Early signs are mixed that India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, can deliver on his promise to create a genuinely inclusive sense of nationhood.
Why are many people in India apprehensive about the country’s new government? The Bharatiya Janata Party won 282 seats in the 543-seat lower house, and with its allies, it won close to 60 per cent of the seats and more than 35 per cent of the vote. In a first-past-the-post Westminster system, that’s a valid and handsome mandate.
India’s left-of-centre conscience-keeper, the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW), however, captured the anxiety among many of the 65 per cent of voters who did not vote for the BJP-led alliance:
Narendra Modi (pictured) will … be sworn into office [as prime minister] … with an oath to safeguard the Indian Constitution, including the goal of a ’secular’ republic that is enshrined in the Preamble, and … the ’Fundamental Duties’ to ’develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform’. Will he …, having taken such an oath, help to subvert these provisions, just like the previous [BJP] incumbent AB Vajpayee did, especially in the realms of home, education and culture? (EPW, 31 May 2014, p. 7).
Mr Vajpayee’s government was in power from 1999 to 2004. As prime minister, he acquired the reputation of a wise old uncle, though he had been a fiery orator in his younger days. As prime minister, he was moderate in his statements and careful to celebrate the plurality of India’s religious and linguistic minorities. He presided over a government that created, according to its 2004 election slogan, ‘India shining’. (The slogan didn’t work: the BJP lost the 2004 election).
Mr Vajpayee’s moderation, however, was only one side of the story of India under his BJP-led coalition government. The EPW’s editorial alludes to the other side. The government rewrote textbooks to glorify its heroes, who were militant-caste Hindus of the distant and recent past. It loaded government-appointed bodies with supporters. Such appointments were often made on the basis of political and social views, not professional standing. Not all of them were keen on astrology and ‘Vedic mathematics’, but significant numbers were.
And while Mr Vajpayee (pictured) and colleagues in New Delhi kept a discrete distance, supporters of the militant Hindu line felt encouraged to go after those they saw as deviating from the true path to a prouder, better India. The murder of the Australian missionary Graham Staines and his two sons by anti-Christian thugs in 1999 occurred with the BJP government in power in New Delhi
Mr Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when riots against Muslims raged in the state for days after Muslims were blamed for torching a railway carriage in which more than 50 Hindus, returning from the hallowed city of Varanasi, died. In the ensuing riots, hundreds of Muslims were killed. Mr Modi, accused of complicity, has been exonerated by official inquiries. In an interview with Reuters in 2013, he was asked whether he regretted the 2002 riots. He replied:
Any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.
BJP supporters point out that one of India’s most ghastly pieces of religious violence was perpetrated in the name of Indira Gandhi after her assassination in 1984. Thousands of Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and other cities, while Indira Gandhi’s son, Rajiv, who became prime minister, showed little energy in suppressing the violence. The argument is: if this happened in 1984, Mr Modi did nothing wrong in 2002. Two wrongs make a right.
BJP supporters also argue that only inveterate enemies of Mr Modi feign apprehension about the effects of the new government. India, they say, is a federation. Police and crime are state subjects. The central government does not influence local matters and, in the past, the BJP-led central government did not egg on rioters.
In the past, however, local zealots appeared to be encouraged by the fact that ‘their’ government was in power. If ‘our’ people are in power, we can enforce ‘our values’ on others. Local politicians, officials and police officers are susceptible. Where is my next posting going to be if I offend someone who claims influence higher up?
In Karnataka state in south India, in 2009, with a BJP state government in power, there were widely reported incidents of ‘moral policing’—intimidation and assault of women out with male companions in public locations, especially if the male was a Muslim or a Christian.
Prime Minister Modi is a shrewd politician, and he may have calculated the advantages of creating a genuinely inclusive sense of Indian nationhood. The recent election campaign placed ‘development’ and economic issues at the forefront t of his and the BJP’s program. Clear messages may begin to emanate from New Delhi that India is a liberal democracy where the law protects even those who don’t necessarily subscribe to the cultural values of an elected government.
However, of the BJP’s 282 newly elected members of parliament, not one is a Muslim, though Muslims make up 14 per cent of the population.
Signs not promising
But the signs are not promising. The murder of a young Muslim computer worker in the city of Pune in western India on 2 June is the sort of grisly event that raises fears of the dark scenarios that the EPW editorial speculated about. The man was on his way home from work; his killing was allegedly in retaliation for slurs on Facebook against a 17th-century Hindu hero popular in western India. The victim appears to have had no connection with the slurs; he simply had a beard and looked like a Muslim. Members of a militant Hindu organisation bashed him to death.
There has been no condemnation from New Delhi. Crime, after all, is a state matter, and the state of Maharashtra is governed by the Congress Party. Arrests have been made. But the newly elected BJP MP for the city of Pune was quoted as saying: ‘What appeared on Facebook was very painful. Some amount of repercussions was natural.’ It was not a ringing condemnation.
The Pune murder was one of a number of straws blowing in what could be a bitter wind. In Bangalore and Goa at the end of May, police arrested people for sending anti-Modi messages by MMS or posts on Facebook. There may have been genuine security worries; but it also seemed plausible that local officials were flexing their muscles now that ‘our’ government had won so handsomely in Delhi.
The BJP Home Minister of Madhya Pradesh recently told reporters that rape ‘is a social crime which depends on the man and the woman. It is sometimes right and sometimes wrong’. His counterpart in the neighbouring state of Chhattisgarh was quoted as saying: ‘Such incidents [rapes] do not happen deliberately. These kind of incidents happen accidentally’. Spokesmen for the BJP claimed the ministers had been misquoted and their words twisted by the media. They rejected suggestions that the ministers were unfit to preside over law and order in their respective states. Mr Modi’s advice was to ‘stop analysing the psychology behind rape. The dignity of our mothers and our sisters must be protected’.
Meanwhile, pressure to ban or rewrite books that militants don’t like is exerted through court cases and intimidation. Publishers find it safer to cave in to demands from people who claim their psyches have been wounded as a result of books that don’t accord with the view of Hindu India that they propagate. In the background are bully-boys who wreck libraries and bookshops.
The BJP’s external pillar is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the national self-help organisation, founded in the 1920s on the model of fascist groups in Europe at that time. The RSS has hundreds of thousands of members, is known for its khaki shorts (a symbol of the bygone British if worn by anyone else in India) and specialises in semi-military parades and regular combat drill with staves. It does election work for the BJP and social work that often puts its volunteers among the first on the scene of major disasters.
In its jubilant editorial after the May election victory, The Organiser, the English-language weekly of the RSS, featured a quotation from the legendary general secretary of the BJP’s precursor:
We are pledged to the service not of any particular community or section but of the entire nation. Every countryman is blood of our blood and flesh of our flesh. We shall not rest till we are able to give to every one of them a sense of pride that … they are children of Bharatmata [Mother India]. (Organiser, 25 May 2014, p. 5).
It is a passage that many people will ponder.