Monday, February 2, 2015
In the end, in one astonishing moment, with no prior warning of any kind, Barack Obama changed the entire narrative of his triumphant India visit. Out of public reckoning went nuclear deals and defence pacts and investment schemes and climate negotiations; in came, of all things, religion. For reasons that will probably never be known, the US President got into a warning mode. India would only succeed, he said, if it did not splinter along religious lines. He talked of the rights guaranteed by the Constitution, of everyone's right to practise any faith or no faith at all without fear or discrimination, of no society being immune from the darkest impulses of man. With words as sharp as knifepoints, Obama jumped straight into the vortex of the controversies raging in India over communal polarisation, hate speeches, vapasi conversions and the lot.
It was a parting shot from Obama. Argumentative Indians immediately began speculating why he said what he said. Reflecting their own ideological leanings, some said it was a timely warning to Hindutva extremists, others said Obama was speaking to the extremist constituency in his own country. A television frequenter of the BJP went ludicrous when he said that Obama was sending a message to the Owaisis of Hyderabad and to Digvijay Singh. The thickness of party spokesmen is a marvel of our times.
Interestingly, no one has talked about a possible Modi hand in the Obama act. Yet, can such a likelihood be ruled out? Narendra Modi is the shrewdest politician in today's India. It is generally believed that he is unhappy about the Hindutva zealots creating confusion and resentment across the country and diverting attention from the development agenda he is trying to focus on. For internal party reasons, he has been unable to publicly chastise the hatemongers. Can it be that he encouraged the idea of a public chastisement by his friend Barack so as to strengthen his position vis a vis the zealots in his party? We will get a clue if the fanatic fringe now goes into silent mode. If they don't and Modi continues to keep mum about their divisive actions and statements, then we'll have to conclude that Obama consciously chose to express world concern about growing communalism in India even at the risk of appearing to interfere in the domestic politics of his host country.
Communalism has been a feature of public life in India from before independence. But it remained under control for decades, including during the prime ministership of A.B. Vajpayee. The BJP's triumph last year, however, made extremist Hindutva elements feel free to translate their extremism into practice with immunity. It is no secret that Indian industry was dismayed by the potential impact rising communal unrest could have on the country's business climate. It is now clear that those worries are shared by friendly countries abroad as well. Perhaps Obama was being a good friend in drawing attention to the problem in a manner that was impossible to ignore.
But he as well as fundamentalists and liberals in India must know that communalism is a many-headed hydra. The excesses of the Dalit-turned-Christian IAS officer C. Umashankar highlight this in disturbing ways. A committed Bible preacher, he is vehement in his argument that his constitutional rights supercede his service rules. His supporters say, for example, that Hindu IAS officers attend pujas during office hours. The comparison is self-defeating. Umashankar can go to church even during office hours if he wishes. But it is altogether different if he insists on holding evangelical meetings with a dogmatic assertion that the Bible alone is true. It is humanly impossible for such a fanatical believer to take administrative decisions that are neutral and fair. When Umashankar says that as he prays people are cured of their illnesses, what is the difference between him and Praveen Togadia who says that development is meaningless without Hindu rashtra? In fact Umashankar is more dangerous than Togadia because he has power while Togadia is all bombast. If Umashankar has the courage of his conviction, the first thing he should do is to leave the IAS. You cannot serve God and mammon (Mathew 6:24).
How timely was Obama's cautionary note about the dangers of India splintering. Jesus Christ will survive the evangelical Umashankars, just as Ram will survive the politicised Ram bhakts. The big question is whether India will survive with sufficient energy to pay attention to Modi's development mantra. The answer lies with Modi - for a while yet.