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Modi's Abu Dhabi mosque visit symbolic, but don't call it secular

If you go solely by Twitter, you will end up getting the impression that Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting the main mosque in Abu Dhabi during his two-day visit to the UAE was some sort of announcement of how secular the Indian political leadership is, writes Abhishek Saha

analysis Updated: Aug 18, 2015 20:41 IST
Abhishek Saha
Abhishek Saha
Hindustan Times
Narendra Modi,PM Modi visits UAE,Modi in Dubai
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, middle, takes a selfie next to Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, left, as they tour the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque during the first day of his two-day visit to the UAE, in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, Aug. 16, 2015. (AP Photo)

If you go solely by Twitter, you will end up getting the impression that Prime Minister Narendra Modi

visiting the main mosque in Abu Dhabi

during his two-day visit to the UAE was some sort of announcement of how secular the Indian political leadership is.

Modi visiting the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi was, as many Twitter users said, a slap on the face of Indian “sickulars”, who always question the Sangh Parivar’s ideology of divisive politics.

The Grand Mosque is the largest in the UAE, covering an area of more than 30 acres and with the capacity to hold over 40,000 people. The mosque’s rich Islamic architecture, special design features and the world’s largest carpet make it a treat for tourists.

Thus, former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah was right in saying, “This Mosque is Abu Dhabi's biggest tourist attraction, this is the PM's 'Terracotta Army' moment no more, no less.” After all, both the Terracotta Warriors Museum in Xian and the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi are great tourist attractions.

But on social media, the mosque visit and the UAE government announcing the allotment of land for Abu Dhabi’s first Hindu temple were interpreted by pro-BJP users as some sort of victory for Hindu-Muslim unity.

Comments and posts suggested that Modi and his Hindu nationalist party’s secular credentials were finally out in the open, and no one dare challenge them now.

With hashtags such as #ModiinDubai and #ModiinUAE, which trended for two days, there were scores of tweets emphasising this point. For example, user @sandeep_shine wrote: "As our beloved PM enters mosque crowd chants Modi Modi. Burnol moment for our pseudo seculars #ModiInUAE."

It’s a no-brainer to guess what “Burnol moment” implies. The insinuation is that those who in the past questioned the secular credentials of the Hindu right wing have been burnt badly. Why? Because Modi has visited this one touristy mosque and clicked a selfie.

Taunts for the Indian secularist (read journalists and intellectuals active on Twitter) were unending. And then, there were those who hailed this new brand of “secular politics”, including getting land for a temple sanctioned in a foreign country.

But even as the pro-BJP social media brigade carried on with its taunts and celebrations, there were those who critically questioned the tokenism of Modi’s visit to the mosque.

Reuters carried an analysis of Modi’s visit, and described it as a “conciliatory gesture to the Muslim minority back home wary of his past and his Hindu nationalist party”.

Kadira Pethiyagoda, visiting fellow in the Asia-Middle East Relations Brookings Doha Center, buttressed the argument and told Reuters, “Modi's visit to the Grand Mosque is a clear signal that he wishes to bury his own communalist baggage and build on India's pluralistic reputation and highlight Islam's role in Indian history.”

Modi’s selfie with sheikhs in the Grand Mosque came at a time when BJP leaders like Yogi Adityanath, Giriraj Singh and Sadhvi Prachi continue with their habit of launching a barrage of hate speech at will. There has been no strict punishment for those who deliver polarising statements at the drop of a hat.

Even as the Hindu right-wing celebrates the mosque visit as a strengthening of secular values, the unfortunate truth remains that communal campaigns like Ghar Wapsi and the Love Jihad propelled by organisations such as the RSS have done great harm to the nation’s secular fabric. Such campaigns and comments have increased the marginalisation and ghettoisation of Muslims even as a number of churches also were attacked.

Forget the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 or the Gujarat riots of 2002, if you rewind just a bit, there are the Muzaffarnagar riots of 2013 for which several Hindu right-wing leaders stand accused. Their communal, hate-instigating rhetoric allegedly led to violence at many a place.

At this juncture, is it worth exaggerating Modi’s mosque visit as a step towards improving the deplorable condition of the country’s marginalised minorities, especially Muslims?

Apart from the mosque visit and selfie, Modi’s UAE visit had a lot more. India and the UAE have agreed to set up a multi-billion dollar fund to invest in Indian infrastructure projects and cooperate in producing military gear and nuclear energy. Modi also talked about fighting terrorism unitedly.

Let’s talk about these initiatives and not the temple-mosque unity, because, as far as that is concerned, the situation in India is grim.

(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @saha_abhi1990)

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First Published: Aug 18, 2015 15:24 IST