NDA report card

Modi's one-year legacy: sharpening social conflicts, nervous religious minorities

Programmes like love jihad and ghar wapsi occurred against the backdrop of key state polls.

Regardless of the extent of its own culpability, the Modi government in its first year of existence has reinforced, even enhanced, all the dark fears the religious minorities have had about living under a Bharatiya Janata Party regime enjoying a majority of its own. This hasn’t been a surprise. But what has been is the sharp increase in social tensions involving classes and myriad pressure groups.

This is reflected in the binaries the Modi government has spawned over the last 12 months. We have farmers pitted against industrialists, workers raging against their employers, civil society groups upset with the Indian state, and women decrying moves of regressive elements to curb their right to free choice.

Yet, in many ways, the heating of India’s social plates should not have surprised. In the DNA of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh, from its very inception in 1925, are codes that transform its members into votaries of anti-minoritism and the idea that a hierarchical social order must be preserved.

Even under the supposedly liberal government of AB Vajpayee, Christians were set upon in tribal areas, and the Muslims of Gujarat became victim in 2002 of what many describe as a state pogrom. Nobody ever accused Vajpayee of complicity in the menacing of minorities, but just about everyone outside the Sangh thought his image was diminished because of his failure to control the hotheads of the parivar.

Electoral compulsions

This is just as true of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Nobody has accused him of masterminding the minority-bashing programme that has rocked the country through his first year. Yet, for a variety of reasons, he is considered complicit in the crafting of political programmes such as love jihad and ghar wapsi, largely because they occurred against the backdrop of elections.

True, BJP president Amit Shah had spoken of protecting the honour of bahu-beti during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. But vicious and virulent movement against so-called love jihad ‒ the alleged campaign by Muslim men to seduce Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam ‒ was launched during the weeks preceding the by-elections to 12 assembly seats in Uttar Pradesh in September. For the BJP, victories in in these by-elections were vital to bolster the perception that its stupendous performance in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections hadn’t been a fluke. However, the BJP was able to bag merely three seats in the by-elections.

Love jihad as an electoral technique was then cast aside for the ghar wapsi programme, which attempted to persuade Muslims and Christans to "come home" to the faith abandoned by their ancestors hundreds of years before. The ghar wapasi campaign had as its immediate backdrop the assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra and, subsequently, Jharkhand. In the era of 24x7 TV it doesn’t matter where precisely divisive political agendas are executed. The BJP ended up forming governments in all these three states. It was not a coincidence that several churches in Delhi were vandalised two months before the city-state went to polls. Concerted efforts were made to foment communal tensions in Delhi, one of which blew up into rioting in Trilokpuri.

This linkage between elections and the raising of communal temperature leads to an indubitable conclusion: Modi definitely did not  think the attempt to consolidate Hindus would hurt him or his party's poll prospects. He did not admonish the Hindutva provocateurs. Instead, he might have tacitly encouraged them through his decision to observe Good Governance Day on Christmas.

'Total protection'

It was only when the BJP lost Delhi ignominiously  in February that Modi spoke out against the anti-minority campaign. He chose a Syro-Malabar Catholic Church function to reiterate the “undeniable right” of people to “adopt or retain the religion” of their choice without coercion. In a recent interview to Time magazine, he reaffirmed his government’s intention to provide “total protection” to all communities, all of whom he said “have the same rights”.

Modi, however, was wide of the mark in his other claim to Time magazine – that “whenever a [negative] view might have expressed [about] a minority religion, we have immediately negated that”. He might have ticked off the Sangh radicals at 10 Race Course Road, but he had until recently desisted from expressing his disapproval against divisive politics in public, apart from speaking in Parliament against the lynching of a Muslim youth in Maharashtra early in his tenure.

It’s his silence that has been dismaying, not the least because he is arguably the most outspoken of all prime ministers over the last 25 years. Perhaps the RSS’s DNA explains his silence. Did he refrain from publicly criticising RSS-affiliated outfits only because he feared alienating the powerful pracharaks, who have started to resemble the apparatchiks of the yore? Or does his dual persona of being Hindu Hriday Samrat and Mr Development demands he remain silent to balance the contradictory pulls of groups supporting one of the two issues his personality now embodies.

