A few moons ago, there was this incident. A Muslim cleric decided to ambush Narendra Modi by offering a skullcap at a public political event. [Video] While Modi did not wear the skull-cap, he did wear the green Islamic shawl the cleric offered (this was not reported). This immediately set in motion the gears of nightly-news-outrage and morning-paper-editorializing.
“Modi has shown, as if it needed further showing, his communal and non-secular core.”
Nitish Kumar, who has of late discovered the dark side of Modi and whose absolute dreaminess has of late been discovered by sections of the Indian intelligentsia, said most famously:
To govern a country like India, you have to take everyone along; sometimes you will have to wear topi and sometimes tilak (kabhi topi bhi pehenni padhegi, kabhi tilak bhi lagana padega).
No discussion of Modi or of Indian politics can be complete without an ogle at the concept of “secularism”.
In India, politicians are expected to be “secular”, at least as far as demonstrations go, in the Nitish Kumar way of things, much more than they are expected to efficient or to be honest.
And the thing about Modi, he is not secular. After all, if he was, he would have worn that skullcap.
But wait. Let’s go back and look at that skullcap incident once again. If secularism is the equal treatment of all religions, then we should be able search-replace, as we do in MS Word, the individuals concerned and the religions, and the conclusion “Oh My God, that is so communal” should stay the same. So I am going to do it. Let us say that Manmohan Singh was put in the same situation, would he be expected to wear the skull-cap? If Mehbooba Sayed was asked to wear sindoor, would she be expected to honor that request? Let us say Hamid Ansari was asked to wear a tilak, and he refused, would that be held against him? If I was asked to wear a Chennai Super Kings, would I have to, at the cost of being assigned a pejorative label, even though I am as big a cricket enthusiast as…well you know who.
Some people would say, and not without reason, that the person foisting off the item of his religion should be seen as the guilty party since he is trying to actively impose his way of life on someone else (in this case, to make a political point). At the very least, we should accept, if we go by the conventional definition of secularism, that Modi has every right to his personal beliefs and the right to set his own personal boundaries, and not be judged for them.
But he is.
Many would say “Oh but the real problem is Gujarat 2002.” Well if it is, one should just keep at it instead of using this incident as proof of Modi’s communal dark heart.
The reason this apparent non-issue is important, is because it exposes a somewhat non-obvious assumption. That the Nehruvian legacy, which is still very much alive in our current government and in our mainstream media discourse, does not allow secularism to be defined as the equal treatment of all religions. That dictates, that in the interests of pragmatism and national unity, one has to lean more towards minorities, and that strict equivalence between majority and minority in a complex country like India is not practicable. (The same logic is given for “freedom of speech”, in India, one must be more “sensitive” but that’s a discussion for another day.)This is why Dr. Singh says that Muslims have the first right to national resources. This is what drives, at least on principle (the use of “principle” here is intentional, the “real reason” of course is politics) legislation like the Communal Violence Bill, which defines “minorities” in an absolute way (on the basis of religions) and not on the basis of numerical minority in a particular place (A Hindu in a Muslim-majority area would not be considered a minority). As per this concept of secularism, it stands to logic that anyone who wants to be the leader of the nation and is a Hindu, has to be held to a different standard behavior than someone who is not, so that minorities do not feel embattled or threatened. The supporters of this definition of secularism point to Pakistan as an example where this Nehruvian ideal was not followed, and, well they say, look where it is today.
While this notion of secularism definitely has its adherents among urban Indians, those that talk about the “Muslim veto”, there are also many others who want to define secularism in terms of equal obligations. In other words, no slant. No special treatment for minorities. No special treatment for castes. They reject the example of Pakistan as the only possible outcome for an alternate notion of secularism, pointing to a substantial difference between what Modi proposes and “the religious theocracy” which Pakistan is. Instead, they consider another country as an ideal, sometimes without even realizing it.
The United States of America.
This requires some explaining. And the introduction of another word.
In a interview which garnered significant attention (As an aside, everything Modi says gets attention. He has to say “Kumar Gaurav” and people will start watching his movies.) Modi said.
I am nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I am born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So I’m a Hindu nationalist. So yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu.
