Dear Prime Minister Modiji,
On March 17, you outdid yourself on the first day of the World Sufi Forum hosted in Delhi. What could one say except “What a speech, how moving.” You had done your homework and you obviously have total recall (it would also be interesting to find out who your speechwriters are) but the fact remains that you are able to reproduce their amalgam of fact and rhetoric into an extempore mix.
This is what you said:
“Welcome to a land that is a timeless fountain of peace, and an ancient source of traditions and faiths, which has received and nurtured religions from the world. Welcome to a people with an abiding belief in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, the world is one family.”
Let me not resent the liberties you took with our past but pass it off as your version of Indian history. The list of the saints you name and quote is like a who’s who in not just the Indian Sufi world but the whole international Sufi heritage – the Persian poet-philosopher Sadi, and Delhi’s own Mehboob-eh-Ilahi, Hazarat Bakhtiyar Kaki and Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. You also referred to Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, Bulleh Shah, Baba Farid, Amir Khusrau, Maulana Hussain Madani, Jalaluddin Rumi, Guru Nanak, Buddha, the Guru Granth Sahib, Mahavir, and Mahatma Gandhi. And you ended with the timeless prayer “Om shanti, shanti, shanti.”
You had some genuinely wise things to say, like: “We must reject any link between terrorism and religion. Those who spread terror in the name of religion are anti-religious.”
What noble sentiments. Now here’s a prime minister that I felt we could all be proud of. And yet there was this low whisper telling me again and again something that the British Underground, along with the local train stations in Mumbai, have told us for years – mind the gap, mind the gap, mind the gap. That is the gap between the trains and the platforms where so many fall and are injured or die. In your case, Prime Minister it’s the credibility gap – the chasm between your wonderful words and zero action.
Let me quote your very words:
“… It is through openness and enquiry, engagement and accommodation, and respect for diversity that humanity advances, nations progress and the world prospers.”
What sane words. You remind me of Bhishma Pitamah from the Mahabharata at such times. You speak as wisely as the noble son of Shantanu. And just like him, when it’s time to take a stand and back your words with concrete action, you retreat into silence and let the other leaders do the dirty work and take the blame. Or even worse, you pretend what is happening has nothing to do with you. You will recall that just a day after you spoke at the World Sufi Forum, your Minister of State for Human Resource Development, Ram Shankar Katheria, addressed a crowd of 5,000 in Agra. The Times of India reported that Katheria had demanded the withdrawal of hate speech cases against BJP and VHP leaders in Agra. "If these cases are not withdrawn within the assured time, then Agra would witness a different Holi," Katheria was quoted as saying. If this is the minister for education, the good Lord may not be able to help the students of Jawaharlal Nehru University or any other university.
The minister was referring to arrests made after several Bharatiya Janata Party and Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders, including Katheria, made inflammatory speeches at a condolence meeting of a Vishwa Hindu Parishad worker in Agra in February. The worker was murdered, allegedly by a Muslim. At the condolence meeting, the BJP and VHP leaders equated Muslims with demons. VHP’s district secretary Ashok Lavania called for murder. “Revenge for the killing of one brother, demands the killing of 10 rakshas,” he said. After protests following the hate speeches, FIRs were finally lodged against BJP leader and corporator Kundanika Sharma and three others. There was none against Katheria since, like his seniors, he claimed he never said anything against the Muslims. It is these cases that Katheria now wants withdrawn.
The American effect
Have you heard Strange Fruit, a song that Billie Holiday, perhaps the most famous black jazz singer from the United States, sang? And each time she did, she broke down. I must confess I had no idea what she was talking about for the longest time.
Here are the lyrics of Strange Fruit, Prime Minister:
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop.
She was of course singing a dirge for all those black victims of lynchings by white supremacists. Oddly enough, we who are so fond of emulating the American way of life – that country’s fixation with free markets and the 1% who earn far more than what at least 50% of the population does – seem to have now decided to copy some of the worst American values when it comes to our minorities.
As you are well aware, earlier this month in Jharkhand, Mohammmad Majloom, 35, and Inayatullah Khan, 12, were gagged, their hands and legs tied and they were hung from a tree after being beaten with sticks and strangled.
Majloom was a trader escorting a few cattle to the market with the son of another cattle trader. The police think that the duo were murdered because the culprits wanted to steal their cattle. But they are also investigating the connection that one of the killers had with the Gau Raksha Samiti. If theft was the only reason, then one can – by a far-fetched stretch of the imagination – understand the murders. But the manner in which the man and boy were gagged, their bodies strapped and strung on the trees suggests a vile and violent hatred of the two.
Is it possible to talk to you, Modiji? After all you are not the Prime Minister of just the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bharatiya Janata Party and its affiliates but of all the people of India. These people elected your party to power. We may not see eye-to-eye on some matters, a few of them very sensitive and crucial, but that’s all the more reason for us to sit down and have a conversation instead of a one-way Mann ki baat, or your preferred see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil stance.
