BJP supporters celebrate their party's election victory in the 2019 general elections in India. File/Reuters
ince becoming the Prime Minister five years ago Narendra Modi has been involved in a tireless round of foreign travels to win friends for the country and for himself.
Just before this year’s election in which he led his Bharatiya Janata Party to a successive second term,
The time has come for the party to consider whether imprudent utterances of its leaders and unruly ways of its rank and file are not negating the goodwill the Prime Minister is earning for the country.
Last month the US State Department, in its annual International Religious Freedom report, said Hindu groups had used violence, intimidation and harassment against Muslims and Dalits to force a religion-based national identity.
It linked the acts of violence, reported from different parts of the country, to inflammatory speeches of some senior BJP leaders and to government policies which interfere with the religious beliefs and practices of some groups.
This was not the first time that the misdeeds of Hindu groups had invited criticism from abroad. In 2017, the US-based Pew Research Center, which surveyed conditions in 198 countries, ranked India the fourth worst in the world in religious intolerance, after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq.
Last July, after 33 reported deaths in 70 mob attacks, the New York Times dubbed 2018 the Year of the Lynch Mob in PM Modi’s India. The critical remarks in the US official report upset the Modi establishment. Both the government and the party came up with responses, which were rather peevish. Neither was able to refute the contents of the report.
The External Affairs Ministry rejected the report. This made little sense since the report was a public document issued under a US Congressional mandate and not a communication addressed to the Indian government.
The Ministry said no foreign country had the right to criticise India’s record, overlooking the fact that the concept of sovereignty does not preclude nations from taking note of violations of human rights within each other’s borders. What’s more, external agencies often base their criticism primarily on reports originating from within a country.
Earlier this year Aakar Patel, Executive Director of the India chapter of Amnesty International, said his organisation had recorded a disturbing number of hate crimes against marginalised groups in 2018. United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet, in her annual report released later, wrote: “We are receiving reports that indicate increasing harassment and targeting of minorities – in particular Muslims and people from historically disadvantaged groups, such as Dalits and Adivasis.” She added that narrow political agendas were marginalising vulnerable people in an already unequal society and warned that divisive policies could undermine India’s economic growth.
The BJP’s response to the US report came from its media head Anil Baluni, MP, and was essentially a public relations exercise. He did not deny the reported cases of hate crime. He merely offered an alternative narrative.
Ignoring the US report’s references to mob attacks in the wake of rumours about beef eating and killing of cows, Baluni said most of the violent incidents were the result of local disputes and the perpetrators were people with criminal mindsets.
Whatever the motive behind the attacks, the assailants betrayed communal disposition in forcing the victims to shout slogans hailing a Hindu god. Sidestepping the charge about inflammatory speeches of BJP leaders, Baluni said the party was proud of its record in uplifting the living standards of all poor, underprivileged sections of the society, irrespective of faith and gender.
He asserted that the basic presumption in the US report that there was a grand design behind the anti-minority violence was false and added India had deep-rooted democratic institutions, including a fiercely independent and pro-active judiciary which was quite capable of handling such disputes and punishing the guilty.
This is a theoretical formulation which needs to be paired with the partisan role of the police, which have a critical role in the justice system. There have been instances of cops braving lynch mobs and rescuing the victims but they are exceptions rather than the rule.
Instances of the BJP rewarding pedlars of hate are far too many for the party to carry conviction on its professed faith in the principle of inclusive development.
The Prime Minister must rein in his belligerent supporters, in his own interest, before they cause more damage.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, July 9, 2019.