Prime Minister Narendra Modi has too often been accused of not reaching out to minority communities, and the BJP has been criticised for an upper caste slant. This makes it doubly welcome that Mr Modi has in the past week met Muslim and Christian leaders and provided an important reassurance to Dalits, a historically oppressed community that should be front and centre of any social initiative by the government. On Monday, speaking at the sixth Ambedkar Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, he said that reservation was a ‘right that nobody can snatch’.
This is significant because it comes barely a week after the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological patron, said the reservation policy should be revisited. Dalits have long been suspicious of the RSS’ views on reservation, and some of the BJP’s woes in the Bihar assembly elections held in October-November could be traced to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat’s call, mid-campaign, for a rethink on the policy. The fallout of the Hyderabad-based Dalit student Rohith Vemula’s suicide was also badly handled by the government. So it was important for Mr Modi to speak out, and speak out he did.
Monday’s speech, when seen with the prime minister’s address at the World Sufi Forum last week and meetings with two senior Christian leaders, sends a reassuring message that the Centre stands for the religious freedom of all communities. It is a message to fringe elements and religious extremists that they are on the wrong side of this government. It is also a message some motormouth BJP MPs need to heed.
This outreach is important because concerns that minority groups are being targeted are increasing. In January, the Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2016 noted that the Indian government ‘did little....to improve respect for religious freedom, protect the rights of women and children, and end abuses against marginalized communities’.
There are horrifying reminders of how narrow interpretations of religion and culture triggered unrest and cost human lives — be it the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri in September or the killing of a VHP worker in Agra in February or the killing of two Muslim cattle traders in Jharkhand last weekend. The triggers for many of the above incidents may have been different, but they have acquired a communal colour.
It would be cynical to dismiss this outreach as being done with an eye on the assembly elections in West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, where there is a sizeable minority population. One should give Mr Modi the benefit of any such doubt, because in a federal democracy the size of ours, at any given time, some part of the nation is out at the hustings.
The PM’s reassurance is aimed at blunting efforts by fringe elements on both sides of the communal divide and will go some distance in taking down the temperature.