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06 June 2015

Modi Can’t Say ‘No’

But the NDA government entertains them because of a chequered history of the BJP and India's own inability to appreciate genuine secularism



A Sikh youth challenges another to prove the latter’s commitment to Sikhism. How? ‘Vandalise that church!’ the first guy allegedly provokes his friend. The excitable friend obliges. “Narendra Modi to blame!”

Burglars steal Rs 12,000 from a convent’s kitty, leaving religious symbols of Christianity untouched. “RSS is responsible!”

Antisocial elements who infiltrated the country from Bangladesh ‘rape’ an elderly nun. “BJP’s ‘saffron’ agenda!”

The last sentence in each paragraph above does not obviously reflect this columnist’s opinion. During the reported incidents, such was the tenor of headlines in a large section of the media that has been betraying acute discomfiture since the BJP-led NDA government took charge of the country last year.
Unfortunately, the government is buying it — no questions asked! In February, Home Minister Rajnath Singh issued an assurance to Christians. In May, Finance and Information & Broadcasting Minister Arun Jaitley met with a delegation of Christian clerics to hear out their ‘grievances’.
http://media.newindianexpress.com/Modi-Muslim-PTI.jpg/2015/06/03/article2847131.ece/alternates/w620/Modi-Muslim-PTI.jpg
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is presented a bouquet during a meeting with a delegation from the Muslim community led by Imam Umer Ahmed Ilyasi in New Delhi on Tuesday. (PTI Photo)
And on 2 June Prime Minister Modi offered a semblance of an apology to the Muslim community. Of course, Modi’s statement was as secular as possible, which he had repeated ad nauseam during the Lok Sabha election campaign, and which he shared with me in our first meeting, 12 December 2013: “I will never make a policy separately for any community.” As the then Gujarat Chief Minister, he spoke of 6 crore Gujaratis; as the Prime Minister of India now, he speaks of 125 crore Indians. He reiterated his stand yesterday. My objection is to his government’s act of entertaining bunches of grievance mongers time and again, as if he were suffering from a guilty conscience.

Christian leaders meet finance minister Arun Jaitley in Delhi
Christian leaders meet finance minister Arun Jaitley in Delhi

Jaitley did say to his Christian visitors that there were mutually unrelated crimes by unaffiliated people happening all around, but the message did not go across loud and clear.

Clearly, the government needs to address a special press conference to shut the yapping mouths up in a manner that the distraction, which looks deliberate on the part of these delegations, does not move our focus away from its foremost work and duty: economic and structural reforms.

The Muslim whinge is less far-fetched, it is wrong nonetheless: that this government is promoting ghar wapsi. The term, as is now well known, refers to the act of converting Indian Muslims and Christians — who, activists affiliated to the Sangh believe, rightly to a great extent, were Hindus once upon a time — back to Hinduism.

If converting people from one religion to another cannot be an act of a secular State that India is (at least on paper), re-converting them back to the old faith is none of its business either. Neither is the ruling party involved in this act. So, why are Muslims knocking at the wrong door? Let them approach RSS sarsanghachalak Mohan Bhagwat who, they must know, does not report to the Prime Minister of India.
Strict secularism would mean that if there are non-state outfits carrying out such activities, the secular state cannot intervene. It is a legally untenable proposition to suggest that the BJP government is liable because it draws most of its personnel from the Sangh ‘parivar’. Can you drag a person to a court of law if a member of his household commits a crime?

And then, is it a crime after all? Without inducements or violence (or threat thereof), conversion is not illegal in India. In fact, I believe banning conversion even of the variety caused by money or sword is silly. If money can lure somebody, a greater deal of money can entice him back to his previous fold. It is nobody’s case that the right wing is suffering from cash crunch. Also, bribing in itself is an offence — whether for conversion or for, say, a government contract. As for violence, the same logic applies; hurting somebody physically is not permissible by law in any event. Why does the State need to specify the cause of religion separately? The treasury benches’ challenge to the opposition to accept an anti-conversion law at the Centre is rationally unsound.

Sociologically, when there is neither lure nor threat involved, the person converting is either not educated in his original faith adequately or he is convinced his present faith is antithetical to his progress. Nobody else has the right to complain in such an event, not in the least the State.