This has of course led to much outrage because of the words “nationalism” and “Hindu”. Before, I delve into the “nationalism” part, allow me to post an extract below of what Maulana Abul Kalam Azad said.
I am a Muslim and profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited Islam’s glorious tradition of the last fourteen hundred years. I am not prepared to lose even a small part of that legacy. The history and teachings of Islam, its arts and letters, its culture and civilization are part of my wealth and it is my duty to cherish and guard them. But, with all these feelings, I have another equally deep realization, born out of my life’s experience which is strengthened and not hindered by the Islamic spirit. I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the indivisible unity of the Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total makeup, without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete.
I don’t think anyone has a problem with the tract above. Let’s turn Muslim into Hindu (that search-replace thing again) It becomes:
I am a Hindu and profoundly conscious of the fact that I have inherited Hinduism’s glorious tradition of thousands of years. I am not prepared to lose even a small part of that legacy. The history and teachings of Hinduism, its arts and letters, its culture and civilization are part of my wealth and it is my duty to cherish and guard them. But, with all these feelings, I have another equally deep realization, born out of my life’s experience which is strengthened and not hindered by the Hindu spirit. I am equally proud of the fact that I am an Indian, an essential part of the indivisible unity of the Indian nationhood, a vital factor in its total makeup, without which this noble edifice will remain incomplete.
If Modi had said this above, which is definitely a more clear attempt to separate out the two identities than his more terse statement (which still says more or less the same thing), I am pretty sure there would still have been a national fecalstorm. Much of it is of course because of the person saying it, both his past history and his present significance, but some of it is definitely due to two very loaded words, namely “Hindu” and “nationalism” , present in Modi’s sentences and not in the Maulana’s.
First, let us look at nationalism. Though no one says it is wrong to use the word, as a matter of fact they will say “Why didn’t he just say nationalist?”, the problem lies in the word “nationalist” itself. The Leftist perspective of history interprets the march of civilization as a generational conflict between classes, principally, between the working class and the privileged. Religion and its variation, nationalism (where the God is the nation) are considered, by that world view, to be insidious tools used by the privileged to manipulate the working class into working against its own interest, preventing them from coalescing into the brotherhood of the working class, unfettered by national identities. Which was why a section of the Communist movement in India supported China in the war against India, because the nation of China was the brotherhood of the working class, and yes, I don’t even want to dissect the irony of a nation using the concept of the anti-nation for its own strategic national objectives. As if the perfidy associated to it by the Marxists was not bad enough, the aggressive, hyper-nationalism of Germans, held responsible for the World Wars and the Holocaust, led to its permanent semantic hyphenation of nationalism with fascism and tyranny. Because of this, anyone proudly asserting their nationalism even if they mean “fidelity to the nation” is either a suspect fascist or overtly dramatic in a very Sunny Deol or Manoj Kumar way. Given the origins of the RSS in the teachings of Golwalkar, and given the way Modi has been depicted in the media, the outrage in media was natural.
However it is precisely this nationalistic rhetoric appeals to a large section of that demographic, which, explicitly or subconsciously, holds the US as a model of what India should be. Americans have no qualms in hammering the concept of “American exceptionalism” (which put simply means the rules that apply to the world do not apply to them) and even the most liberal of Democrats openly say ” America is the greatest nation in the world”, without drawing snarks from the New York Times. And, contrary to what is often said nationalism being hand-in-glove with fascism, this nationalism does not in any way make America, fascist, being as it is solidly democratic with a culture of dissent and free-speech, which at the very least is light years beyond what we have in supposedly non-fascist India.
Modi gets this. He calls the PM for a US Presidential style debate. He keeps the nationalistic rhetoric knob turned to eleven. He tries to make the connect.
Which brings us to America’s majorityarianism. It is unquestioned within Americam, at least the religious part of it. While the country has recently, and that too with much hesitation and much resentment, has had a Black President (which is a huge step forward in racial minorityarism, even though Obama with his Causasian features and accent-corrected English is not really “black” in the way Jesse Jackson is or Martin Luther King was, and this may be said to be a convenient panacea for “White guilt”), there is no way in Hell that religious majoritarianism in US is going away any time soon. Simply put, anyone who is not a Christian will never become an US president, at least not for decades, if not centuries. Forget a Muslim or a Hindu, even for Jews, who are financially and politically powerful, but behind the scenes only, being the most powerful citizen of the country is something that they can never aspire to. The biggest stars of Hollywood, the bastion of American liberalism, will never be non-Christian. Hindus like Jindal or Sikhs like Haley can only have a political career, post-conversion.