These questions assume importance because of Modi’s own past. His role in the 2002 Gujarat riots has been ambiguous, to say the least. But what is undeniable was the manner in which he milked the riots and stereotyped the religious minorities to reap political dividends. Then again, he has been an RSS pracharak himself. His silence, therefore, was (or will be) construed as evidence of his complicity in the strategies of the RSS, infamous for speaking with a forked tongue.

Modi has now spoken out against the coercion against religious minorities. We will have to wait to see whether this restrains the Sangh from pursuing its brand of precipitous politics, particularly as Bihar goes to polls later this year, Assam in 2016, and Uttar Pradesh in 2017.

The din has quietened

Over the last one month, it must be said, the Sangh’s rabble-rousers have been quieter than before. Have his assertions about the rights of minorities and freedom of religion chastened Hindutva hotheads? Or is their silence largely because Parliament is in session, which in winter was often disrupted because of the intemperate remarks of BJP MPs? Or are they and the Sangh’s footsoldiers merely taking a break because there isn’t any election around the corner?

Divisive political programmes have social implications not immediately visible. For instance, so-called love jihad conceptually enables the family and community to curb gender intermingling and monitoring of girls. On top of it, a string of BJP MPs wanted Hindu women to give raise at least four children. This conservatism has been a grim reminder of the many humiliations rained on dating couples or girls dressed in a style perceived to be western. On the day Delhi voted, I heard two girls dissuading their mother from voting the BJP, arguing that its activists want to tether women to illiberal ideas.

We may feel heartened that Modi has spoken against the Hindutva storm troopers. Yet faith in his avowals, as of now, wears thin. He can’t speak of protecting all communities and yet have his government hound activist Teesta Setalvad for keeping alive the memory of those who perished in the 2002 riots – and for wresting justice for the survivors. Was it because of her the government has barred banks from dispersing without its prior approval the Ford Foundation funds to recipients? Modi, once again, has largely kept his counsel.

For Setalvad, though, the link is undeniable. As she told Outlook magazine recently, “We are targets as we have persistently tried to keep the battle for justice for survivors of 2002 flying. Strange isn’t it, a worldview built on false notions and historical misconceptions of Hindu ‘trauma’ can’t accept the need for acknowledgement, transpare­ncy and accountability for mass car­n­a­ges?”

Indeed, in sharpening other forms of social conflict, Modi’s role isn’t ambiguous at all. Though it was the United Progressive Alliance government that first brought the NGOs into its crosshairs, the freezing of bank accounts of Greenpeace India has been decidedly the Modi government’s decision.

The action against Greenpeace is an outcome of Modi’s philosophy of facilitating industry through a sweeping aside of all obstacles, including the resistance of activists to the flouting or relaxing of environmental norms. It’s also a signal to civil society groups of the price they might have to pay for opposing the government.

Ultimately, it is Modi’s worldview that has heightened social tensions. The ordinance facilitating easy acquisition of agriculture land for industry has deeply dismayed farmers, already reeling under declining productivity. The manner in which the land ordinance was promulgated speaks of the Modi government’s aversion to building consensus.

Next is the turn of industrial workers to get a blast from Modi’s ideological foundry. A slew of changes in labour laws is being contemplated, including allowing firms employing less than 300 employees to retrench workers without the government’s prior permission. As of now, this right is enjoyed by business concerns having less than 100 people on its rolls.

Paradoxical welfare schemes

Immensely welcome are the insurance and pension schemes the prime minister has announced recently, providing a modicum of security to a mass of people. Yet it appears a tad schizophrenic to allow employers to sack workers summarily and dispossess farmers to benefit industrialists in the present – and yet offer them the security of pension in the distant future.

The upshot of all the measures and responses of Modi over the last one year is to undermine steadily the conception of the Indian state being the neutral arbitrator of competing interests. Perhaps this neutrality of the Indian state has always been a fig-leaf. Nevertheless, for many, the Indian state now appears to be brazenly working for the rich and the middle class and siding with the majority religious community.

The twin tendencies of demonising the minorities and framing policies favouring the elite have often gone hand-in-hand around the world.  There is just no reason why India might prove different.

As civil society activists challenge the Modi’s government’s pushback, and farmers and workers find their interests sacrificed on the altar of Progress, communal consolidation could well become the knife for cutting the knots of unity citizens might forge in their discontent. That’s why any verdict on Modi’s avowals to Time magazine must wait till May 2016 or 2017.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist from Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, published by HarperCollins, is available in bookstores.

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