Prime Minister Modi’s Independence Day address could well represent the apogee of his spectacular re-invention of himself as a statesman of national stature. His speech of August 15, 2014 ‘Let’s put a moratorium on Communalism, Casteism’ ( http://www.outlookindia.com/article/Lets-Put-A-Moratorium-on-Communalism-Casteism/291697) may be viewed in retrospect as the apotheosis of a process that has been under way ever since his swearing-in as Prime Minister of India in May 2014.
In his Independence Day self-projection his patriotism is awe inspiring in its depth and intensity. His heart swells with pride when he contemplates the glories of Indian civilization. There is however a complete absence of pridefulness of a personal nature. Despite the massive mandate that the people have given him he aspires to rule India on the basis of strong consensus. In the same spirit of self-abnegation he recalls his forbears and pays tribute to their achievements. In all that he says it is evident that he exists only in order to serve his country and take it forward.
He admonishes his countrymen and exhorts them to follow his example. In so doing he cannot avoid being cognizant of his superiority. Nevertheless, his modesty comes through all the same. He notes that the habit of punctuality has been sparked in government offices with his arrival in the national capital. His humility is manifest in the pain that paradoxically sears him when he sees matters have changed for the better. As he rightly points out the celebration of punctuality as an achievement only shows how low we have fallen.
He is overcome by anguish when he trains his unflinching gaze on the multitudinous scars and wounds displayed by the body politic of present day India. Nothing escapes his scrutiny be it the forces of casteism and communalism, the abysmal state of sanitation in modern India, or the tragic phenomenon of farmer suicides due to indebtedness. Such was the tenor of PM Modi’s August 15 Independence Day address from the ramparts of the Red Fort. The PM held forth for a full hour–ad infinitum it might have seemed to some of his hearers, ad nauseam for a small number of Indians. As for the victims and survivors of the state sponsored carnage of Gujarat 2002 one can only guess at what they thought when they witnessed first the elevation of (former) Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to the highest office in the land and now his self-fashioning–against the backdrop of the drama and theater of Independence Day celebrations– as a man of refined national sensibilities and statesman par excellence.
It is instructive to look back at a sample of what was thought and written about the communal violence that the state of Gujarat unleashed in 2002 on a defenseless Muslim population. In an open letter addressed to the BJP’s coalition partners, the PUCL (People’s Union for Civil Liberties) wrote as follows:
What we are witnessing in Gujarat is not an aberration, an isolated incident, or any kind of`spontaneous reaction.. Rather, it is the calculated slaughter of thousands of people and constitutional, democratic and human norms. In sum, the demolition of everything moral or legal about our country (The Hindu, Friday April 12, 2002).
And here are the devastating words of historian Tanika Sarkar:
A serious inadequacy plagues our known vocabularies of horror. Words like communal violence or carnage or massacre have been overused to describe far too many situations whose horror is minimal, even relatively ‘innocent’, compared to the last four months in Gujarat. The problem is that we naturalise, domesticate, make somewhat bearable and comfortable, Gujarat events when we stretch old words to cover radically new meanings…Bystanders and survivors during the days of maximal violence were struck by the festive, carnivalesque aspect of rampaging mobs. Indeed, one such mob looked like a ‘barat’, a wedding band, to unsuspecting Muslims on the fateful morning of February 28 (“Semiotics of Terror,” Economic and Political Weekly July 13, 2002).
Initially the Muslims who fled from bloodthirsty mobs let loose across urban and rural Gujarat took shelter in ad hoc relief camps many of which were run by volunteers. The months went by with no effort on the Narendra Modi led government’s part to restore normalcy to neighborhoods that were formerly inhabited by Muslims. Eventually the existence of the relief camps became an embarrassment to the government because of continuing outrage at the plight of displaced Muslims articulated by civil society and the media. The government responded by disbanding the relief camps and claiming that normalcy had been restored. Below is the testimony of an observer who visited the relief camps in March as a member of a women’s fact-finding team. Four months later this is what she saw:
Things have certainly changed in Panchmahals. Forced to leave the camps, people are now scattered in rented houses around the taluka headquarters where the camps once were, or living in camp-like situations. They visit their homes in the daytime, and, too scared to stay there at night, go to stay with relatives or acquaintances. Some have been forbidden to return, some are too terrified to try, others are simply without the means. A few have returned to their villages but live ostracized and constantly fearful. They don’t talk of justice, because they know it is not to be had. They just want to survive. They want to be allowed to make a living. So what slaps you in the face now is not the brutality of the riot, but the normalization of daily life under threat of violence. It is cynical and sinister and — if your standards of humanity are low enough — entirely normal (Malini Ghose, “Surviving on the edge,” Times of India, August 15, 2002).
Many observers and fact finding groups have testified that in Gujarat 2002 women were the targets of the most heinous sexual violence. In an article that was widely circulated at the time the activist Harsh Mander has written the following:
I have never known a riot which has used the sexual subjugation of women so widely as an instrument of violence in the recent mass barbarity in Gujarat. There are reports every where of gang-rape, of young girls and women, often in the presence of members of their families, followed by their murder by burning alive, or by bludgeoning with a hammer and in one case with a screw driver. Women in the Aman Chowk shelter told appalling stories about how armed men disrobed themselves in front of a group of terrified women to cower them down further (Harsh Mander “Cry, The Beloved Country,” Outlook, March 19, 2002).
Fast forward to August 2014. The politician who at best turned a blind eye and at worst masterminded the atrocities glimpsed above has expelled the ghosts of Gujarat 2002 and emerged as champion and spokesperson for the wronged and bruised Indian woman–the victim in life’s early stages of foeticide and infanticide and in later stages of rape. He is re-baptized in the cleansing power of words uttered from the ramparts of the iconic Lal Qila or Red Fort: “Brothers and sisters, when we hear about the incidents of rape, we hang our heads in shame.” India’s unequal sex ratio, the undervaluation of the female sex, the medieval backwardness of India’s sanitary facilities forcing his sisters and mothers to relieve themselves in the open–all of these cause his heart to bleed. He asks in tones of thunder if the dignity of women is not the collective responsibility of the nation. What a masterstroke! And what consummate hypocrisy!
In India encomiums of various kinds have dominated the media response to PM Modi’s August 15 speech. Amid the plethora of commentary that has appeared there is a reaction that stands out: “…if politics is performance, the Oscar goes to Mr. Modi. Even Bollywood could not have done it better” (Shiv Visvanathan “Ushering in a new era,” Hindu, August 16, 2014).