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Barack’s message

Indians must do some soul-searching. And Modi must act.

Written by Sudheendra Kulkarni | New Delhi |
February 9, 2015 12:04:50 am
Narendra Modi, Barack Obama Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Barack Obama.

What was the most important outcome of US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to India? Certainly not the civil nuclear deal, even though Prime Minister Narendra Modi, at his joint press conference with Obama, described it as the “centrepiece” of the transformed relationship between the two countries. The contribution of nuclear power to India’s energy basket is going to remain small even after 20 years.

Had Obama come to India mainly to secure some business for his country’s nuclear power companies, he would have been viewed by Indians as a mere salesman. However, going by the adulation his wife Michelle and he received in India, which was much more than what his previous visit in 2010 witnessed, there is no doubt that Obama struck a chord in the minds and hearts of Indian people of diverse backgrounds. And when they saw that he and Modi had forged a bond of uncommon conviviality – Obama calling our PM “friend Modi” and the latter addressing him by his first name — one thing became obvious. The most important outcome of Obama’s visit was not the promise of nuclear power, but the promise of the power of mutual friendship and trust between India and the US, despite significant differences.  And precisely because Obama came across as a genuine friend and admirer of India, even his parting comment – “India will continue to succeed so long as it is not splintered on religious lines” – did not sound like an overbearing American president’s gratuitous interference in our internal affairs. On the contrary, it resonated with the idea of India, didn’t it?

Now, within a fortnight of his departure from India, Modi’s friend Barack has spoken again. Speaking in Washington DC at the National Prayer Breakfast, an apt occasion indeed, he has lamented that the “acts of intolerance experienced by religious faiths of all types in India in the past few years would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi”.

We Indians generally disapprove of foreigners making critical remarks about our country. And imperious America does have the unmatched habit of telling other countries what they should or should not do. Indeed, Obama himself needs to be told that Mahatma Gandhi would have been shocked even more at the US’s immoral and illegitimate acts of militaristic violence, which has killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The moot point here is not America’s wrong deeds, but the wrongs happening in our own country. If we love India, and all of us do, we must introspect over the growing religious intolerance in our society. The responsibility of introspection falls primarily on Modi and his party. To be fair to him, he has not uttered anything objectionable on religion-related matters since becoming PM in May 2014. Indeed, in his Independence Day address, he wisely appealed to the people to “put a moratorium for 10 years” on communalism and casteism. Yet, he has not deemed it necessary to publicly rebuke communal voices in the Sangh Parivar, of which his own party continues to be a member. It is not enough for him to convey, behind closed doors, his displeasure over the “ghar wapsi” campaign launched by VHP functionaries, which was endorsed by none other than Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief. As PM, it is his duty to let the nation know that both conversions and reconversions which use fraudulent means and spread bigotry are illegal, unacceptable and heavily punishable. He must also announce a zero-tolerance approach to attacks on churches.

Many sensible leaders in the BJP abhor the utterances and activities of the extremists in their parivar. However, they are loath to recognise that the ideological roots of Hindu intolerance lie in the parivar’s pet concept of “Hindu rashtra”, which violates the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution and has given rise to understandable concern and ire among non-Hindus. BJP leaders’ inability and unwillingness to confront the core of the RSS ideology is the cause of their split personality. Take Modi’s own example. He has surprised his critics as well as his supporters by repeatedly invoking the name of Mahatma Gandhi, even making him the icon of his flagship Swachh Bharat mission. Yet, neither he nor any of his colleagues in the party or the government has publicly praised Gandhiji’s lifelong mission for communal harmony, for which he sacrificed his life. Perversely, some BJP supporters have been emboldened to eulogise Godse.

Modi should know that the stakes are high, very high. To his credit, he has, in a very short time, emerged as a leader with global stature, building a personal chemistry as much with Obama as with Chinese President Xi Jinping. But he must know that the international community wants to see multifaith India, the land of Buddha and Gandhi, become a beacon of tolerance and peace, at a time when fanaticism is spilling so much blood around the world.
This requires Modi to act boldly. He may have been an RSS pracharak in the past. But today he is India’s prime minister, who has the constitutional duty to disown a Hindu rashtra and defend secularism. Any hesitation on his part, and on the part of the BJP, to publicly delegitimise the RSS’s concept of, and its strident call for, a Hindu rashtra is bound to hurt his government’s efficacy and global image, and undermine his promise of development, for which (and not for Hindutva) the people have given him a decisive mandate.

In this context, the role of non-Hindu communal forces in spreading religious intolerance should neither be denied nor belittled. It is the responsibility of the leaders of the Muslim community to denounce, without any ifs and buts, acts of terrorism in the name of Islam taking place in different parts of the world. In particular, they must wean away the small section of the Indian Muslim youth that is getting radicalised by religious extremism. Similarly, leaders of the Christian community must acknowledge that the conversion of poor and indigent Hindus by foreign-funded evangelical organisations in the name of social or religious service (they dare not convert poor Muslims) is creating a backlash from Hindu bigots. Obama has provoked Indians to do soul searching. Let’s ponder over his message and not shoot the messenger.

The writer was an aide to former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee

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