In his speech at the World Sufi Forum in New Delhi on Thursday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said Sufism was “a celebration of diversity and pluralism” which “helped shape a distinct Islamic heritage of India”. He underlined that terrorism was not to be fought on religious lines. Religion, he said, abhors violence while terrorism divides people and destroys societies. He added that those who spread terror in the name of religion are anti-religious. Words especially apt when mobs are invoking religion to refashion nations as mono-cultures.
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This is not the first time the prime minister has celebrated Sufism: In one of his Mann ki Baat talks last year, he expressed the need for “Sufi culture, which is associated with love, generosity” to spread far and wide so that Islam as well as humankind would benefit. However, such privileging of Sufism as the desirable form of Islam is open to debate. Sufism has followers across religions in the Indian subcontinent, but it is just another faith tradition, and a contested one as well. The invocation of Sufism as the preferred version of Islam, unintentional perhaps, cast a shadow over other Islamic traditions. It suggests that the neat division of a religious community into good and bad is possible. On a different note, Modi’s comparison of “India’s spirit” with the music of a sitar’s strings plucked in harmony is in tune with the reality of diversity. The metaphor suggests a nation of people who follow diverse faiths. Their collective struggles, sacrifices, bravery, skills, art and pride unite the country and pull it towards a common destiny. However, the melody the prime minister wishes for is likely to be drowned in the hoarse threats of mobs that want to test the population’s nationalism by ordeal. The Maharashtra BJP and the opposition Congress want legislators to be expelled from the House if they refuse to say “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, while the Shiv Sena insists on revoking their citizenship and voting rights. Coercive sloganeering surely does not make music.
The shrill rhetoric of nationalism rising from the street — and now a state assembly — is hardly in consonance with the spirit of India the prime minister evoked in his speech on Thursday. Modi’s grand vision of a strong and vibrant India cannot be realised by a restive society. He should have a quiet conversation with his followers and teach them to appreciate harmony.