CANBERRA – On Sept. 28, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched in Dadri, just outside Delhi, by a mob wielding sticks, swords and makeshift pistols. The nine-member family had been preparing to go to bed when the mob broke in around 10.30 p.m. They accused the family of having slaughtered a cow in the Hindu village and insisted the meat in the fridge was beef (it wasn’t, not that that should matter), brushing aside the family’s protestations of innocence. Efforts by their immediate neighbors to intercede proved futile. The mob was whipped into a killing frenzy by an announcement in a local temple that someone had slaughtered a cow and eaten beef.
Meanwhile at Facebook headquarters in California on Sept. 27 — that is, the same day Indian time — Prime Minister Narendra Modi teared up emotionally and his voice broke as he recalled the sacrifices his mother had made to raise him. His paean to all mothers rings hollow when one reflects on Ashgari Akhlaq’s emotions at her son being killed.
It took Modi 10 days to refer to the lynching publicly, only to deliver a homily about how Hindus and Muslims should join forces to fight poverty and not each other. No condemnation, no abhorrence of what had been done in the name of his religion, no words of solace and condolence to the grieving family.
There are leaders and there are politicians. Modi is rapidly falling from the pedestal of inspirational leader to transactional politician. Leadership consists of the elusive ability to make others connect with you emotionally and intellectually so that they embrace a common, uplifting vision that transcends their immediate self-interest.
Cursed by a surfeit of politicians, India has been thirsting for a leader and millions believed they had found one in Modi. He is reminiscent of U.S. President Barack Obama in the capacity for soaring rhetoric that successfully connects the audience to the audacity of hope and an inspiring vision for a better future. Will Modi prove to be like Obama in the wreckage of the hopes and vision amid the scattered debris of disappointments on domestic and foreign policy agendas alike?
With each passing month disillusionment mounts. A politician chooses expediency and panders to populism; a leader does what is right, setting standards, explaining why they matter, and cajoling and coaxing the people to meet them in their personal behavior. A politician will hug the powerful and famous foreigners; a leader would have embraced Akhlaq’s traumatized 75-year-old mother and 22-year-old son in a very public show of solidarity, connected with their loss and ensured the full apparatus of the state is committed to speedy delivery of the perpetrators to justice.
The exceptionally eloquent prime minister’s long silence on the Dadri lynching follows his taciturnity on fanatics who decry Hindu-Muslim love, encourage coerced reconversion of ex-Hindus, and in myriad other ways demean the rich religion in whose name they act despicably.
Modi must answer a fundamental question: Does he want India re-created as a Hindu Pakistan? One trapped in the prison of yesterday’s glory, rejecting the option of putting in place policy settings to regain greatness? The BJP is split between the obscurantists whose only vision is that of a reality-distorting rear-view mirror, and the aspirational youth who clamor for a vibrant, modern India of opportunities to be seized and talent and enterprise to be rewarded.
Last year, voters repudiated the decadelong Congress Party record of governmental drift, policy paralysis, mega-corruption scandals, stalled economic prospects and worsening human development indicators. They rejected the stale, populist and patronizing politics of a corrupt Congress coterie around a cocooned first family. Modi won by convincing voters that India deserves and can do better with decisive political leadership and firm policy direction. His catchy and effective slogan was “MG2”: minimum government, maximum governance. No one talked of a sudden surge in Hindu religious sentiment that would carry Modi to power, yet Modi has unwisely allowed Hindu zealots to distract attention and energy from his pressing development and good governance agenda.
When Modi raises the shameful specter of rapes, asks parents to take responsibility for the behavior of sons as well as ensuring the safety of daughters and attacks sex-selective abortion; when he elevates cleanliness, sanitation and adequate toilet facilities for schoolgirls to national policy conversation; when he introduces public squalor into high public discourse; and when he challenges the dominant culture of settling for the mediocre instead of demanding the best: Modi is operating in leadership mode.
In “The Intolerant Indian,” Gautam Adhikari, a former editor of The Times of India, contends that extremist religious ideologies and forces of violent politics — on the right and left alike — have overshadowed the idea of a liberal, tolerant society on which the Republic of India was established. That founding vision is steadily being replaced by narrow religious, regional or ethnic identities.
Novelist Taslima Nasreen, hounded out of Bangladesh by Islamists, was forced to flee Kolkata because some local Muslims objected to her presence. The great Indian artist M.F. Husain was exiled overseas by Hindu fundamentalists who took violent objection to some of his art depicting Hindu goddesses.
In the church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Mumbai, when drops of water began to drip from the feet of a statue of Jesus, a rationalist established that a blocked drain was producing a dirty puddle which through capillary action was propelling the water to drip on the statue. Three police stations received complaints against him for inciting religious hatred and he was arrested and charged, ensnaring him in the nightmare of India’s notorious legal processes that recall Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.”
Thus the trend to growing intolerance predates Modi, but his propensity to silence since becoming prime minister seems to have been interpreted as a license to strip Muslims’ dignity and kill dissenting writers and scholars. Modi needs to act boldly in defense of Muslims and intellectuals under attack anywhere in India. If India is not to follow the same path to the dead end of religious extremism as Pakistan, Modi must act decisively against fanatics of all religions and reaffirm that India has no future but as a tolerant, multi-religious, secular polity.
Where Modi stands condemned by his own silence on the Dadri abomination, President Pranab Mukherjee managed to speak to the nation’s conscience by calling for the core values of Indian civilization — that celebrate diversity, plurality and tolerance — to be protected and fostered.
Similarly, the true carriers of Hindu civilizational heritage are the growing numbers of artistes who have returned their national honors in protest at the shameful silence of the Sahitya Akademi (Academy of Letters).
The genius of India’s greatness lies in a central tenet of Hinduism: “sarva dharma sambhava” (all truths/religions are equal and in harmony). The poverty and destitution of any Indian distresses me as a person of Indian origin; every preventable death anywhere diminishes my humanity; every murder in the name of my religion defiles me as a Hindu.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.