The saffron politics of hate and manipulation of history is costing India dear. Can we afford what Sanjaya Baru, author and columnist, recently described as the “unmaking of India”? The answer is clearly ‘no’.
The tirade against Prophet Muhammad by BJP spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal has spiralled into a huge diplomatic crisis, forcing the Modi government to push the BJP to suspend the two from the party. Cases against them may start soon, as National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval has promised the visiting Iranian foreign minister ‘exemplary steps’ against the offenders.
But this crisis comes at a time when India is grappling with the fallout of Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine war and an aggressive China salami-slicing in the Himalayas. This was a crisis India could do without but has now been forced to handle.
The BJP’s dumping these two as “fringe elements” is not bought by anyone — be it the Muslim countries or by anyone in India. National spokespersons whose Twitter accounts are regularly followed by even the Prime Minister are anything but “fringe elements”. They form the core of the Hindutva brigade.
Riling up Muslim nations
Most Muslim nations, from Malaysia and Indonesia in the east to the Arab nations and Iran in the west, have furiously protested, and are either lodging formal protests with Indian envoys, or issuing strong statements, or both.
Only Bangladesh has not formally protested but even its education minister Dipu Moni some time back called on India to protect its minorities during a speech in Bengaluru. From Amit Shah’s “termite” jibe at Bangladeshis to the current furore over the Prophet, Sheikh Hasina has much to complain about because such mindless verbal toxin emanating from India only energises her nation’s Islamist Opposition, who are gunning for her.
For an awfully long list of reasons, India needs friendly relations with all these Muslim countries — from the security of its remittance-sending migrants to maintaining energy security to connect to the remote Northeast to contain China or access Central Asia.
If India has to lobby with Muslim nations for the construction of cremation grounds for Hindu migrants, as Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu did during his recent visit to Qatar, it cannot afford to allow attacks on its own Muslims go unpunished. The Nupur-Navin episode only points to a deeply interconnected world where every action will have immediate reactions.
It is no good blaming Pakistan for influencing the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) resolutions pulling up India on the Prophet issue. Pakistan as an old foe is just taking advantage of an opportunity the saffrons have handed it on a platter. The OIC has long needled India on Kashmir — now it is blaming it for Islamophobia.
Dumping spokespersons as “fringe elements”, followed by the arrest of BJP leaders in UP for spreading hate, coupled with Yogi Adityanath’s well publicised visit to the shrine of Muslim saint Raskhan, may all be desperate attempts by the Modi government to wriggle out of a huge diplomatic crisis. But, can we doubt that India’s historic high moral ground as a tolerant plural democracy has been seriously compromised?
External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s counter attack on the US when hauled up by Washington over declining religious freedom for minorities may be music to patriotic ears. But it cannot explain away the perception of an intolerant India rising even in countries which are our strategic partners and where countless Indian success stories have enhanced the home country’s image in the past.
Manipulation of history
The politics of hate used by the BJP and the Hindutva brigade to come to and retain power is facilitated by the manipulation of history with attendant adverse implications for our body polity and internal security.
When saffron elements in Bollywood create their own history by getting Prithviraj Chauhan to kill Muhammad Ghori on celluloid, they only invite ridicule. The truth is the other way round — Ghori outlived Chauhan by more than a decade.
Such films based on fake victories draw a complacent nation into believing the make- believe. Leaders like Sadashiv Rao were heroes who died fighting but the quality of military leadership they provided was not something to be proud of. As historian Jadunath Sarkar said famously, “Sadashiv had forgotten his duty as a general but remembered his honour as a knight.”
But in this social technology of using make-believe as a political weapon in the saffron armoury, reinforced by a huge social media brigade and pliant media persons, India has much to worry about. This layer of lies that cloud a nation’s capability for clear, rational thinking is detrimental to our emergence as a powerful 21st-century power.
Turn to the experience of censored totalitarian societies and one can see how nations suffered when their people bought into false propaganda and delusions created by the manipulation of history.
Mughals vs ‘Hindu’ heroes
The saffrons are making heroes of Hindu Kings like Rana Pratap, Shivaji or Assam’s Lachit Borphukan. Every Rajput, Martha or Assamese has justified reasons to feel proud of these heroes. But these were regional heroes fighting Mughals trying to create an empire that was closer to the United India of our time.
The Modi government’s thrust on centralisation — from One Nation, One Vote to One Nation, One Police — is closer in political design to Mughal empire-building than the regional pride highlighted by the Hindu heroes challenging the Islamic rulers. Therein lies the contradiction of saffron historiography. Eulogising regional heroes like Rana Pratap or Shivaji or Borphukan only reinforces the federal reality of India and strengthens the roots of regional parties.
The BJP may have succeeded in co-opting some of them like the Asom Gana Parishad, but not all of them. Even its failure to retain the Shiv Sena points to the limits of a project for political hegemony. The Thackerays challenging the BJP in Maharashtra could well be seen as modern-day Sadashiv Raos in the province, standing up to the big guns of Delhi.
The one non-Muslim ruler who asserted control over areas envisioned in the Hindu Rastra’s ‘Akhand Bharat’ was Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a Sikh ruler whose military prowess was the most pronounced in pre-British India. I have it from friends in Pakistan that the ISI bosses were understandably rattled in the 1980s by the Babbar Khalsa’s map of Khalistan that showed Lahore in it. That’s how history can come back to bite.
One lesson of history, though, that we can all learn is of the weakness caused by disunity in standing up to foreign invaders. If Chauhan or Porus stood up to Ghori or Alexander, Jaichand or Ambhi joined them.
So, using history to divide Indians on the basis of religion only makes us weak when we face a double front threat from China and Pakistan. It is to promote strong internal cohesion, an essential condition for national strength, that we need the INA model of Subhas Bose to hover in national imagination rather than getting carried away by the divisive politics of ‘shivlings under mosques’ which even RSS Mohan Bhagwat has had enough of.
And, we need to focus on the military heroes of modern India — Abdul Hamid, Nirmaljit Singh Sekhon, Vikram Batra Sandeep Unnikrishnan (the list is long) — who are from religious and regional communities across India. The three key military figures of our great 1971 victory — Maneckshaw, Aurora and Jacob — were from three different religions. One a Parsi, the second a Sikh, the third a Jew. So why not believe the recent past and shape your present rather than harp on a hazy distant past and end up divided? That is the choice for India to make.
(The writer is a former BBC correspondent and author of five books on South Asian conflicts)
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