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Prime Minister Narendra Modi
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Prime Minister Modi’s orations in the houses of parliament are never less than exciting.
Being a competent debater, his perorations invariably inspire further debate as curious posers suggest themselves in response to his offerings.
Here are a few.
What marked his reply to the debate on the President’s customary and proforma address this once, of course, was a surprising moment when he was seen to shed some tears – a moment of tender recall such as one would normally not associate with his stern persona.
The occasion was a throwback to a militant strike on tourists from Gujarat during the chief ministership of Ghulam Nabi Azad way back in 2005, when Modi was chief minister of Gujarat.
Shri Modi reminisced with grateful tears how Shri Azad had then responded to his call with felt empathy and an answering tearfulness at the tragedy, and how he had done everything to look after the wounded and the bereaved Gujarati tourists.
Noble and affecting as Shri Modi’s acknowledgement of Shri Azad’s nobility is, he might have paused to wonder for a brief moment that a Muslim chief minister from a rival party in Jammu and Kashmir had not even in passing reminded Shri Modi of the massacres in Gujarat only three years prior to the unfortunate occurrence in Kashmir, or wondered how those massacres may have been averted had, for example, the Modi government in Gujarat heeded those desperate calls for protection from no less than a Member of Parliament from Shri Azad’s party. We recall that Ehsan Jaffri was cut to pieces (along with hundreds of others who were sheltering in his house like helpless lambs for slaughter) by rightwing hordes actively bolstered by a complicit police force.
(Such mobs as effected the Gujarat killings have now come to be called ‘domestic terrorists’ in the world’s oldest democracy, following the assault on Capitol Hill in Washington; one may wonder, in passing whether Shri Modi would agree with that characterisation, or whether he would think them andolankaris of the right kind.)
Many may wonder that to this day, Shri Modi has not made any tearful comment on those gruesome happenings under his watch.
Indeed, Shri Hamid Ansari’s recently published autobiography brings the episode back into public attention. Shri Ansari notes that after he took over as India’s vice president, Shri Modi came to meet him in his chambers, chiefly to complain about how the Rajya Sabha cameras were unfairly partial against the Bharatiya Janata Party in not giving them equal prominence on screen.
Shri Ansari writes that he brought up the subject of the Gujarat killings; Shri Modi responded by saying that this was an unfairly propagated one-sided view of the picture, and that he had done good things for young Muslim women.
However, when Shri Ansari suggested that Shri Modi should publicise that work rather more, Shri Modi responded by confessing that such a course would not suit him politically.
One may be excused for being reminded of the striking episode when Shri Modi refused the offer of a Muslim skull cap from a cleric at a public meeting. As we know, Shri Modi has worn headgears of diverse description through his political career, but not the skull cap.
So, as we are moved by the prime minister’s moment of tearful avowal of Shri Azad’s nobility, we may consider whether or not that experience of the great secular heart displayed by a fellow chief minister did anything to reorient Shri Modi’s overall stance on the sufferings of Muslims in Kashmir and other parts of India.
In the same context, consider the wounded hurt that Farooq Abdullah gave voice to in the Lok Sabha, bemoaning how Kashmiri patriots had been treated since the sudden and clandestine scraping of J&K’s special status. Coming from a man whom no less than the late Atal Bihari Vajpeyi had deputed to defend and argue India’s case on Kashmir in Geneva, the force and extent of his sense of betrayal was in no way less moving than Shri Modi’s tears over how caringly the chief minister of that beleaguered state had responded to the sufferings of Gujarati tourists in the Valley. Clearly, neither Shri Azad’s patriotic nobility nor Farooq Abdullah’s unfailing espousal of India’s cause in Kashmir was to dent Shri Modi’s purposes with respect to that Muslim-majority state.
If anything, the latest Bill pertaining to the bureaucratic cadre of that state – one which seeks to include them rather permanently in the Union Territory’s cadre, suggests that the Modi government is in no hurry to reinstate an assembly in J&K.