And no one, not even in the most liberal of spheres, makes that much of a hue and cry over this. It is accepted as a fact of life. (As an aside, Obama, has to repeatedly say “I am not a secret Muslim”, not “So what if I was a Muslim?” Also Obama would never say, without committing political suicide “African Americans should have first priority on national resources” , forget “Muslims should have first priority on national resources” ).
But even with this majoritarianism, minorities, from all corners of the world, flock to the US, even though it is perhaps not the behemoth it once does, because it provides physical security, more chances to make money than any other place and freedom.
Which Modi would also say is the solution.
Development. Money. Government getting out of the way. No going out of the way for religious minorities. The American model. Maybe not majoritarian in the way America is, for only those but the severely indoctrinated would understand it is not an ideal practicable or desirable in India, but definitely not a country where if you do not think that minorities have a veto, you are vilified and branded as communal.
And this is where the skull-cap incident is so significant, Modi is taking a hard stance against minority appeasement. his is not just a matter of principle but a canny political move. He cannot play the game following the rules defined by Congress and other regional parties. He has to distinguish himself from it.
He thus offers up an alternative, a post-communal ideal (which does not mean he is above showing off his Muslim followers, after all elections are still to be won), based on a concept of universal development (not that it is particularly well-fledged out but then all politicians are notoriously miserly on specific details) and not on religion/caste-driven targeted intervention (like Mamata Banerjee’s stipends to Imams, that the High Court struck down subsequently) or a perpetuation of a narrative of victimhood ( Your qaum is under siege. We only care for you. Vote for us. The others will kill you. The others are falsely implicating you as terrorists. None of them are terrorists, at all, regardless of what the courts and the police say.”).
Of course, it would be naive to think that all of Modi’s supporters care for a post-communal ideal or care for the nuances for a more fair definition of secularism. Many want, in essence, the Saudi way of governance, where minorities are reduced to second-class “dhimmis”, a bizarre kind of deification of the Islamic notion of nation while ostensibly being firmly opposed to it on principle (“I hate you that I love you” type). But as I had argued, in a previous post in this series, this group is not significant enough electorally (though they do make a lot of noise), for if they were the Singhals and the Togadias would have been political forces.
But coming back to the whole “American ideal” thing. While India can justifiably claim to be more pluralistic country than America in one sense, where an Italian Christian can be the nation’s most powerful person, and the religion of film-stars does not get in the way of their worship, isolated examples of the Khans and the Sonia Gandhis do not hide the fact that there are undeniable cases of systemic bias against minorities, and among them Muslims most definitely, in terms of housing and employment and police harassment.
Here is the thing though. The way India rolls, there is discrimination against everyone. It’s bizarre almost, this equality through discrimination. Non-vegetarians are denied housing. So are single people. Bihari folks are targeted for violence in Mumbai. I know of a Bengali software engineer who was slapped in Karnataka by an auto-driver for not being able to speak in Kannada. A Muslim landlord puts religious inscriptions on every wall, which his Hindu tenants have to live with. And the most persecuted minority in India is women, who live in fear across villages and cities, of being raped, lynched, murdered and have their freedoms grossly limited. Of these, the religious schism is the one that is most exercised, one that is cherrypicked and hammered hard, that too purely for votebank reasons, and it is that which makes many urban Hindus most uncomfortable because they feel vilified by it, all the time.
Modi is telling them—“I am taking this whole Nehruvian ideal of secularism out of the equation. It is pandering. It is ineffective. It creates more anger. Instead I shall give all uniform development. And the religious divides will all solve themselves, once people are busy making money or finding ways to.”
This has an appeal. This has a logic. This, also given India’s polity, has the ability to polarize.
But then of course, the biggest thing working for Modi is the other side. His poll-agents. The Congress. We shall come to them.