“Peace, harmony, and unity are necessary for development,” India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, said during a radio talk on October 25, reminding listeners that “India is a nation of diversities.”
His words are significant because of the discourse of religious hate spewed by many of his supporters, including cabinet members and senior party officials.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party won the 2014 elections by a wide margin on the promise of development and economic growth. But his government has been plagued with controversies. There was a much-publicized attempt to reconvert minority religious groups to Hinduism and a bizarre outburst over “love jihad” to prevent Hindu-Muslim marriages. Modi apparently warned his party leaders to desist from making anti-Muslim or anti-Christian communal remarks.
But the controversies persist and peaked with a spate of attacks over rumors of cow slaughter. Pious Hindus worship the cow, but repeated campaigns to forbid the consumption of beef – more commonly the diet of Muslims and Christians – has led to communal venom. Last month, a mob attacked the home of Mohammad Akhlaq, killing him and critically injuring his son after false rumors that he had killed a calf. On October 19, trucker Zahid Rasool Bhat died from injuries after he was attacked by a mob that suspected him – wrongly – of transporting beef.
Many, including President Pranab Mukherjee, are appealing for tolerance. Over 30 Indian writers have returned various government literary awards in protest against religious extremism and attacks on freedom of expression.
Modi is promoting a vibrant, aspirational India as an attractive market for foreign business. He often cites his own life story as an example of how democracy can provide opportunities without bias. But he comes with a tarnished reputation for failing to protect Muslims during riots in Gujarat in 2002 when he was the state’s chief minister. He cannot afford to let his Hindu extremist supporters smear his standing again: his silence on communal violence is seen by many as acquiescence.
An articulate leader, Modi needs to enforce his October 25 message that as a nation of diversity, there is no place for a Hindu-dominated social order, which is against the very idea and existence of a pluralistic and democratic India.