Amid rising Islamophobia, Narendra Modi’s warming up to Sufism signifies an attempt to make bridges between soft Hindutva and soft Islam. But Sangh Parivar’s fringe affiliates like VHP’s deep seated apathy and hatred towards Muslims stands in the way, writes Harish Gupta
Triggered by a series of terror attacks in the West, notably the November 2015 ISIL slaughter of hundreds of men and women in Paris and latest attack in Brussels, Islamophobia is at its peak now. Ultra-nationalist parties like AFB in Germany are coming to the centrestage of European politics. The immigrants from Syria, who were welcomed by powerful leaders in France, Germany and Italy, are now not only looked down upon but also evoke derisive scorn. Across the Atlantic, a populist Islamophobic Donald Trump could not have almost succeeded to outdo others in the race to be the Republican Party’s candidate without public opinion veering towards an intense dislike of ‘outsiders’ whether Mexicans or Mohammedans.
In this global environment, the friendly signals recently given to Muslims by Prime Minister Narendra Modi can be read as a most welcome sign of eagerness for an image makeover. At a Sufi conference in Delhi, he underlined that Islam is a religion of peace. He said: “When we think of the 99 names of Allah, none stand for force and violence, and that the first two names denote compassion and mercy. Allah is Rahman and Raheem.” It is quite something, coming as it did from the lips of an otherwise maligned Hindutva zealot who is still seen by his critics through the prism of 2002 post-Godhra riots.
Significantly, the tolerant view that Modi expressed at the Sufi conference is neither sudden nor uncharacteristic of him. As former Financial Times representative in Delhi, John Elliott, has reminisced in his book, ‘Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality’, back in 2001, Modi, then a national secretary of BJP, held pretty much the same view in a TV show three days after the 9/11 Al Qaida attack on America. Elliott quotes Modi saying that Islam had “many good aspects” but “when one community says that my community is different from yours, it is higher than yours, and that until you take refuge in mine you cannot get ‘Moksha’, the conflict starts”.
According to Elliott, it was in that show that Modi gave an inkling of his inner feelings about Islam, tempering his admiration for the religion with frustration over its intolerance. “When one says your religion is hopeless, and mine is better than hatred starts...terror starts”.
It is true that, on being elected PM, Modi broke with the Capital’s tradition of holding Iftaar parties, and made no special show of togetherness with the minority community. But he did not deviate from his reasoned approach to Islam, which is anything but “Islamophobic”. At the launch of a book, ‘Educations of Muslim’, by historian JS Rajput, Modi addressed a large audience of envoys from SAARC countries and many Arab nations. “The Quran”, Modi said, “mentions the world ilm 800 times.
It is among the most repeated words after Allah. This is the importance of knowledge in the religion”. The Arabic word ilm means knowledge. Modi’s speech was a strong advocacy for sharing knowledge among communities, with Islam as an important partner in the sharing process.
It is clear that Modi is trying to strike a balance between a soft Hindutva and a soft Islam. The idea of soft Hindutva in Modi’s scheme of things was apparent when he defied all criticism to attend the Sri Sri Ravishankar’s Art of Living global conference in the capital. And the possibility of soft Islam beckoned at the world Sufi meet.
Modi’s efforts at bridging the religious divide that has stigmatised his party and paralysed his Government is no isolated voice. It coincides with multiple overtures of peace and harmony coming from across the subcontinent. If Pakistan began with a formal nod to its T20 cricket team’s tour of India, its Sind province went a step forward by declaring the Hindu festival of Holi as an official holiday. And the apex court of Bangladesh, whose secular constitution was hijacked over three decades ago while branding it as an Islamic nation, has now admitted a petition to drop religion from the republic’s identity. The nation is eagerly awaiting their lordships’ verdict.
The RSS is also showing signs of change. It took ten years to change its dress as needed to change the mindset of orthodox followers. The statement made by RSS’ third in command at a conclave, Dattatreya Hosbole that homosexuality was a psychological disorder and not a crime, is significant. It reflects a change, slowly but surely though it is difficult for the hundreds of thousands of RSS workers to shed their thought process simply because Modi is in power today.
While making sobering utterances, Modi is sensitive to others’ response and builds arguments based upon reason. But he has little leverage with either RSS or VHP, the organisations that not only recruit cadres of the BJP but tutor them to suit ideological objectives. Even as Modi talks of Allah’s 99 names in the Quran, clouds threatening a communal riot are thickening over Agra in the wake of the recent murder of a Dalit youth. Ram Shankar Katheria, BJP MP from Agra and Union Minister of State for HRD, has his own choice of names that he demands to see in the police chargesheet, while the names of his friends must be dropped from a hate-speech complaint. If his order was not obeyed, the Union MOS threatened, Agra would witness this year “a different kind of Holi”. At Latehar in Jharkhand, two Muslim herdsmen were hanged from a tree recently after being last seen driving a buffalo herd to cattle fair. The arrested persons include someone connected to a local cow protection vigilante group though the police of the BJP-ruled State refrained from questioning the group’s leaders.
Like all well-meaning reformers, Modi wishes to tread peacefully along the path of development but finds his feet gummed up in a cesspool of fixed ideas. It needs a statesman, not a mere politician, to rise above the party.
The writer is Editor Lokmat group