The Big Story: Touching faith

On the face of it, there is little in common between Zahid Hamid, who was Pakistan’s Federal Law Minister until Monday, and Rahul Gandhi, vice-president of India’s largest Opposition party.

Yet, in a curious coincidence, political debate in their countries walked the same path this fortnight as both these figures were accused of concealing their true religious identities for political gain. Hamid was attacked for going soft on the Ahmadis, a religious group whose members identify as Muslim even as Pakistani law refuses to accept them as such. They are have frequently been the target of vicious violence from other Muslims in Pakistan, who see the Ahmedi creed as heretical. This resulted in a siege Islamabad last week as clerics demanded Hamid’s resignation, suggesting that he was Ahmedi himself. Alarmed, the minister released a video message denouncing the Ahmedi creed. He resigned a little while later.

Meanwhile in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party jumped up to accuse Rahul Gandhi of not being Hindu. This claim was based on an allegation that Gandhi had registered as a non-Hindu when he visited the Somnath temple on Wednesday. Amit Malviya, the head of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Information and Technology cell, accused both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi of not being Hindus, asking rhetorically, “Gandhis lying about their faith?”

Large parts of the media took the BJP’s cue to make this a major news point on Wednesday. Zee News asked if “Rahul Gandhi is not proud to be a Hindu” and Times Now conducted its prime time debates with the hashtag #RaGaSomnathSelfGoal. Republic TV bluntly asked #RahulGandhiHinduorCatholic even as the Times of India ran with the story on their front page on Thursday. Amidst this, an anchor on CNN News 18 declared categorically that he was a “proud Brahim and proud Hindu”.

Alarmed at this charge, the Congress refuted the allegation on social media and even held a press conference. Like Hamid a few weeks earlier, the Congress sought to reassure people about Gandhi’s faith and even his caste. A senior Congress leader said that not only was Gandhi a Hindu but a “janeu dhari”, a Hindu who wore the sacred thread that would mark him out as a Brahmin.

The accusation that Gandhi had registered as a non-Hindu was later found to be false – a fact backed up even by the temple.

That, of course, is hardly the point. The real concern is how easily controversies about religious heresy and excommunication have come to find takers in India. This phenomenon is witnessed frequently across the border but is new for India. While religion has been part of Indian politics for some time, the manufactured controversy around Rahul Gandhi’s faith represents a new level of cynicism: even the personal religious beliefs of leaders have now become fodder for their rivals.

Centering politics around religious hysteria has few benefits, as Pakistan’s experience shows quite clearly. The BJP is pulling out all stops to win this month’s Gujarat election. But its decision to infuse debates about religious heresy and personal faith into mainstream politics will have an impact that will go far beyond just one election.

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Punditry

  • Pakistan’s original sin: It is its treatment of Ahmedis. It needs to overcome that anxiety to liberate itself on several fronts, writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta in the Indian Express.
  • India’s reticence on the Rohingya crisis undermines its democracy and global standing, argues Suhasini Haidar in the Hindu.
  • Do Gujarati Patidars “constitutionally” qualify for reservation, asks Alok Prasanna Kumar in Bloomberg Quint.

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