The significance of Barack Obama’s advice to Narendra Modi for preserving and sustaining India’s multicultural ethos lies in the realization of the former US president and perhaps the entire world that India remains the only country whose experiment in pluralism has been a remarkable success.
At a time when the world is in danger of becoming a “meaner, harsher” place, as Obama once said, with white racism and hyper-nationalism targeting Muslims unlike Jews and blacks previously, India has been living up to its age-old tradition of harmonious relationship among all communities.
However, what has probably made Obama offer his counsel for the second time in three years for eschewing sectarianism and maintaining the present accommodative spirit in India is the growing assertiveness of anti-Muslim elements over diverse issues, including protecting cows or ensuring that the history of the Muslim period of Indian history is not “distorted” by film makers.
The resultant uneasiness among the minorities was underlined by the former Indian vice-president, Hamid Ansari, who said that the Muslims were feeling insecure. It is clear that Modi’s slogan of sabka saath, sabka vikas or development for all hasn’t percolated down to his party’s ground level where the rank and file remain as virulently as anti-Muslim and anti-Christian as before.
Their rabid outlook has persuaded the Supreme Court to call upon the state governments to check the violent antics of the cow vigilantes and ask the ruling politicians not to comment on yet to be released films lest the censor board is influenced.
Ever since the defeat of the avowedly secular parties at the national level and in a state election as in U.P., and the success of the BJP with its pro-Hindu bias, the judiciary has had to intervene to hold the scales even so that no obvious injustice is done to the minorities by saffron activists either because of their aggressive programmes like “love jehad” directed against inter-faith marriages or because of the government’s failure to prosecute killers of Muslims as in the case of Pehlu Khan in Rajasthan.
It is a far cry, therefore, for India under the present rulers at the centre to nourish and cultivate the Muslims, as Obama wants. Yet, India’s tolerant traditions have enabled the Muslims over the years to prosper and rise to the top of their professions, especially in the fields of music, both classical and popular, which have seen legendary vocalists and instrumentalists, in cinemas, which have seen a galaxy of actors and actresses, and in sports.
Their success is an object lesson in what the Muslims can achieve in a pluralist country in contrast to the degeneration of a sizeable number of their co-religionists into violent fundamentalism in Islamic countries like Pakistan and Egypt.
A major reason why militancy has gained ground in the Islamic countries is the absence of democracy, which has ensured the ascendancy of the retrogressive mullahs at the expense of the generally liberal middle class. The predominance of the military has also led to the stifling of democracy.
To make matters worse, the inherent sectarian trends in Islam itself between Sunnis on one side and Shias and Ahmediyas on the other have bred violence. Muslim society has also suffered from an inborn bias against women.
Indian Muslims do not suffer from any of these disadvantages, as least not as much as in the Islamic countries. The Sunnis and Shias, for instance, live in peace in India and there is no targeted attacks by terrorists on the latter, as in Pakistan and in West Asia.
Many of the women still wear the veil, but they belong mainly to the poorer sections who are usually more conservative than those who are better off. The lack of education among the former also makes them fall prey to the clerics who control the madrasas with their antiquated form of education.
As a result, 31 per cent of the Muslims at the lower levels live below the poverty line compared to 32 per cent of the Dalits and50 per cent of the Adivasis, according to a survey conducted by the National Council for Applied Economic Research (NCAER) and the University of Maryland of the US.
However, from the middle class upwards, there is hardly any difference in the lifestyles of the Muslims and the rest of the population. If this group can be cherished and nurtured and the social and educational needs of the less fortunate in the community are taken care of, the Indian Muslim can be the answer to the problem of jehadi terrorism now plaguing the world.
For initiating such a change, the chauvinists of other religions have to be reined in since their prejudices or “tribal” impulses, as Obama said, feed on the bigotry of the jehadis. In India, the RSS and the BJP have been in the forefront of those who, along with the Hindu Mahasabha, the Shiv Sena and others, have been stoking anti-Muslim sentiments for decades.
Sections in the BJP did not take kindly to what Obama said about the need for the country to emulate Mahatma Gandhi’s humanism during his visit as the president. The party must listen to his latest advice more seriously. (IPA Service)