Not to speak of returning the lost ‘special status’ to that beleaguered state which had, as the only Muslim-majority state in pre-partition India, willingly repudiated the two-nation theory, and thrown its lot with the Indian Dominion in the radiant hope and belief that its secular and egalitarian constitution would ensure that all citizens would receive equal treatment and that the terms of the accession that protected its culture and identity would be honoured.
How salutary it would have been had Shri Modi drawn some larger historical inferences from the way Shri Azad answered the call of duty in 2005, and from the way in which Kashmiri mainstream political forces have always upheld the accession of the state to India, offering sacrifices of thousands of cadres in the process of keeping that commitment.
Of acronyms and andolans
Shri Modi has a skilful intellect and is often adept at repartee, especially when playing to a supportive crowd. His prowess at both coining and interpreting acronyms is also well-known.
However, there is always the danger that in the context of issues of great moment, this play with acronyms may descend to embarrassing levity merely.
This once he chose to take up for play the acronym FDI, quipping that a new dangerous FDI was doing the rounds in India. He was pleased to call it ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology.’ Rather a laboured one that, but never mind.
Acronyms, of course, are open to multiple expansions, and Derek O’Brien of the All India Trinamool Congress – an accomplished quiz master – was quick to suggest that in the current Indian context, FDI may more relevantly be interpreted as ‘Farmers Dying in India.’ Sombre but true enough.
Shri Modi’s fear of ‘foreign’ ideas, of course, contrasts strikingly with Gandhi’s famous averment that he wished winds of all kinds to pass through his doors and windows, even as he refused to be blown away by any. Nor would Shri Modi’s current favourite (elections in West Bengal being due soon), Tagore have for one brief moment endorsed Shri Modi’s disparagement of ideas ‘foreign’, it might be noted in passing.
But, in cautioning us against ‘Foreign Destructive Ideologies’ he might have paused to consider the implications of his position and contention.
For example, what is to say that his famous endorsement of Donald Trump – ‘ab ki bar Trump sarkar’ – at a crowded gathering in the US may not have been construed as ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’ by the 80 million or so Americans who voted for Joe Biden? Or, that the open campaigning by groups affiliated to the Bharatiya Janata Pary on behalf of the Conservative Boris Johnson in the last British elections may have irked, likewise, all those opposed to Johnson as ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’?
Or, the position of many devout Christians in Europe and the US who consider the Indian export of Yoga as deleterious to the habit of devout Church practices? Or, the slew of commentaries made by Indians in favour or against the Black Lives Matter movement in America, as indeed of comments made for or against the attack on Capitol Hill on January 6? Or, to go further back in history, the Gandhian human rights intervention in Apartheid South Africa as a ‘Foreign Destructive Ideological’ gumption on behalf of a skinny non-native? Not to speak of a Hitler, a Mussolini, or a Stalin who were constantly wary against ‘Foreign Destructive Ideologies’ calculated to infuse the democratic virus into their secure state ideologies.
Shri Modi has in recent days voiced the view that India must now have global ambitions, even while often deriding what he calls vistaarvad (expansionism), especially when speaking elliptically of China (since he rarely mentions the elephant by his name). One may ask how such a project is possible without indulging in carrying ‘foreign’ Indian ideas to the rest of the world. Unless, of course, we understand that it is alright for Indian ideas to go out, but not for ideas to come into India.
Speaking of which, how about those who consider free-market capitalism as the most destructive ‘foreign ideology’ that Shri Modi seeks to embrace with open arms? As indeed his penchant for technologies, most of which are products of ‘foreign’ prowess.
It would seem that Shri Modi has difficulty only with such ‘foreign’ interlopers who are critical of many things happening in India, not with those others who offer fulsome praise and endorsement. Think that our own parliamentarians were not allowed to enter Srinagar city after the scrapping of Article 370, while a slew of johnnies from foreign countries were given a free ride since they were known to be willing to endorse what the Government of India had done in Jammu & Kashmir.
