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The new rhetoric

It is perturbing the manner in which certain politicians have started talking of the Muslim community. Sometimes they seem to taunt them, on other occasions the tone is accusatory and occasionally it suggests they despise them.

india Updated: Feb 21, 2003 17:00 IST

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed but I think I can detect the beginning of an unfortunate tendency that is creeping steadily into our politics. Actually, it’s moving faster than that. It’s closer to a canter. But what disturbs me is not simply the fact of the matter, I’m also perturbed by the sort of people responsible for it. They are not ordinary Indians nor are they irresponsible politicians. They come from the very top of the totem pole. In fact, one of them is Mr Vajpayee himself.

I refer to the manner in which certain politicians have started talking of the Muslim community. Sometimes they seem to taunt them, on other occasions the tone is accusatory and occasionally it suggests they despise them. The common strand – and it’s as unmistakable as it’s unavoidable – is that Muslims are being picked upon.

The crude version, in the style of an akhara bully boy rolling up his sleeves and spoiling for a fight, is best represented by Narendra Modi. He sought and succeeded in demonising Muslims in many Gujarati Hindu eyes. He depicted them as fifth columnists who threaten our peace and security, as irresponsible people whose mindless breeding is responsible for the population explosion, as followers of Mian Musharraf and as potential terrorists. But even when he was not directly attacking them they remained in his sights. His rhetorical flourishes could not resist snide swipes at their expense. On the 19th of September, whilst criticising Congress, he managed to bring Islam and Muslims into his ambit: “I want to ask the Congress, why do you object if people on the banks of the Sabarmati derive spiritual peace through the Narmada waters brought in the month of Shravan? When you come to power you are free to bring water during Ramzan.” The reference to Ramzan betrays an attitude, may be even a personality trait, which delights in picking on Muslims. Bullies in school speak like this. It hardly becomes a chief minister.

One step better than Modi’s basic approach is what I call the clever version or, at any rate, cleverer. Oddly enough its proponent is Vinay Katiyar. In the guise of propagating the views of Ambedkar and with the intention of distancing some of her voters from Mayawati, he has found a more sophisticated way of pushing the Modi line on the Muslim community. Ambedkar, he claims, was in favour of a complete transfer of population at partition. In other words, all Muslims should have been sent to Pakistan. And if that wasn’t sufficient to convey his unsubtle message, Katiyar adds that in at least one of his books Ambedkar used the word “terrorist” to describe Muslims.

To be honest, I don’t know if this is a correct representation of Ambedkar’s views. It may well not be. But that hardly matters. Who, after all, is checking? What counts is the image Katiyar is conveying of the Muslim community. It’s simple and telling. To me it reads like this : it’s not just Indians today who have serious doubts about their Muslim compatriots, so too did the great men of the independence struggle including Ambedkar himself.

But the example of Muslim taunting I find most depressing – no, disillusioning – is that of Mr. Vajpayee. Three weeks ago I wrote about his inexplicable claim that Muslims had not in sufficient number criticised Godhra. Actually, he went further. He even appeared to suggest that the community has still not apologised for or accepted its mistake.

Had it been an isolated example it could have been forgivable or, at least, possible to forget. But it’s not. Sadly, picking on Muslims appears to have become his style. On the 5th January, whilst felicitating Dr Joshi on his 75th birthday, an occasion when the Muslim community and the alleged troubles it has caused us should have been as far from his thoughts as conceivable, this is what he suddenly and unprovoked had to say: “Joshi bhagvakaran nahin karenge to kya harakaran karenge? Bhagva hamari party ka rang hei, yagya aur aahuti ka rang hei.” (Actually, green is also a BJP colour but perhaps Mr Vajpayee prefers to forget that).

Now, doesn’t that sound worryingly like Mr Modi’s rhetoric about Shravan and Ramzan? One might have expected it of him but surely not of Mr Vajpayee? Yet if you think about it, it’s not the first time the PM has picked on Muslims. He did so in Goa in April and about the same time in Lucknow he seemed to say that the BJP could do without their votes.

One can make a silly mistake once, a man can get carried away by his similes and metaphors occasionally, but repeatedly and regularly? That’s why I call it a trend and why it disturbs me.

First Published: Feb 21, 2003 12:48 IST