On August 15, 2013, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi delivered an Independence Day speech from Bhuj which had parodied and questioned Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s address from the Red Fort that had ended a short while earlier. It was seen as a notice of the arrival of Modi as prime ministerial designate. Four years later, having listened to Prime Minister Modi deliver his fourth Independence Day speech, it is tempting to borrow a page from his playbook and pose a few questions to him.
First, this New India phrase that has occurred no less than 10 times in the course of your hour-long speech, what exactly does it mean, Mr Prime Minister? You decried “communalism and casteism” but didn’t dwell on them for more than a few seconds. What makes you reluctant to acknowledge the ancient hatreds that bubble through the fissures of New India? The thrashing of young Dalit cattle skinners in Una last year has barely been relegated to memory when news of similar atrocities flow in. Why does New India with its Swachch Bharat treat Dalit lives as if they do not matter? Why are sanitary workers being sent to their deaths into sewers without even the pretence of protection? Over the last one month according to one estimate, 27 lives have been lost in the cleaning of septic tanks across the country. When so much effort can be made for space explorations, can time not be spent on ending these horrific journeys into the darkest corners of existence?
What’s also disturbing, Mr Prime Minister, is the way conversations loop into lynching expeditions in New India. That train conversation which claimed the life of 16-year-old Junaid, what does it say about simple human interaction? A vice president just has to make an observation about the growing insecurity of Muslims, and the kitchen sink is thrown at him. Policy making is now based on suspicion as the fiat goes out that Independence Day events in madrasas will be videographed.
You touched upon the Gorakhpur tragedy, but why did you do it so fleetingly, Mr Prime Minister? You put it this way: “Recently in the hospital many of our innocent children died.” Why this reluctance to point out that the hospital happens to be a government-run one in Gorakhpur, in a state which is headed by someone you personally handpicked? You say your government will not be found wanting in handling such crisis. But what does it say about New India’s public health priorities when all the government can do is to watch helplessly as over 60 children grow inert in their parents’ arms for want of oxygen?
Mr Prime Minister, the comment that a solution in Kashmir will come about not by “gaali” or “goli” but by embracing the Kashmiris was read by many as an attempt to reach out to an alienated people. But would not an expression of grief at the mass blinding of children in the Valley through the use of the pellet guns have not contributed towards making those sentiments sound a tad more sincere?
You project great concern for the farmers of the country. I liked that touch when you asked, “Whose hands are more pure than theirs? Whose hearts are more pious?” But, Mr Prime Minister, it has been just a couple of months since the trigger-happy policemen of Madhya Pradesh mowed down six farmers of Mandsaur for protesting against the poor returns for their produce. Farmers across the country are hurting, Mr Prime Minister, and no amount of praise for their patriotism will make that pain go away.
It’s heartening that you take pride in India hosting world class universities. Some 20 autonomous world class universities will soon flower on Indian soil without interference from the government, you tell us. Why then is your government bent on destroying the autonomy of world class universities, like JNU, that presently exist in our midst? Instead of allowing students to question and critically engage with larger society, why does your HRD ministry wish to turn them into unquestioning, tank-loving zombies?
New India, Mr Prime Minister, is turning out to be a fearful place and your oratory, impressive though it is, is unlikely to make it any more habitable.