Herald View: Swearing by secularism not quite enough to change reality on the ground

It has been a sobering week when India was lectured by other countries on respect for religion. But such international embarrassment are likely to become routine if there is no course correction

Herald View: Swearing by secularism not quite enough to change reality on the ground
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Herald View

A Government which has been mocking secularism for the past eight years re-discovered its virtues this week. While public memory is proverbially short, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s triumphant comment after the 2019 general election is too recent to have been forgotten entirely. The PM had claimed that the word secularism was possibly not uttered even once during the campaign. He left nobody in any doubt about his contempt for secularism. The same government, however, was compelled this week to reiterate its commitment to secularism when 16 Islamic countries and the 57 member-countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) summoned Indian envoys to voice their displeasure. They were upset at the irresponsible statements made by two BJP spokespersons about Prophet Mohammed and his wife. While many in India smelt a conspiracy in their late reaction, it is entirely possible that they had waited to see if the Government of India would react and take any action. When it didn’t for nearly ten days, Indian envoys began to be summoned one after another beginning last Sunday and an apology was demanded. The Bharatiya Janata Party woke up from its smug stupor and suspended the spokespersons and expelled one of them for six years. The party is yet to explain why the duo were meted out differential treatment for the same offence; and the party president J.P. Nadda and senior BJP leaders are yet to condemn their behaviour. The Prime Minister, the Home Minister, the External Affairs Minister and most other Union Ministers have been conspicuous by their silence. In a damage control exercise the Ministry of External Affairs described the ruling party spokespersons as ‘fringe elements’ not reflecting the views of the Government. BJP in fact seemed to suggest that they did not reflect the views of the party either as it went on to issue an advisory that henceforth only authorised spokespersons would represent the party on TV. It is hard to believe that these antics and afterthoughts fooled anyone anywhere and not just in Islamic countries. But they diminished the stature of the BJP and the Indian Prime Minister and reduced India into a laughing stock. To make it worse, one of the spokespersons continued to give interviews and claiming that the Prime Minister’s Office, the Home Minister’s Office and BJP leaders like Devendra Fadnavis had called her to extend their support. As if to vindicate her claim, Delhi Police provided security to her and while a belated FIR was lodged, no arrests were made. The Government seems to believe that the storm would soon pass, that the worst would be over and it would soon be back to business as usual.

In a fresh twist, we have the visiting Iranian foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian being told by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval that offenders would be ‘dealt in such a way that others would learn a lesson’. As the NSA, Mr. Doval should have reacted much earlier to the toxic and communal rhetoric of BJP leaders. It is surprising that he has woken up only now to the anti-national potential of such mischief. One can surely expect dramatic, headline grabbing steps from this government to contain the fallout. But nothing will change on the ground substantially unless the RSS and BJP are able to make course corrections and re-calibrate their attitude towards the Muslim minority. Foreign policy wonks and veteran diplomats have warned this Government time and again that its domestic policies will sooner or later affect international relations. Had the Government displayed the good sense of listening to critics at home, they would not have been forced to make a spectacle of themselves. India cannot afford such misadventures.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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