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Making a new India: Our safety lies in our diversity

The notion that the country is going to become thoroughly "saffronised" and a narrow monochromatic idea of India will swallow up the country 's rich cultural diversity is nonsense for the simple reason that this diversity itself will act as a brake on any such attempt.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2014 17:43 IST
Hasan Suroor
Hasan Suroor
narendra modi,lok sabha polls,indian elections

To get a sense of where India might be headed under Narendra Modi, it is important, first, to grasp the profound significance of the 2014 general election verdict that brought him to power with such a decisive and unprecedented popular mandate. For, it seems, the true meaning of the change that Modi's triumph represents has not fully sunk in yet, especially in liberal circles where it is regarded as simply another blip in the electoral cycle. No, it is not.

Certainly, at one level, the vote was against a bumbling, and leaderless Congress, but, at a deeper level, it implied a comprehensive repudiation of Nehruvian India in favour of a "new" - supposedly more entrepreneurial, development-oriented and laissez-faire - India unencumbered by left-liberal ideological baggage. Today, the country stands precariously poised at a point where having voted for a decisive break with the past it is waiting expectantly to be led into the new promised land.

In his famous speech, announcing the dawn of independence on the midnight of August 15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru said: "A moment comes which comes but rarely in history when we step out from the old to the new." This may not be quite the same moment but expectations are almost as high. So, what does the roadmap look like? And what does this momentous change mean for society at large, generally, and for religious minorities and marginalised communities, in particular?

Let me make it clear that I don't subscribe to the sort of apocalyptic scenarios being bandied about by people who have their own axes to grind. The notion that the country is going to become thoroughly "saffronised" and a narrow monochromatic idea of India will swallow up the country 's rich cultural diversity is nonsense for the simple reason that this diversity itself will act as a brake on any such attempt. Only recently, we saw this in relation to the sly move to impose Hindi when government departments were told to give primacy to Hindi in official communications. The backlash from the non-Hindi speaking regions was instant and so strong that the government was forced to drop it.

Somehow, the term "diversity" has come to be used misleadingly to refer to diversity as represented only by non-Hindus, notably minority groups with their distinct religious and cultural identities. And from this it follows that any assault on this diversity is a Hindu conspiracy against those groups. The reality, though, is that the biggest source of diversity is Hinduism itself, and Hindus will be the first to resist if there is an attempt to slam the RSS brand of Hindu culture on them.

The future of secularism in "new India'' has sparked frenzied speculation, especially about what lies in store for Muslims. It is being said, for instance, that "frightened" Muslims are spending "sleepless nights" as they ponder their place in a "saffronised'' India amid fears that they will be reduced to second class citizens. Apparently in Pakistan the buzz is that Indian Muslims are facing their "Zia moment", referring to the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq's programme of Islamisation that led to a crackdown on minorities, including Muslim minority sects. A Pakistani friend told me there was a view that Muslims in India were "reconciled to living as second class citizens under a Hindu nationalist government". He asked me if this was true. My instant response was that this was news to me!

I've always been slightly sceptical of claims regarding Muslim "fears". During the poll campaign when the media was awash with Muslim "scare" stories, I wrote that they were exaggerated, inspired partly by the Congress and other parties and partly by the media's own creative interpretation of the Muslim "mood" based on selective interviews. No doubt, there are concerns - and serious concerns - over the polarisation that has occurred in recent months and how it might play out in the future. But I'll come to that in a bit.

Meanwhile, sticking to the road ahead, if I were to take a punt on how the Muslim Question will pan out, say, over the next five years I will reckon it would be pretty much business as usual, unless something dramatically unexpected such as another Gujarat-style incident happens. My advice to the more excitable observers would be to calm down. So far, the Modi government has made all the right noises. Yes, there have been some provocative voices from the fringes of the Sangh Parivar, but it is best to ignore them instead of giving them the oxygen of publicity, so long as there is no evidence of official sanction.

