As it steps into its third year, the Narendra Modi government’s record in fostering communal harmony leaves something to be desired and dissent comes at a price, analysts say.
Immediately after the BJP-led NDA government assumed power, business confidence began improving and administration was toned up. In sharp contrast, attacks on religious minorities — Christian institutions and Muslims — by fringe Hindu groups grew in the country.
On September 28 last year, a mob murdered a Muslim man they suspected had eaten and stored beef in his home in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri, triggering an avalanche of the first serious revolt against the BJP government’s failure to curb what was described as right-wing bigotry.
Though some attacks on church-run institutions were later found to be petty thefts, but the damage was already done.
The protests that followed were thrust into international media discourse when a host of well-known left-liberal public intellectuals returned their highest literary honours.
They were also protesting the killing of a few rationalist writers such as MM Kalburgi, the incidents too attributed to hardline Hindu groups.
The situation has improved much but sporadic attacks on minorities by vigilante groups continue. In March, two cattle traders were found hanged in Latehar district of Jharkhand. Those arrested included a person linked to a local cow protection group.
On his part, Modi did reach out to Muslims as he participated in a world Sufi conference and called Islam a religion of peace. He also vowed, in February last year, to protect all religious minorities during an event organised by the Christian community to celebrate the beatification of two Indians by Pope Francis in 2014.
Critics, however, say there has been only a feeble response to what is seen as a growing tide of cultural coercion by Hindu hardliners.
“If ‘secular’ means a non-religious state, then, the government should keep out of religious functions and conferences. At this moment, when we face threats to secularism, freedom and minority rights, it’s important for the ministry of minority affairs to redouble its efforts for protection of these fundamental values rather than leave it to Sufi conferences to achieve this,” said noted political scientist Zoya Hasan.
The government was also seen as authoritarian, especially after sedition charges on students including JNU’s Kanhaiya Kumar and a crackdown on activists protesting the suicide by Dalit scholar Rohith Vemula in Hyderabad.
“Putting critics in prison or even forcing them to defend themselves in lengthy and expensive court proceedings undermines the government’s efforts to present India as a modern country in the internet age committed to free speech and the rule of law,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Last month, the Modi government launched the Standup India scheme aimed at helping women and Dalit entrepreneurs. But sustaining the momentum of the Dalit and Muslim outreach will be Modi’s key challenge as he guides his government to stand out as a truly secular and liberal country.