A conundrum called Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India.
(Written for Sueddeutsche Zeitung)
Let me start with an anecdote. Just a few months after Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, I got an invitation from the German Ambassador in India to meet Mr Steinmeier, the German Foreign Minister who was visiting India the next week. There were eight or nine other people at the meeting at 6.30 pm, novelists, journalists, curators, artists. The Foreign Minister admitted that Mr Modi had been the PM for only three months but he wanted to know our assessment of him and his contribution in cultural matters. We talked with him for about an hour and a half and were then invited to the Ambassador’s residence for dinner. I had agreed to go thinking that the dinner would be with the same lot who had met Mr Steinmeier with me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There were at least a hundred and fifty people there. It was not exactly my kind of scene and I went up to the Ambassador and told him that I was going back to the hotel.
He took me aside to a quiet corner and told me that he had no idea what to make of the day’s meetings. Throughout the day the Foreign Minister had met Indian industrialists who were gung-ho about the PM. And then he had met us and we had given the impression that what little we had seen of the PM did not augur well for the country. His choice of ministers in the cabinet, his pronouncements and actions had already shown that he stood for a brand of extremist Hinduism called Hindutva invented by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) which was intolerant of minorities, regressive and divisive and singularly against Nehruvian ideals. What was Mr Steinmeier, the Ambassador asked, to make of these utterly contrary views?
From humble beginnings as a chaiwala or a seller of tea and an RSS organizer Narendra Modi became the Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat in October 2001. Barely four months later on the 27th of February around 7.30 in the morning the Sabarmati Express stopped at the Godhra railway station in Gujarat. It was carrying hordes of RSS or Hindutva fanatics who were returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya where their colleagues had systematically razed the Babri Masjid to the ground a decade ago to build a temple to the god Ram. As the train left the station, it was stopped and one particular carriage purportedly locked from outside went up in flames killing 58 people. It was a tragedy that would mark Narendra Modi for all time since the Godhra deaths were publicized as a Muslim attack and were followed by some of the worst Muslim massacres since Partition. Anywhere between a thousand to two thousand Muslims were murdered in the state of Gujarat and nearly a hundred thousand displaced.
The 2002 Gujarat riots had serious consequences. The US and the majority of European countries declared the Chief Minister persona non grata. But at home in Gujarat he was re-elected thrice to the same post. On May 27th 2014 he became the 15th Prime Minister of India.. For nearly twelve years Modiji had suffered humiliation at the hands of the developed countries especially the U.S. In September 2014 the PM of India got his sweet revenge. President Obama welcomed him to the White House with open arms, and they managed to be on a first name basis. It’s amazing what wonders loads of new business opportunities and inflows of money can achieve.
Much of the credit for the BJP and Narendra Modi winning so emphatically must go to the Congress Party and its President Sonia Gandhi. Corruption rose to incredible heights under Congress rule. Nobody starting from Mrs Gandhi, her party leaders and the rank and file could possibly have missed the writing on the wall. But they seemed to have been in a state of paralysis and didn’t make any move to drastically alter this parlous state. Little wonder then the election of Narendra Modi symbolized a return of hope and a new beginning.
In his first Independence Day address on the 15th of August 2014 the PM made a curious statement. He sought a moratorium on inter-religious friction for the next ten years. What was that supposed to mean? That the Hindus and Muslims had to lie low for ten years and then it would be fine if they went for each other’s throats? Soon afterwards the RSS and its affiliates went into overdrive alienating the minorities. They’ve been busy cooking up many schemes like ghar wapasi (returning home). Those who had left the Hindu fold to join Islam or Christianity would be forcibly reconverted to the original faith. Another such fabricated scheme was love-jehad accusing Muslim youths of tricking Hindu women into marriage only to convert them to Islam. These women too would be brought back to Hinduism.
