Nearly two weeks ago, a violent and barbaric lynching episode in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, shattered the peace in what had until then been a harmonious community where Hindus and Muslims celebrated festivals together.
A few days after this incident, far away from Bisada, a mass shooting occurred in the United States. Within hours of the shooting, President Barack Obama reacted with a statement characterised with a deep anger and frustration about the repeated acts of gun violence in the US.
Unlike Obama, though, Prime Minister Narendra Modi reacted to the savagery in Dadri after 10 days had passed. The intervening period witnessed commentators from across the political spectrum urging him to respond and condemn the act. When the PM did finally respond, he urged Hindus and Muslims to fight poverty instead of fighting each other, and called on people to ignore controversial statements made by politicians for political gains.
Commentators have complained about the Prime Minister’s response being ‘too little’ and ‘too late’. But this is not the primary issue here. The main issue — as the Dadri incident should remind us — is how fragile our secular tenets have become that any provocation can damage the equilibrium of our society.
The PM must send a strong message to his colleagues both in the government and the party, who must be held accountable for enforcing law and order, and uphold the unique secular pillars upon which our nation was founded. Government leaders must be cognisant of their role in this task, and be admonished when they make controversial statements that prevent this unity and harmony.
As the past two weeks have demonstrated, the government seems ill-equipped to address issues like the one in Dadri. The discourse following the event became dominated by radical elements within the government, making it take an unfortunate communal tone. Several BJP leaders — including the Union minister for culture and tourism Mahesh Sharma, MP Tarun Vijay, MLA Sangeet Som, and district president Thakur Harish Singh — added to the vitriol by making troubling and immature statements. When such statements are made with such frequency, they can no longer be considered ‘fringe’ opinions. Ignoring them only gives them credibility, and causes a cult to be built around radical ideas that allow communal tensions to be stoked.
Some months ago, the PM had promised that his government would ensure “complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence”. Unfortunately, since the NDA government came to power 17 months ago, the words and actions of several of its leaders have gone against this promise.
It is important to note that incidents like Dadri cannot be viewed — and indeed, do not happen — in isolation. They need to be seen in terms of a larger ecosystem that has been created, one that threatens the secular fabric of the country.
Earlier this year, an advertisement issued by the government on Republic Day featured the Preamble to the Constitution, without the word ‘secular’.
An MP from the Shiv Sena welcomed this exclusion: “The country is of Hindus and belongs to them. People of all religions can live in India but Hindus will dominate.” There have also been myriad reports about attacks on churches, and instances of forced religious conversions to Hinduism by Right-wing organisations under the ambit of the ‘ghar wapsi’ programme.
These incidents have, of course, been accompanied by the venomous speeches made by BJP leaders such as Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, who sought to polarise voters during the Delhi elections, and then more recently stated that Hindu women should not marry men from other communities. Similarly, Sakshi Maharaj — among numerous regressive and radical statements — urged Hindu women to each produce four children to counter the high birth rate among Muslins.
The government has failed to rein in such elements. Is this part of some hidden agenda? Moreover, only a few weeks ago,
we saw several top ministers from the government making presentations, explaining policies and justifying their performance to RSS leaders. What message does such servility towards an organisation with a divisive agenda send out about the government’s allegiances? If anything, all of these actions taken together are only bringing back the religious motivations of the party to the fore.
All these events need to be viewed together. In fact, the key problem isn’t the response to the Dadri episode. The real issue is the toxic environment that has been created by the government and its representatives over the past few months. It is in such an environment where pictures of meat and bones circulated via WhatsApp can spread across a village, and lead to a violent attack on a family. And it is indeed in such an environment that leaders continue to think it appropriate to make speeches that stoke communal tensions.
Moving forward, it is critical that representatives of the government measure their words and recognise their grave consequences for the social fabric of our country. It is also urgent that tangible disciplinary action is taken against leaders who incite communal hatred. From a law and order perspective, the government must address how its goal of a Digital India will be balanced alongside the propensity of people to use social media and technology to fuel rumours and aggravate situations. When ‘trolling’ moves beyond provocative words to incite murder, we as a nation need to be worried. Really worried.
If the NDA government does indeed want to increase foreign direct investment and attract multinationals to ‘Make in India’, it must first ensure that it upholds the pluralistic nature of our democracy and facilitate for all of India’s own people the ability to ‘Live in India’.
Jyotiraditya Scindia is an MP and the Congress party’s chief whip in Lok Sabha. The views expressed are personal.