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What PM Modi Said At Bali - Versus The Reality


Returning to India after a 30-month exile imposed by Covid, I am struck by the helpful attitude of people. I've run into multiple scenes of strangers offering support to those needing it on trains and at stations and airports, and I have personally received assistance. But there is another picture too.

"When our daughter calls from the Metro, she no longer says Khuda Hafiz at the end. We've asked her not to." So I was told by a highly-regarded Delhi professor, the father of a teen college student.

Some days later at Pune airport, I found myself standing next to an old man who, like me, was waiting for his checked bag. His beard and cap announced his Muslimness. As it had been a tiring flight for everyone, I asked him how he was doing. "Bhagwan ki kirpa hai," he replied. "I am fine." In earlier times he would probably have spoken of Khuda or Allah or Uparwala.

Some may feel triumphant as a growing number of Muslims dilute or even erase their identity or conform to Hindu usage. I cannot. To me it is a matter of shame, not pride, that many of my compatriots feel that they cannot be themselves.

Before arriving in Bali for the G20 gathering, Prime Minister Modi said that India wished to share with the world "Our mantra of One Earth, One Family, and One Future". A lovely vision, but within India, the national family is split. While many in the majority community seem pleased that Muslims are being shown their place, the latter are anxious about what's in store for them.

Not without reason. Karnataka's BJP government seems to have announced that saffron will be the colour of 8,000 new classrooms in government schools across the state. To Hindus saffron is a venerable colour, and some parents may be glad that their children will be surrounded by that dye in school. However, the project is not only unconstitutional in any plain reading; it also seems calculated to humiliate Muslims and Christians.

Says BK Hariprasad, a senior Congress leader in Karnataka: "The government schools and colleges are run by taxpayers' money and the education minister has no business to confine it to one religion. He's trying to polarise and communalise the education in the state. That is not acceptable."

The state government's defence is that the classroom expansion scheme is called "Viveka" after Swami Vivekananda; since the Swami wore a saffron robe, it is appropriate, says the defence, to give that colour to the new spaces. The argument is unconvincing. Vivekananda's 19th-century choice for the colour of his spiritual robe cannot be allowed to become a weapon for pushing minority children into an inferior place in 21st-century India. In fact, the spirit of Swami Vivekananda would be horrified at the bid to use him to demean a section of India's children. Let us clearly recognize what is happening around us. Supremacy, which has no place in our Constitution, is the new idol of powerful sections in today's India. Supremacy seeks to replace dignity and equality, which are norms specified in the Constitution's Preamble and spelt out in its Articles. The supremacy urge needs repeated demonstrations of the humiliation of the "inferior". Psychologically exhilarating, the supremacy drive has also seemed politically efficacious in recent times. It appears to appeal to sections of the majority community, including to some at the lower end. "Give these Hindus the chance to humiliate Muslims and Christians, and they will forget the indignities they have received from the higher castes." That's the calculation.

At the higher end, very few institutions possess a prestige greater than that of Ahmedabad's Indian Institute of Management. Earlier this month, IIM-A announced a new logo for itself. For more than 60 years, the logo had contained a replica of the Tree of Life chiselled in the 16th century in the most famous of the ten marvellous stone jalis of Ahmedabad's Sidi Saiyed Mosque. Depicting the intertwining of a tree's branches, this lattice-work window is a stunning portrait of unity in diversity. But in the India of November 2022, even a great academic institution seemed to view such an image, and its origin, as being too controversial. It was expunged!

In one of his G20-related utterances, Mr. Modi spoke of India as "the land of the Buddha and Gandhi". It's a phrase he has used several times. Can anyone invoke Gandhi without inviting a reminder of Ishwar Allah Tere Naam? And while some may not be aware that in its complete form our national anthem, Jana Gana Mana, also speaks of Hindu, Bauddho Shikho, Jaino, Parashiko, Musholmaano, Christaani as members of India's family, it is an unalterable fact of history and literature that Tagore wrote that inclusive stanza into what was chosen as our national song. It is also an undeniable fact of history, and a widely known fact, that in Saare Jahaan Se Achchha, Allama Iqbal underlined that religion does not teach enmity.

All the same, revising emblems and logos is not hard. A Cabinet or a Board can take a decision, and it's done. Getting classrooms painted in a particular colour is also a simple matter for a state government to arrange.

The rest of us should take seriously what our eyes see and our ears hear. In our noble land, our children are being divided into the greater and the lesser, our people into the superior and the inferior. The urge to dominate, coerce, and humiliate is being given a fillip, and people, including young children, are being encouraged to enjoy the humiliation of others.

This harmful supremacy project may succeed for a while. Even the eminent may go along with it. But will India's people tolerate it over a long period? Friends tell me that in parts of India they see growing signs of opposition and resistance. We will find out in due course.

(Rajmohan Gandhi's latest book is "India After 1947: Reflections and Recollections")