It’s now over 19 months since Mr Modi became PM. He has prodigious energy and is tireless in earning goodwill for the country and promoting Indian economic interests abroad. As a matter of fact just last week or so on his way back from Kabul, he paid the Pakistani Prime Minister an impromptu visit and wished him a happy birthday and won over many Pakistanis with this goodwill gesture. If he and the Pakistani PM cancarry on secret backroom negotiations, erhaps one day we might end up being friendly neighbours. The question is why do his sharp mind, insights and diplomatic skills so often fail him at home? Oddly enough since he became P. M., instead of being self-assured and carrying the entire subcontinent with him, he and his party men have assumed a siege mentality for reasons beyond comprehension. Most of the time, he remains behind a metaphorical veil. He’s available for long exhausting election campaigns and ‘veni, vidi, vici’ foreign visits. It’s doubtful if any head of state in the world has travelled even a quarter as much as Mr Modi since he became PM. But he’s almost never present in his own parliament. Very, very rarely does he talk to the media and the populace of the country is supposed to be grateful for his one-sided radio talks without any Q and A. The conclusion one is forced to draw is that this is a PM who thinks he is not accountable to his people.
The PM most glaring failures have been in the field of secularism, education, the freedom of speech, the protection of minorities like Muslims and Christians. There is one other problem. As one of his own party men has pointed out there is a shortage of talent in the pool available in the RSS. But that is not the whole story. The PM’s choice of people to lead various ministries is often dubious, or rather disastrous. The fact that the Ministers of Human Resources (read education) or Culture are not highly educated is not the issue. The problem is that they have no vision or a solid grasp of the field they are appointed to. They are unable to grow in the job and their sole compass is their RSS background.
Let me take a minor but peculiar example. In contemporary India there is only one culture: Bollywood. Like it or not it’s a multi-billion dollar industry with an international sweep. The BJP government, as its wont, appointed a BJP man as the head of the Censor Board, a former film producer called Punkaj Nihalani. The man has managed to alienate not merely his own RSS colleagues with his bizarre decisions but the entire film industry. But here’s the best part. After watching the latest Bond film Spectre, Nihalani has now declared precisely how many seconds a kiss will be allowed to be shown on the screen.
Unfortunately, the PM, himself seems unable to distinguish between faith, on the one hand and science on the other. While inaugurating one of the state-of-the-art hospitals in the country, the PM spoke about how advanced Indian science was two or three thousand years ago. It appears we were into stem cell research then. Not just that we had highly advanced transplant technology. What better proof could we ask for than Ganesh, the elephant-headed god with the human torso, he queried? No, he was not being facetious.
The Hindutva folks by and large hero-worship Narendra Modi but there has not been any substantial and sustained resistance to the PM’s style of ruling or to its substance from the rest of the citizenry either. Oddly enough the first protests and resistance emanated from the community of literary writers from the country’s various languages. Briefly here’s what happened: three distinguished authors, one each from Pune, Kolhapur and Bangalore were murdered in broad daylight between 2013 and 2015. They were all rationalists who fought the stranglehold of superstition and blind faith and the conmen called gurus and babas in India. The third, M.M. Kalburgi was an award winner from the Sahitya Akademi, the prestigious literary institution in India. The violence didn’t stop there. Perumal Murugan, the Tamil novelist with his remarkable body of work received so many dire threats from his own community and the RSS, that he announced his own death, meaning he would cease writing altogether, and take all his novels off the market. There was an obvious pattern here: the rabid section of believers in Hindutva were hell-bent on eliminating all those authors who fought the regressive, orthodox Hindu world of superstition and prejudice.
The one institution and the one person along with the governing committee who should have stood up and focused the country’s and especially media’s attention on these murders was the head of the highest literary body in India, the Sahitya Akademi’s President, Dr. Vishwanath Prasad Tiwari. After all the Akademi is the primary keeper and guardian of literature in our country. But Dr. Tiwari’s sole response was to ignore the matter. As a fellow-writer, he should have known what a terrible price Perumal Murugan had had to pay. For a writer not to write was as good as asking him not to breathe. But oddly enough it didn’t seem to bother the President of the Akademi.
The Prime Minister’s reaction to the murders was the famous–or is it the right word infamous–golden silence. When cornered he washed his hands off like Pontius Pilate on the ground that it was a state subject. Indeed it was. But how could he have forgotten that he was the P M of the whole country and the people looked up to him as their moral compass especially since the RSS and its many offshoots harbored extremely dark and bellicose superstitious beliefs. Was one to believe then that Modiji too shared these regressive and dangerous views?
