Anand K. Sahay | Will Modi's balancing act work as world eyes India?
Deccan Chronicle.| Anand K Sahay
The Nupur Sharma affair stinks, and the handling of the matter by the BJP and the Narendra Modi government is less than edifying
Various religious leaders pray for peace and harmony in the country, during a press conference organised by All India Ekta Foundation, regarding recent protests against former BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma over her remarks about Prophet Mohammad, in Kolkata, Monday, June 13, 2022. (PTI)
The Nupur Sharma affair stinks, and the handling of the matter by the BJP and the Narendra Modi government is less than edifying. The BJP national spokeswoman’s comment denigrating Prophet Mohammed has caused consternation and shock nationally and internationally. It has brought India down many pegs in the world’s eyes. Protesting Indian citizens have been shot dead by the police, beaten in custody and have had their homes bulldozed. Due process has been entirely absent.
Strangely, India’s embassies abroad officially described the ruling party’s national spokeswoman -- who is usually all over television channels -- as a "fringe" element after her remarks. This beggars belief. It practically amounts to saying the BJP itself is fringe and out of sync with India’s ethos. In that event, what should one make of the government the party has brought into being?
Foreign governments aren’t likely to be taken in by New Delhi’s lame excuses. While they will carry on dealing with us on matters of mutual self-interest, it can’t be hidden that their people have our government and its leaders figured. That’s truly bad advertisement for India.
It seems an irony of no less than dialectical proportions that the official reaction of the Modi government -- seen by his camp as the first Hindu government to gain power since Independence -- is causing severe heartburn within the BJP and other Hindutva precincts. The reason is plain. What the spokeswoman said out aloud is what her side actually believes -- down to the last person, while keeping up the façade of faith in the Constitution and India’s governing institutions.
Remember, not long ago the Union home minister called Bangladeshis "termites", and the damage took intense diplomatic activity to repair. While electioneering in Delhi (not in some remote corner), a prominent minister raised a rhetorical and specious slogan which -- through dog whistles and innuendo -- invites people to shoot members of a particular religious minority for being "traitors".
The Prime Minister slept through it all, as he has through a spate of unsavoury happenings in eight years on his watch. These included the vociferous endorsement by not-so-fringe elements, including MPs, of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi, and the lionising of his assassins and their mentor Veer Savarkar.
This time India’s leader has chosen silence but not slumber because the stakes appear high. His Foreign Office has gone into overdrive, trying to influence Islamic governments. From these we buy oil in bulk, draw heavy investment funds, and to them we send millions of our citizens as workers who send back billions of dollars of precious foreign exchange year after year.
Governments in the Islamic world might stomach the belittling of Indian Muslims within India’s polity but draw the line at belittling the Prophet. This is clear and explains why New Delhi is bending over backwards to assuage them.
Recently, when Iran’s foreign minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was visiting, national security adviser Ajit Doval told him that the Indian government respects the Prophet. The NSA also said the people involved in the incident "will be dealt with at the level of the government and related agencies in a way that is a lesson to others".
In truth, no serious consequences for the "people involved" is expected. The guilty spokeswoman has been "suspended", pending enquiry. What’s clear, however, is that being punished, even notionally, for hurting
Islamic sentiments is something Hindutva ranks find hard to stomach. This has come through loud and clear.
If the offending spokeswoman has been suspended, scores of other Indians, including careful journalists, have had FIRs filed against them by the government for hate speech. This is a balancing game in an effort to head off a reaction that could hurt the Modi Sarkar’s interests.
In all likelihood, depending on the nature of the outcry, the enquiry will whitewash the spokeswoman and ask her to lie low for a time. End of matter. As for the BJP Delhi unit spokesman, a relatively small fry who was "expelled", he can safely be given a post in one of several outfits in the RSS-BJP ecosystem and no one will be any wiser.
All the same, discontent with the government is real within the RSS framework for seeking to distance itself from the party and Hindutva sentiments, even if the government’s game is tactical. A well-known right-wing columnist recently warned that if the Modi government acts like a "secular" government in dealing with Islamic entities, its well-wishers and followers could shift their allegiance to another party. If this is poppycock, Mr Modi has nothing to worry. All the same, the inner debate between the party (and other Hindutva outfits) and government is likely to be regarded with considerable interest within the country and among India’s major allies. The viability of a government of the jingoistic far right in a multi-religious and complex society like India will always be a matter of scrutiny. We are smack in the middle of such a phase.
Fortunately, India may still not have slid enough to be counted as a tawdry, mean place to be looked down upon. This is because there are layers to Indian civilisation and a rich post-Independence past as well. Such a confluence has made us stand out as an example of "sarv dharma sambhav", quite literally a society and political space where all religions are treated equally (and by extension where the needy may get a leg-up).
When the storm of Partition was blowing, Maulana Azad had coined the expression "Darul Aman", or Land of Peace, for India. Due to its societal make-up, he placed it differently -- and appealingly -- from either Darul Islam or Darul Harb. In the Islamic tradition, the former is the home or land of Islam, and the latter a hostile space from where a believer must either take flight or be obliged to fight. It is the Maulana’s far-sighted conception that Pakistan and Muslim communalists disliked. But the novel notion he put forward gave solace to those of the Islamic faith who chose to remain in India.
It was this idea of India buttressed by official policy in the aftermath of the mayhem of Partition which offered reassurance all round. Although poor, India held its head high. For all the petty conflicting that goes on in a society, here was a land where a temple, a mosque, a church could exist side by side with places of worship of other faiths. The world marvelled. It is that magic which has been at a discount over the past eight years as one egregious event after another has flashed by.
Anand Sahay is a senior journalist based in Delhi.