Colouring Texts

Saif Ahmad Khan

Saif-A-KhanUnion External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj recently propped up the idea of making the Hindu scripture Gita, India’s national book. This is not the first time that Swaraj has demanded so. In December 2011, when a court in Siberia, Russia was considering a ban on Gita then too Swaraj as Leader of Opposition in Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian parliament, echoed a similar viewpoint.

The statement could not have been more badly timed. Just days before, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti had made a hateful remark which led to an impasse in parliament. Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi condemned her remarks, no action was taken against the hate-spewing Sadhvi.

The targeting of minorities has sharply increased ever since the BJP government came to power at the centre. In the capital city of New Delhi, riots in Trilokpuri area led to the imposition of curfew. Few weeks back, St. Sebastian Church was burnt down in the north-eastern region of the city. Instead of assuring the minorities of safety, BJP leaders are busy making controversial remarks like the Taj Mahal being a Hindu temple. Swaraj’s comments concerning the Gita are highly irresponsible.

The developments over the past few months have indeed created a suspicion in the minds of the people. Prior to the elections, the BJP sought to underplay the Hindutva card. But post elections, their real intentions have emerged on the fore. While the focus should be on development and championing industrial growth, attempts are being made to re-write history in the favour of right-wingers.

Politics is about creating the appropriate perception. When the Modi government was required to resolutely defend secularism and reiterate its commitment to the constitution, its External Affairs Minister was seen alongside VHP’s Ashok Singhal calling for national recognition for the Gita.

Many scholars have argued that the Gita is not a religious book but a discourse on philosophy with universal application. But this argument cannot be used as a justification to give it the status of a national book. The adherents of other faiths are bound to argue as to why does the government not recognize the universal essence of the teachings enunciated in religious books like Bible, Guru Granth Sahib and Quran?

Sectarian recognitions are bound to alienate minorities. Pakistan was born in 1947 as an “Islamic country”. At that time, the founders of Pakistan had assured the minorities of equality and freedom of religion. The “Islamic” tag was in no way supposed to hurt the rights of the minorities. Has that promise been upheld? Not only has the population of minorities steeply fallen, the state has institutionalized persecution of minorities. This was done by means of the Second Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan which declared Ahmadis as “non Muslims”. The writing on the wall is clear. Symbolic sectarian gestures pave the way for greater communal advances in the future.

A small demand concerning the Gita may set off dangerous precedents. In an op-ed piece for DNA, Subramian Swamy had suggested that India be declared as a Hindu Rashtra, a nation for the Hindus and those whose ancestors were Hindus. He went on to state that non-Hindus who did not recognize their Hindu ancestry should be stripped of their voting rights. This venomous piece of writing led to Swamy’s dismissal from Harvard but it continues to hold contemporary relevance.

If symbolic demands are given into, it would embolden the more radical Hindutva leaders like Swamy to call for fulfilment of their other outrageous needs. This is indeed a critical stage for Indian democracy. The Bharatiya Janata Party has for the very first time managed to win a majority of its own in the Lok Sabha. The test for BJP lies in resisting constitutional erosion. If Modi wants to deliver then he will not only have to clampdown on those from within his party who are trying to disturb the constitutional balance but also create a much larger public impression which doesn’t show this government as dancing to the tunes of the RSS.

(The writer is pursuing MA Convergent Journalism from AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.)


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