Now, why shouldn’t the same argument apply when some people convert from Christianity or Islam to Hinduism? The RSS denies the organisation has ever officiated over a ghar wapsi. But can the State deny an NGO a right to convert people? And when the activity is of a swayamsevak, not acting in the capacity of a representative of the Sangh, the government’s case for intervention turns even weaker.
Strangely, the concept of ‘non-State actors’ does not seem to have crossed the minds of this government. This term has never been used by anyone from Modi in Parliament to the BJP’s inarticulate spokespersons on television. Is it because Pakistan turned the terminology infamous by using it to describe Ajmal Qasab and his nine accomplices in 26/11? This is not to compare swayamsevaks with terrorists; this is to state that there indeed can be actors whose actions the government is not responsible for. Islamabad’s usage was faulty also for the reason that its ISI is known to manage terrorists. Swayamsevaks serving society, and no way comparable to militants, are not managed by any government including those run by the BJP. Personal opinions of ministers, some people and political commentators about the nature of the RSS apart — and even if one is opposed to the idea of conversion and re-conversion — nothing statutory can be done to stop a swayamsevak from following a religion and seeking to expand his community just as government can do nothing to another citizen for doing neither.
This rationale may not suit the ‘aggrieved’ communities. The answer to the question as to why it does not suit Modi is rooted in his party’s history.

No entity in India is secular
While Modi can insist he never did anything separately for a community either as Gujarat’s CM or India’s PM, his party’s participation in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement would defy the claim. Only a party that has never been pro-Hindu to the extent of being anti-Muslim can tell a Muslim delegation bluntly that it refuses to be pro-Muslim either.


The movement for the temple on the disputed land in Ayodhya had a social and a political reason. Socially, many Hindus needed an object to vent their frustration against decades of appeasement politics. The poor Babri structure, which archaeological studies of Ayodhya do not establish to have stood on a razed Ram temple, bore the brunt of it — while more brazen mosques stand on indisputably proven Hindu territory in Mathura and Varanasi. I am not provoking people to demolish these mosques; my argument is that the Babri Masjid was never the strongest reason for Hindu resentment.

Politically, VP Singh needed to neutralise Devi Lal’s kisan rally with Mandal Commission and LK Advani had the urge to keep the Hindu community intact. So the BJP patriarch appropriated the movement of sadhus and the VHP.

Nevertheless, the Election Commission debars all recognised parties from espousing such causes. If the BJP was not derecognised in 1993 following a complaint by the Congress to the commission, it was because its lawyer Amitabh Sinha exposed the pro-Christian manifesto of the Congress in the court; the then ruling party had appealed to the community to vote for it in the name of the Gospel! The litigation was on the verge of threatening all political parties of extinction, as none qualified as a genuinely secular party. A petrified PV Narasimha Rao government hurriedly withdrew its complaint from the EC.
So that is where we are: living in a theoretically secular State officiating over an overtly religious society and trying to ward off an opportunistically communal polity.

It is in this cultural scenario that Modi meets with an Islamist delegation. It is this reality of Indian politics that makes him include mosques and mausoleums in his itinerary. The first is tolerance, the second multiculturalism and neither is secularism. But can Modi dare to be secular?

The tightrope walk of inclusion may appear safe politically, but it is fraught with the risk of raising undue expectations of different communities that, next, it would be their turn to be pampered. Today a temple, tomorrow a mosque, the day after a church, a gurudwara three days hence, a pagoda four days later, a synagogue after five days… ! This is reducing the job of a political executive to a joke.

The farce had turned crude under Rajiv Gandhi when he overturned the Supreme Court verdict on Shah Bano divorce case through legislation to appease Islamic fundamentalists and then sanctioned the shilanyas on the controversial plot of Ayodhya, thuse seeking to balance the act by pampering Hindu fanatics. Hope Modi never reaches that extreme.

I do not propose the other extreme either: French secularism. France’s current practice of proscribing religious symbols in its landscape and people’s clothing is a distortion of the dictionary definition of secularism. A ban is as much an act of interference as is multiculturalism practised by the State.
Nobody is asking the Government of India to emulate its French counterpart in banning turbans. Yet, one can’t help pointing out that no granthi objects to a Harbhajan Singh wearing a helmet in the cricket ground, but a Sikh riding a motorcycle or scooter is exempted from the helmet rule under pressure from Sikh clerics! Non-recognition of religion is not the same as prohibition on religions, but stop being funny.

Ours is a society where one fine day executives working in small private firms and living in unauthorised colonies cannot leave home because some believer among their neighbours decides to erect a pandal right in front of their doorsteps for Satyanarayan Puja. We have cities where municipal land is encroached wantonly by temples and mosques. We have terribly disturbed cardiac patients and students preparing for exams smarting from five salahs (namaz) in the daytime and Mata ka Jagaran in the night — all blaring through loudspeakers. Vehicular traffic is blocked by some religious procession every month, and the undeclared parking space around places of worship shrink public property at will even as nobody complains. 

People no longer outrage over the existence of separate civic laws for separate religions; a Uniform Civil Code receives a customary mention in debates and is almost a forgotten idea for the BJP. In such a bizarre society with a party that remotely looks pro-Hindu ruling at the Centre and some states and pro-Muslim parties ruling in the rest, no government dares to put its foot down. India must learn real secularism before Modi learns to say “no” to communal delegations.
Published first in Swarajya with a portion edited out.

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Surajit Dasgupta treats no individual, organisation or institution as a holy cow.