Bharat Mata ki Jai (long live mother India).
The slogan, which is by no means a new one, has been given a fresh lease of life by the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, who said that it was time the young generation was encouraged to pay obeisance to Mother India.
His suggestion was evidently intended to strengthen the concept of nationalism among students in the wake of the filing of sedition charges against several Left-leaning Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students.
The feeling of nationalism has also been sought to be strengthened by human resource development minister Smriti Irani’s directive for flying an oversized national flag in every campus.
So far, so good on the patriotic front. But the Hindutva camp’s project of infusing the sense of loyalty among the people took an ugly turn when, first, Asaduddin Owaisi, the Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (MIM) leader, refused to say Bharat Mata ki Jai since the Constitution does not decree it.
And, secondly, when the Maharashtra legislators suspended a fellow MLA belonging to the MIM for abiding by his leader’s advice against chanting the slogan.
While the initiative taken by the ruling BJP and Shiv Sena MLAs against the MIM legislator is understandable because of their anti-minority background, what was odd was that the “secular” Congress and the Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) also lined up behind the saffron outfits.
What this revealed was the lack of awareness among the “secularists” about the reason for the Muslim objections to the singing of paeans to Mother India. Since the Muslims regard Allah as the only divine being, they are unwilling to bow their heads to any other entity such as the concept of a divine mother representing India.
The saffron lobby, on the other hand, is fully cognizant of the reason for the Muslim reservations. But it wants to provoke the community by trying to force it to do something against its will.
This intention of the Hindutva lobby goes back to the second RSS chief, M.S. Golwalkar’s (1906-73) observation that the minorities must live in India as second class citizens “wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment, not even citizen’s rights”.
Arguably, this was the agenda which was being followed by the saffron hawks when they organized the provocative ghar wapsi (homecoming for Hindus) and love jehad campaigns directed against the Muslim soon after Modi’s assumption of office.
However, the advice given by Modi’s friend, Barack Obama, with whom he claims to be on first-name terms, on following the Gandhian principles of amity apparently persuaded the prime minister to tell the hotheads to back off.
They have indeed done so, for one hears no more of Muslims being encouraged to return to their original “home” of Hinduism or luring Hindu girls into marriage.
But, as the Bharat Mata ki Jai episode suggests, they are unlikely to be left at peace. As it is, beef-eaters are being harassed – if not killed as in Dadri in September last year – as the arrest of several Kashmiri students in Rajasthan showed.
Now, the Shiv Sena has demanded that those who refuse to say Bharat Mata ki Jai should be deprived of their citizenship and voting rights. Clearly, the issue will not be allowed to die down.
But it is not the Muslims alone who will resent being targeted, but also citizens of other communities who believe that patriotism should not be forced down one’s throat.
It is possible, of course, that the present ruckus will subside soon as is customary in India as it becomes apparent that it is impossible to impose such fascistic ideas in a democracy.
But what is strange is that Modi allows these eruptions of anti-minority and anti-liberal tendencies although there is little doubt that they affect his image of being a “strong” leader.
They may also dissuade foreign investors from putting their money into a country which is almost always in the throes of one controversy or another even if most of them will appear to be irrelevant to a neutral observer.
As Modi’s observation at the Sufi conclave shows, he is not averse to going against the prevailing views in the BJP and the RSS. It is surprising, therefore, that he does not intervene in other contentious matters or stops them before they come to the fore.
In this respect, he is guilty of a “dangerous silence” of which he was accused by the New York Times when the prevailing “intolerance” was persuading a number of writers, historians, scientists, film makers and others to return their awards.
Or is Modi playing a double game, using the development plank to keep his critics off-balance while allowing the RSS to push the Hindu agenda ?