By Pavan K Varma
It has been less than six weeks since Narendra Modi became prime minister, but I am almost certain that several times during this period the thought must have come to him that it was so much simpler to be in the opposition happily criticising the UPA government.
There have been controversies on a host of issues, including the appointment of his principal secretary by resorting to an ordinance, educational qualifications of Smriti Irani, continuation of Nihal Chand as a minister in spite of the allegations of rape against him, tweet of General (Retd) V K Singh on the incoming army chief and ham-handed intervention in the independence of the judiciary.
Rising prices stubbornly refuse to obey the new regime’s diktat and matters have only been made worse by the ad hoc decision to increase passenger and freight fares, even as the railway budget is due to be presented in just a few days.
To be fair, all governments need time to settle down and it is too early to pass an adverse judgment. But, for a leader who promised to have something like a magic wand for every problem, the challenge will now squarely be to deliver on expectations.
However, one serious issue has already reared its ugly head. On June 2 Mohsin Shaikh, a 24-year-old IIT engineer working in Pune, was brutally beaten to death. The suspects in this wanton act of lynching were workers of Hindu Rashtra Sena, an extreme right-wing organisation. The leader of this group has already been arrested. Mohsin, who was returning home after evening prayers, was completely innocent and had nothing to do with the provocative material on Shivaji and Balasaheb Thackeray deliberately being circulated to incite communal violence.
The family’s sole breadwinner was killed merely because he wore a skullcap and had a beard. By any civilised standards this was a shocking incident of communal excess. Surprisingly, there was not a word of condemnation by Modi or a ranking leader of his government.
Normally, Modi is quite forthcoming with comments on Twitter. During the elections, this was a refreshing change from the tight-lipped inaccessibility of other leaders. But on this occasion his silence was deafening.
This is particularly so because as prime minister he was expected to transcend narrow sectarian loyalties which both he, his party and certainly its more extreme wings, were accused of. To run a government is one thing; to run a nation is another. The onus to correct this impression of sectarian partisanship is also particularly incumbent on the PM because for the first time in the history of democratic India, the party he heads with as many as 282 MPs, has no representation whatsoever of India’s largest minority.
Another deeply worrying part of this dangerous religious polarisation is the systematic attempt to stifle the vibrant plurality and diversity of Indian civilisation, and in parallel, to reinterpret the glorious heritage of Hinduism along narrow and bigoted lines. Hinduism has a remarkable legacy of the most enlightened eclecticism. The Upanishads and the Vedas clearly bring out its lofty dialogic nature and the tradition of debate and questioning which it has always nurtured.
There are six systems — not one — in Hindu metaphysics. There is the Charvaka school which is openly atheistic and ridicules the very notion of God. The Hindu pantheon has thousands of divinities while, at another level, the Upanishads say neti, neti — not this, not this — refusing to even define divinity so as to not circumscribe its seamless canvas.
Ramanuja and Shankaracharya fought a prolonged intellectual battle over what constitutes divinity, the attributable Saguna concept or the attribute-less Nirguna one. Our sages at the dawn of time propounded the profound maxim: ekam satya bipraha bahuda vedanti — there is one truth, the wise call it by different names.
A religion with no one church, no one text and no one pope, Hinduism is a way of life, and has never been a brittle collation of rigid dogmas to be mechanically followed. To give just one example, in Puri’s Jagannath temple there are occasions when devotees even have the freedom to roundly abuse Lord Krishna for not responding to their prayers. They do it because they believe he belongs to them and they have a right to this intimacy. Our Bhakti movement saints and our bauls have sung about the Almighty in the most unconventional ways.
It would, indeed, be a sad day if a lumpen, intolerant and uninformed moral police, enjoying the complicit approval of the party in power, become arbiters of how Hindus should behave, what they should wear and think, how they should worship and what they should write and read. The great danger of the government is that it may empower and legitimise such rabid and extreme elements who claim to speak on behalf of Hindus but are working to destroy India’s composite civilisation and the glory of Hinduism itself. Then, without a doubt, the possibility of achhe din will certainly be over.
The writer is a Janata Dal (United) Rajya Sabha MP.
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