Where does this violence come from? Not just the bloodthirsty violence in Muzaffarnagar, Dadri and other places but the violence in speech? Why this insecurity when you won fair and square with an overwhelming majority? Why this continuous victim-syndrome as Pratap Bhanu Mehta pointed out recently – whether it’s the Finance Minister, Arun Jaitley, accusing Sahitya Akademi’s award-winning authors of “manufacturing protests” for returning their awards or your Human Resources Development Minister Smriti Irani insisting that the Jawaharlal Nehru University students were guilty of sedition even when she knew very well that the video footage had been doctored? What was the need for Rajnath Singh to retweet a fake Twitter handle that suggested that Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba chief Hafiz Saeed had supported the so-called seditious events at JNU in February?
Why this demand for every Indian to prove his or her loyalty to our country by saying Bharat Mata ki Jai? I’m sure, Prime Minister, you don’t want to hear these words spoken by all those who have defrauded our country of thousands of crores, or have stabbed it in the back, and yet have the gall to swear their loyalty to Bharat Mata. Why fear the freedom of thought encouraged by the best universities? Why must those who don’t fall in line with the tenets and theology of the ruling party be demonised? One thing that has bothered me for a long time (and let me clarify quickly that it has nothing to do with you) is a legacy of the previous government in Maharashtra. Perhaps you can help us in this matter. Here in Maharashtra, the national anthem is sung before every film shown in the theatres. Often, this happens before the audience is about to watch some dreadful Hollywood blockbluster like Deadpool or a mindless Bollywood song-and-dance extravaganza. If this is not a travesty of our anthem, I don’t know what is. Along with the rest of the country I sang Jana Gana Mana full-throated for the first time on the two most important days in our nation’s history – on August 15, 1947, and on January 26, 1950. Let us honour our flag and our national anthem and not invoke them so meaninglessly as if we do not understand the significance and the history of our unique non-violent, freedom struggle.
Surely we can talk about these points without getting defensive or seeing some devious traitorous intent behind these questions.
But let me come to an issue that has been on my mind, and that I have wanted to share with you for several months. Let me repeat an old adage you may be familiar with: every action has a reaction. So far the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bajrang Dal, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and many of its other incarnations have initiated various schemes to harass and victimise minority communities like the Muslims and Christians through their love jihad, ghar wapsi, bahu lao, beti bachao tactics.
It is these Hindutva groups that helped fan a frenzy around the slaughter of cows and eating beef, often in states where the slaughter of cows and consumption of beef had already been banned. Sometimes, this hysteria has tragic consequences. Last year, the farm labourer, Mohammad Akhlaq, in Dadri near Delhi, was falsely accused of having beef in his fridge. He and his youngest son were beaten with bricks by a Hindu mob. Akhlaq succumbed to the murderous attack while his son was critically injured. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government in Maharashtra also banned the sale of old cattle with the result that the already beleaguered Indian farming community was driven further into penury and often to suicide.
How come, Dear Prime Minister, you have not read the riot act to your Islamophobic ministers, legislators, parliamentarians or the rest of the Parivar even once since you came to power? Some folks believe that it is because of these tirades and hate-filled actions that the BJP did not win the Delhi and Bihar elections, and predict that the elections in the four or five states due in the coming months will not be a walkover. I am no oracle but I know one thing for sure, your voter base is very strong.
Modiji, you are an astute politician and statesman. Can you not see that actions as well as the lack of action have consequences especially in these dark times? Surely you are familiar with the proverb “as you sow, so shall you reap”. As I said earlier even silence has consequences. I cannot and will not believe that you want to alienate our Muslim brothers and sisters across the subcontinent and make the country one of the best recruiting centres for the Islamic State. So why have you not stopped this persecution of our own Muslim citizens?
I have heard many experts opine on television that our intelligence agencies are doing a fine job of keeping track of those Muslims who wish to join the Islamic State. I am glad to hear that but complacency would be a prescription for disaster. I have also heard them say authoritatively that our Muslim community will never really join the Islamic State in any substantial numbers. That is a marvelously myopic statement. As we have seen time and again, including the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai and the latest attack in Brussels, you don’t need large numbers, you need just three to seven efficient and focused operatives to execute a deadly attack. Secondly, anyone with a little common sense will tell us that no community however small will have infinite patience and forbearance if continually provoked and prodded, and made to live in tension and fear. No, there will come a point when it will feel it has nothing to lose and strike back.
But here is the crux of the matter. Why in God’s name and in the name of our Constitution are we so hell-bent on offending a huge chunk of India’s own citizenry? The most important principle of secularism is to take everybody along. Muslims like Dalits, have had a rough deal long enough. We have to open the doors to state-of-the-art education for them and make sure that they find suitable employment. It is our responsibility to erase the ignorance and superstition that Kabir and the other bhakti saints saw as the root cause of all our ills. We must welcome an open wide-as-the-sky mindset so that no Indian is left behind.
Come, Prime Minister Modiji, live up to your own words and show us the way to be together whatever our different faiths, agnosticism or atheism.