Silence on Ikhlaq, storm on beef

In the cut and thrust of politics, people begin to understand the difference between symbolism and substance. The ghastly killing of Mohammad Ikhlaq in Dadri took place on September 28, 2015. India, and the entire world, was aghast that just a few kilometres from the capital of the world’s largest democracy, in an area ironically named after one of the world’s greatest messiahs of peace and non-violence, Gautam Buddha, a man was publicly lynched and his son almost killed on the question of what meat the family ate.

While the dastardly attack became the subject of headlines and comment globally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi maintained a silence on the subject for a full 10 days. Not a word. Then, on October 7, when President Pranab Mukherjee issued a statesman-like admonition on the importance of tolerance and the need to protect and respect the plural and composite nature of our national fabric, Mr Modi woke up. At a rally in Bihar on October 8, he finally broke his silence and belatedly endorsed what the President had said.

The question is stark: Why did the Mahamahim Rashtrapatiji have to make a pointed public comment for the Prime Minister to take public cognisance of this horrific incident? The President makes carefully considered opinion statements only on certain occasions, notably on the eve of Independence Day on August 15, and on January 26, Republic Day, apart from the opening speech to a joint session of Parliament for the Budget Session.

Since I have had the privilege to have worked as press secretary to two Presidents, I know that even these speeches have major inputs from the government, and the President but rarely makes very significant modifications. The other speeches of the President — and there a great many of these in a variety of important forums — are politically correct, fairly predictable, neutral and above the political events of the day, as befitting a constitutional head of state.

What made the President deviate from this tradition and make a hard-hitting comment stressing that “diversity, tolerance and plurality are core values that have kept India together and must never wither away”? Earlier in the year too, in his address to the nation on the eve of our 69th Independence Day, he had emphasised that “our democracy is creative because it is plural”. “India’s strength”, our President said, “lies in its unique capacity to blend apparent contradictions into positive affirmations”.

A related but fundamental question must also be asked: Why did Mr Modi have to await a presidential expression of anguish and concern before he reacted to what happened in Dadri? Could he not, as the democratically elected Prime Minister of the nation, who is accountable to the people directly and must respond to any development that impinges on the security and well being of citizens, have suo motu issued a statement of condemnation urging that peace and harmony should be maintained at all costs and the most stringent action taken against the culprits?

And, when he did break his silence a day after the President had spoken, did he really mean what he said? He broke his silence in a rally in Bihar; he had held four rallies that day, but this issue commanded his attention only in one of them, and that too towards the end, almost, it seemed, reluctantly. In doing so, what is significant is that he publicly referred to what the President had said. Invoking the Rashtrapatiji’s comments, he said, “Only communal harmony and brotherhood will take the nation forward”. But he made this comment after he had himself brought in the issue of beef in his speech. He first became a part of the vicious campaign of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh against the purported comments of Lalu Prasad Yadav, which they had selectively interpreted as an endorsement of beef eating by Hindus.

Mr Yadav had already clarified a dozen times at least by then that he did not say this, and that he strongly believed that beef eating is not something that he practices or propagates. The BJP, he said, was openly trying to distort what he had said in order to further communal polarisation. This was graphically brought out on Friday, October 9, by the IBN-7 TV channel when it played a video clip of a tweet of Giriraj Singh. Mr Singh had put a six-second selectively edited video clip distorting what Mr Yadav had said, and the channel exposed this by playing out the full clip of Mr Yadav’s statement to ANI. The inference was clear: notwithstanding the barbarity witnessed in Dadri, the BJP had no compunctions in importing beef politics into Bihar in order to somehow win a losing election.

Mr Modi, in his latest round of rallies, had no compunction in adding fuel to the inflammatory nature of such politics. Instead of vikas, that the BJP claims is its main agenda, here was the spectacle of Mr Modi speaking about beef, with the explicit attempt to entice Hindu voters, and in particular “Yaduvanshis” away from the Maha Gathbandhan. After doing so, with uninhibited blatancy in all his rallies, Mr Modi then made the perfunctory gesture of endorsing the President’s statement on the importance of communal harmony.

Given this context, how should we assess Mr Modi’s real intentions? His own ministers, MPs and other functionaries are busy using Dadri to inflame religious hatred. Sadhvi Prachi said on camera that those who eat beef deserve the same treatment as was meted out to Ikhlaq. Mr Modi has not said a word in condemnation. Nor did he say a word in sympathy for the family of Ikhlaq. But he had no compunctions in indulging in beef politics in his speeches in Bihar. This is the real backdrop to his symbolic statement of support for “communal harmony and brotherhood”. The respected President of India will have to speak much more often with candour to enable our Prime Minister to understand that India is greater than the short-term compulsions of narrow, partisan politics.

Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma is a Rajya Sabha member

( Source : deccan chronicle )
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