But there’s another unrelated wrinkle that acted as the trigger for the writers’ protests. Out of the blue the government banned the sale and consumption of beef. Not only does the Hindutva brigade consider the cow holy, there have been demands that the cow replace the notion of Mother India and be made the mother of the country. Suddenly the self-righteous RSS mobs began to take the law into their own hands and accuse and punish individuals at random. The climactic event in this ghastly persecution occurred in Dadri, a township close to Delhi. The temple priest spread the rumour that Mohammed Akhilaq, a resident of Dadri had beef in his fridge. A group of people attacked the Akhilaq home, murdered Mohammed and critically wounded his son and set his house on fire. For weeks the P M refused to make a statement on this kind of terrifying persecution based on false information. And when he did finally speak, it was to call the incident ‘sad’ and leave it there.
It was at this point in time that two authors, Ajay Prakash and then Nayantara Sehgal took it upon themselves to protest the Sahitya Akademi’s unwillingness to highlight and fight for its authors and the P M’s indifference to the plight of minorities. Over a few weeks forty authors from different parts of the country writing in different languages and mostly unacquainted with the other writers, joined the original protest by returning their awards. Soon scientists, historians, thinkers and sociologists joined the writers’ protests. The response from the Centre was either so cynical as to be insensitive beyond belief or vicious and utterly mendacious. The Minister for Culture called Akhilaq’s murder an accident and later went on to say that if the community of authors was so unhappy, they were welcome to stop writing. Thing got so embarrassing that the Home Minister warned ministers to avoid all loose talk. Almost immediately afterwards V K Singh, the Minister of State for External Affairs who suffers from an acute case of the foot-in-the-mouth disease said the authors were all on the take and had been paid off.
The real surprise was the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley’s shocking accusations in a Facebook blog: ‘The new strategy of anti–Modi, anti–BJP sections appears to be to resort to “politics by other means”. The easiest way is to manufacture a crisis and subsequently manufacture a paper rebellion against the Government in the wake of a manufactured crisis.’
What is one to make of these false accusations blaming authors of a conspiracy. What has happened to civilized discourse? In the last few months freedom of speech has indeed gone for a toss. Is the Central government so insecure and paranoid that Mr Modi’s second closest confidant goes public with these risible charges? Can the P M not see how much damage these fake accusations are doing him and the country? The PM’s equation is simple: if you are not with the PM and his agenda, you are against the country. Green Peace has been fighting against one of the PM’s favourite obsessions: nuclear power plants. Imagine forcing a Green Peace member headed for London to see British Parliamentary members to deplane at Delhi airport because she would be indulging in anti-national activities. The government’s game plan right now is to debar Green Peace from operating in India along with many other NGO’s
The ruling party’s intolerance is legendary by now. Their primary strategy is censorship. The RSS’s and the PM’s top bête noir is our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Despite the fact that last year was his one hundred and twenty-fifth birth anniversary, there’s been a complete blackout on him. Even Gandhiji is trotted out only to back the PM’s laudable cleanliness campaign. But here too it’s never mentioned that he didn’t merely sweep his environs but also cleaned toilets. What is truly shocking is that the national narrative of India’s unique freedom struggle is never spoken of, referred to and is deliberately blanked out since the RSS fought for Hindutva supremacy. And yet they prefer to distort history and spread the canard that Gandhiji and Nehru were responsible for the partition of the country. No other country in the world won its freedom, and that too against the mightiest empire in the world, the way India did through Gandhiji’s concept of a totally non-violent civil disobedience movement. And what did he get in return? He was shot dead by a Hindutva firebrand, Godse. It might be hard to believe this but Godse is now a national hero and the RSS has been talking for over a year or more of building temples to this man who murdered the father of the nation.
The very idea of India as a democratic, secular polity where every citizen’s human rights are guaranteed by the constitution is Nehru’s. Unlike Pakistan and most of the other third world countries, the military is subservient to the civilian government in India. It is to Jawaharlal Nehru’s credit that he was able to persuade both the literate and the illiterate population of the country to live by these highly worthy goals.
Forty years after the end of WWII, the German President Weizsaeker had said in a remarkably wise speech that ‘… anyone who closes his eyes to the past is blind to the present. Whoever refuses to remember the inhumanity of their past, is prone to new risks of infection.’ Both the Prime Minister Modi and the Hindutva devotees should ponder these extraordinarily significant words and decide what they seek for the subcontinent.
*The article has been published here with the Author’s permission