Two things the Prime Minister said last week worried me. Both were in a speech he made virtually to a gathering of Brahma Kumaris. This is a cult of Hindu nuns who believe in celibacy, abstinence, meditation and wearing white clothes. It is not clear why the Prime Minister chose these ladies to make an important political speech that reflected his deepest concerns and his vision of the ‘new India’. It could just be that these thoughts came to him coincidentally that morning or that he would like the assistance of a cult that has branches all over the world to help carry forward his message. It is a message that cannot be ignored.
Before writing this piece, I tried to find a video version of the speech but failed. So, I base this analysis on a report that appeared in this newspaper last Friday. According to it, the Prime Minister talked of how ‘the evil of ignoring duties and not keeping them paramount has entered our society, our nation and each one of us’. He linked this absence of a sense of duty to fundamental rights, saying that in the past 70 years, too much time had been spent ‘on rights and fighting about rights’ and that this had weakened India.
Actually, the only people who seem to have forgotten their duties are the officials who govern India and the politicians that voters elect with so much hope every time elections come around. It is because high officials, elected and unelected, have been derelict in their duties that the average Indian is deprived of rights that are taken for granted in democratic countries elsewhere. The tragic reality is that millions of Indians cannot afford even to go to court to seek justice when they are deprived of their rights. It is this that should worry our leaders.
If it is the Prime Minister’s case that because Indians have spent too much time fighting for their rights that India is ‘weak’, then he is very wrong. We should have fought much harder not just for the freedom of speech, thought and justice but for such basic rights as good public schools and healthcare and clean water. It is the neglect of these rights that weakens India and reduces her stature in the eyes of the world.
This brings me to the other point the Prime Minister made in this speech. He said, ‘We are all witness to how there are attempts to tarnish India’s image. A lot of this happens at the international level.’ This point was also made last week by our Permanent Representative to the United Nations, T S Trimurthi, who in a speech at the UN said that there was ‘religion phobia spreading against Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs’. Personally, I am not at all sure in which country this is happening. A significant change in the past few decades has been that the world has embraced Yoga, Buddhism and Hindu spirituality to such a degree that the old image of India as a country of ‘snake charmers and starving millions’ is now totally forgotten.
So, what is it that is worrying the Prime Minister so much that he believes there is an international plot to ‘tarnish’ India’s image? Could it be that he has been reading those stories in the international media about how Muslims and Christians have been targeted by violent Hindutva mobs? Is he worried that the Western media has been very critical of the activities of vigilantes who have lynched Muslims on the suspicion of eating beef? And, attacked churches on the suspicion that they are being used to lure misguided Hindus away from the mother faith?
If this is what he means by India’s image being tarnished, then some introspection is needed. Why did he remain silent when gatherings of Hindu priests declared that genocide is the ‘final solution’ to our Muslim problem? The activities of violent Hindutva mobs, many with direct links to the RSS, have certainly damaged India’s image as a liberal democracy. But, much more than that, they have damaged the image of Narendra Modi. It is worth remembering that when he first became prime minister, Modi was welcomed by the leaders of the world as the man who could truly transform India’s economy and help it march confidently forwards into the 21st century.
It was when he won his second term and turned his attention away from the economy and from bringing real ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’, to hyper-nationalism and Hindutva that the image of his government began to slowly slide. It is not just the western media that has taken a hostile attitude to the kind of changes that have taken place recently, it is also democracy watchdogs, that look out for signs of illiberalism and autocracy, who have taken a dim view of the Modi government. It is important for the Prime Minister to remember that criticism of his government and his policies does not amount to India’s image being ‘tarnished’.
The great privilege of living in a democratic country is that we can take certain rights for granted. The right to speak out against the government is one of them, and this right has been so infringed of late that dissidents, journalists and students have been jailed under preventive detention laws meant for terrorists. It is these things that have ‘tarnished’ the Prime Minister’s image.
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