Were ‘Foreign Destructive Ideologies’ to be shut out comprehensively, all western literature from Plato onwards would need to be foreclosed, leaving room only for Chanakya, Manu, and the half dozen or so books penned by ideologues of the Hindutva rightwing—a project that, to its credit, the RSS has always taken seriously, even if difficult of attainment. After all, there is also that other Hindutva adage (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam) which holds that the world is one family. One might venture to ask, if that be so, how can anything be ‘foreign’ in the first place?
Shri Modi’s ill-considered jibe at protesters is, of course, a matter of grave concern to all those who wish the Republic of India to flourish as a democracy in which questions are not just asked but encouraged, and accountabilities sought.
Indeed the attack on protesters seems too innocent to warrant comment, but given our zeitgeist, comment must be made.
Any student of democracy would know that democracy as a form of life and governance did not fall from the skies. It is the product of millennia of human struggle against barbaric and autocratic rule through histories of oppression based not on reason, or principles of justice, or answerability to the populace, but variously on muscle, so-called divine right, gender, caste, class dominance, colour of skin and claims of pre-ordained birthright of one sort or another, not to mention brutal theocratic rule from time to time,
If those histories have come to be acceptably demolished, it is no thanks to the munificence of chosen individuals or unquestionable indigenous systems of knowledge and social organisation, but owing wholly to the mass movements waged by oppressed women and men against forms of unreason and inhumane dispensations.
Invariably, the conduct and consequence of those struggles in one country or the other have percolated to other climes and countries, making the establishment of constitutional rule an inter-active joint saga of human emancipation.
This history in the western world dates all the way back to Spartacus and the struggles of slaves to attain human freedom, through countless revolutions that furthered and deepened the rule of, by, and for the people. Not without those andolans would either the right to universal franchise, to equality before the law, to seek answers from ruling formations through the working of institutions, and the regime of human rights have materialised. And, Shri Modi must make it known what his view of those histories at bottom is.
Should Gandhi not have protested Apartheid? Should India not have struggled through umpteen andolans against colonial rule? Should the French Revolution not have happened, or the dethronement of the czarists in Russia? Should Myanmarese, Russians of today, people in Hong Kong, people in Saudi Arabia, and in many Latin American states not be fighting back against totalitarian forms of governance?
And what of the Navnirman agitation that began in Gujarat educational institutions, and expanded into a countrywide andolan, yielding new leadership of which Shri Modi has also been a part? As to Shri Modi’s jibe against shramjivis (labour right activists), what might be his view of the much-lauded strike by railway unions shepherded by the late George Fernandes that is credited by the anti-Congress political forces as having decisively debilitated the Indira Gandhi government of that day?
And should not sensitive human individuals and altruistic organisations (they do exist) lend support to others embroiled in struggles for justice and fair play? What meaning may the concept of human rights have at all if all human beings and organisations simply minded their own business?
The troubling point, of course, is that autocratic rule always looks with disfavour on movements that tend to gather wide support and succeed in uniting diverse segments of the citizenry in a common struggle for human rights. The rule of capital always feels more at home in dealing discretely with disgruntlement, using every trick in the book of rule to keep individuals and organisations away from their diverse concerns. When larger conglomerations of the disgruntled assemble, it is never so easy to break the annoying pockets of opposition to the rule of capital. Or indeed of any other constricting form of rule, for that matter.
What is particularly instructive to any true student and votary of democracy is to see how, often, leaderships spawned by andolans become their chief detractors once such leaderships have realised the seat of political power.
These are very troubling questions. If the farmers of India are drawing such widespread support, is the phenomenon simply a case of gratuitous professional andolanjivis indulging a habitual pastime?
Surely, Shri Modi ought to know better.
Indeed, it might be argued that sustained peaceful mass awareness movements alone can best guarantee that governments do not become what Shri Modi called parjivis (parasites), feeding off the very people who put them in the seat of power.