The biggest pleasant surprise in terms of its sheer symbolism was Modi's decision to not only retain the Ministry of Minorities Affairs but to hand it to a Muslim. Najma Heptullah, the minister concerned, made some foolish remarks to the effect that Muslims were not a minority, but there is no need to get too worked up over an individual's views unless we detect a change in the government's official policy. Heptullah's comment was nothing more than a bid to walk a tight rope by a Muslim minister in charge of minority affairs in a right-wing BJP government. Ultimately, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating and so far there is no sign that it is going to taste a lot different from what it did under the Congress though the environment in which it is served may seem less friendly. I asked a senior RSS leader about the Modi government's Muslim policy. He smiled and asked me, in turn, whether I had seen the Union budget. "Did you notice that we didn't touch the outlay for madrassas which was approved by the UPA. It was passed without cutting a single rupee," he said.

During the election campaign, of course, the BJP had attacked the UPA for providing special funds for Muslim educational schemes calling it "minority appeasement" and vote bank politics. In fact, Modi's government in Gujarat refused to implement one such programme.

In contrast to the campaign rhetoric, however, the official tone so far has been socially inclusive. Surprise, surprise, a BJP legislator has even called for a debate on protecting the rights of the gay community. Ashish Shelar, president of the Mumbai unit of the BJP, has made a distinction between the party's opposition to promoting homosexuality (banned under the law in any case) and the need to protect the legitimate rights of gay people.

"As a BJP leader, I am insisting that we must have a national debate on an issue on which a community of four crore people has been raising its voice for some time," he said.

Coming from a member of a party whose approach to homosexuality is almost medieval, this is a big advance even if Shelar's is an individual voice, though I believe he would not have spoken out so publicly were his views not shared more widely within the party. As the BJP's support base grows, it is bound to come under pressure to moderate its line on a range of social issues hitherto regarded as no-go zones.

Meanwhile, Modi seems particularly keen to reach out to Dalits and other disadvantaged communities to broaden his party's mass base. Indeed, he has tried to establish a personal rapport with them by highlighting his own humble caste and economic background - and portraying himself as someone who can identify with the poor and the underprivileged. In his first big speech in the Central Hall of parliament after being elected leader of the BJP parliamentary party, during which he famously broke down, Modi pledged a new deal for them.

"For rural areas, farmers, Dalits (those at the bottom of India's tenacious social hierarchy), the weak and the pained, this government is for them. To meet their aspirations and hopes, this is our responsibility because our weakest, poorest have sent us here," he declared.

So far, so good. But this should not obscure the reality that India has become a more polarised society than it ever was in the past 67 years not only in terms of the left-right political divide but - more ominously - culturally. The idea of Hindu supremacy - the notion that Hindustan belongs to Hindus first - has spread beyond the Hindutva fringe to include large swathes of the liberal Hindu middle class. Modi's promise of change and development may have been the primary factor behind his victory, but it cannot be denied that his campaign was greatly boosted by his carefully cultivated image of a "proud Hindu" ready to stand up to the namby-pamby liberal secular establishment. "Genuine" secularism demands that the government engage with Muslims and draw them into the mainstream. Congress-style secularism with its vote-bank politics may have been bad, but the alternative should not be a policy that regards addressing the special needs of a socially and economically emasculated religious group as minority appeasement.

The challenge before the Modi government is to give more substance to its slogans, 'Ek Bharat, shresht Bharat'; and 'Sab ke saath, sab ka vikas', and translate them into action so that the country's excluded groups ( not just religious minorities but all marginalised communities such as the Adivasis, Dalits and gays) feel a sense of belonging. Also Modi's vision of a new India needs to be spelt out more clearly. That will make it a lot easier to figure out the roadmap ahead. At the moment it is a bit hazy, and the view through the haze is of a country in a moment of big transition, but not quite clear about its direction.

Verdict 2014 signals a decisive break from the past, but the nature of the transition is still hazy.

(Hasan Suroor is the author of India's Muslim Spring: Why is Nobody Talking About It?)

First Published: Oct 01, 2014 08:21 IST