Pavan K. Varma, a Rajya Sabha member recently noted in a column that “the image of the country is not only about the size of its economy, or its future potential for economic growth. If India’s liberal and secular image is tarnished, there will be a global spillover. The world is watching India, and India must, therefore, watch itself.” It is a grain of wisdom from a veteran diplomat and author.
The question of India’s image is rightfully discussed in a context of the recently released 2015 annual report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). According to the report, India is listed along with 30 other countries as having “a systematic, ongoing and egregious” standard for failing to protect religious freedoms.
The five page report on India talked about a climate of impunity that perpetuates crimes against minorities and noted in particular the divisive campaign waged by the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) leading to the 2014 general election. The report went on to say that ‘Since the election, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked to the ruling BJP and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu Nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)’.
The USCIRF reports cites that Muslim, Christian and Sikh communities across India are experiencing increased harassment and violence from the extremists and hate mongers who are associated with RSS and VHP. The perpetrators often engage in physical violence, arson, desecration of religious places and disruption of religious services. ‘Local police seldom provide protection, refuse to accept complaints, rarely investigate, and in a few cases encouraged Christians to move or hide their religion’, the report added.
The report also talked about the so called “Ghar Wapsi’ program by Hindu Nationalist groups: a plan to forcibly “reconvert” at least 4000 Christian families and 1000 Muslim families to Hinduism in Uttar Pradesh on Christmas Day. It includes an appeal issued by the groups to raise money (US$ 3,200 per Christian and US $8000 per Muslim) to accomplish the deed.
The report not only indicts Modi Government for not reining in the Hindu Nationalist groups that are carrying out the attacks on the minorities but also recommends that issues of religious freedom must become a part of the US-India dialogue. It even went on further to urge: ‘increase the U.S. embassy’s attention to issues of religious freedom and related human rights, including through visits by the Ambassador and other officials to areas where communal and religiously-motivated violence has occurred or is likely to occur and meetings with religious communities, local government leaders, and police’.
On a recent visit to Germany, Mr. Narendra Modi told the audience that ‘India is a changed country now’. Obviously, he was not alluding to the ‘change’ that is currently underway in the secular and democratic space that has been quite unsettling to the minorities and creating the kind of reaction in the UNCIRF report. In Germany, of course, he was talking about the regulatory regime to reassure foreign investors who might have been looking for economic opportunities. According to press reports, however, some potential investors expressed concerns including those relating to the changing environment that could threaten political stability.
However, ever since Modi has assumed office, there appears to be a dual track in policy as well as governance. The Prime Minister excels in conveying India’s pride and its great traditions to his overseas audience. His recent address at the UNESCO headquarters in Paris, stated the following: “we will defend and protect the rights and liberty of every citizen. We will ensure that every citizen, of every faith, culture and creed has an equal place in our society; belief in our future; and the confidence to pursue it.” In a TIME magazine cover story Mr. Modi is quoted as saying “so far as the government is concerned, there is only one holy book, which is the constitution of India.” He went on to say that “my government will not tolerate or accept any discrimination based on caste, creed and religion.”
Often, it feels like, he is talking to the wrong audience. Once back home, he goes into a silent mode in the face of a spate of divisive and communal pronouncements by some of his colleagues that include few from his own cabinet. Inflammatory outbursts from the likes of Sakshi Maharaj and Giri Raj Singh have muddled decency in public discourse while Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and Sadhvi Prachi gained notoriety for bashing basic civility. Some of the vitriolic comments coming from the top are not only deeply embarrassing to India but even questioning the character, caliber and quality of the people who are representing an emerging India on the world stage. Not only has the Prime Minister failed to rebuke his cohorts, he even went ahead and formalized the institutionalization of RSS with its Hindutva philosophy right on the state-run media platform, Dooradarshan when he tweeted his endorsement of Mohan Bhagwat’s speech.
The Prime Minister having won a remarkable mandate from the people shouldn’t allow himself to look backwards and be drowned out in a regressive past; but rather he must be forward looking, with a consistent message at home and abroad. In short, the time has come for him to preach to his own ilk about inclusiveness and tolerance facing the entire world.
The Diaspora in the U.S. has a huge responsibility in conveying the message to the new BJP Government that it is seriously concerned about the USCIRF report. The NRIs and PIOs who live peacefully in this country should be just as enraged with the gross estrangement of the minority communities in India as they were with the wanton mistreatment of a visiting Indian grand father in Alabama by a law enforcement official!
(The writer is a former Chief Technology Officer of the United Nations and Chairman of the Indian National Overseas Congress, USA)
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