In a stirring address at Siri Fort, United States President Barack Obama reiterated the values of Indian democracy that most leaders in our current dispensation seem to have forgotten. Speaking at a gathering of mostly young Indians, Obama reminded his audience that the right to conscience was embedded into our constitution. The centrepiece of his speech, however, was a remark that said, ‘India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith’. Amidst all the frenzy surrounding the Indo-US nuclear deal and the alleged improvement in bilateral trade between both countries, Obama’s comments have dropped the microscope on Prime Minister Modi’s silence on issues of religious conversions and ‘Ghar Wapsi’ programmes led by right wing Hindu outfits against religious minorities. To reiterate his point of a shared secular ethos that exists between both secular republics, Obama recounted an incident in Wisconsin where a man went into a Sikh gurudwara and killed six innocent people, including both American and Indians. ‘In that moment of shared grief, the two countries reaffirmed the basic truth that we must again today’, he said. In a final stamp on the issue of religious tolerance, Obama said, such a ‘foundational value’ holds grave importance in India.
It took a much-maligned American president to remind the present dispensation of the secular values it must follow. Of course, one could point ‘hypocrite’ at Obama, considering how American Muslims are treated. This rationale, however, does not devalue the position Obama took in the larger Indian context. The Government of India’s Republic Day advertisement, therefore, according to some political commentators, exists in complete contrast to Obama’s words, despite the apparent bonhomie he shares with Prime Minister Modi. In the BJP-led government’s Republic Day advertisement, which was published across newspapers in India, an image of the preamble to the constitution was carried that omitted the words, ‘socialist and secular’. Even more telling, however, were the Indians that were represented on the advert. Under a quotation by Modi, which says, ‘A democracy can’t succeed without People’s participation’, you have Indians that either represent indigenous tribes or Hindus. The advert does not even have the standard skullcap wearing Muslim or a Sikh in turban. In their place are people with the traditional Hindu tilak marked on their heads and those in traditional tribal gear. These markers, some would suggest, are a clear indication of which way the present dispensation leans on in the debate surrounding religious tolerance. In earlier Parliamentary debates on the same, the BJP has on more than one occasion emphasised that the word ‘secular’ was added to the constitution after a latter amendment. It would be pertinent to state here that a latter amendment does not somehow invalidate the induction of ‘secular’ into the basic structure of our constitution.
Besides the present Indian dispensation, however, Obama also addressed the people of India in his comments on religious tolerance. These words hold greater relevance, especially in light of many comments that were made on social media against Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari’s decision not to salute the national flag, while the national anthem was playing. Many self-proclaimed defenders of the nation used their Republic Day holiday to lambast Ansari, calling him an ‘anti-India’ proponent, ‘jihadi sympathiser’, ‘traitor’, etc. Many in fact demanded that Ansari be impeached for his acts, forgetting that a salute was not required as per protocol. As per protocol, when the national anthem is played, only the principal dignitary and persons in uniform take the salute. Ansari, however, is not the only prominent Muslim, whose patriotism has been questioned. Bollywood actor Aamir Khan’s latest flick PK, which criticised Hindu godmen, saw a virulent backlash from members of the Hindu right, who suggested that the film received Pakistani funding. Strangely though, Paresh Rawal’s critique of Hindu godmen in another movie elicited no such questions. Sania Mirza’s success on the tennis court for India also apparently does absolve her of questions surrounding her patriotism, with some leaders in the BJP calling her ‘Pakistani’. Apparently religious minorities have to climb a higher wall to validate their ‘Indianess’.
The present dispensation in India has been unable to pass crucial legislation in Parliament. Other parties in the Rajya Sabha, where the BJP is a minority, have been up in arms against controversial religious conversion programmes conducted by elements in the Sangh Parivar, albeit as a political strategy to corner the government. Members of the Rajya Sabha have been demanding a statement from Prime Minister Modi on this particular issue. With global attention on the same growing after Obama’s speech, there is a feeling among certain political commentators that Modi cannot avoid the issue any longer, especially with his government’s Budget coming up. In such critical times, the national agenda cannot be hijacked by rabid Hindu elements and political opportunists. Prime Minister Narendra Modi must lead us into the light.