January Issue 2015
Letter From India
My Urdu is not great but I did graze on some modern poets of Pakistan when I spent some years there as a foreign correspondent. Over the last few weeks, months in fact, a line from one of those poems keeps coming back to me. It’s from Fahmida Riaz’s lament about Naya Bharat (New India), written in the 1980s but never more apt than now:
Tum bilkul hum jaisey nikley
Voh moorkhta, voh ghaamarpan
Aakhir pahunchi dwaar tumhaarey
This truly has been a season of moorkhta and ghaamarpan in India. First it was the campaign against what was described as “love jihad” with various netas of the BJP, its ideological mentor Rashtirya Swayamsewak Sangh, and the extended Hindutva family known as the Sangh parivaar making communally incendiary statements about how Muslim boys were spiriting away Hindu girls, converting them under the pretext of marrying them for love. Now it is the ghar vapsi programmes that are roiling India. From the wild West of Uttar Pradesh to the idyllic backwaters of Kerala, cadres of the VHP have been organising ‘homecomings’ for Muslims and Christians into the Hindu fold. Homecoming because the Sangh parivaar claims that everyone was a Hindu to start with, so it’s not really a conversion.
The campaign has been aggressive and is clearly driven by the confidence of its affiliations to the party in power. There has been outrage and a political outcry against it. For secularists though, it poses a particularly difficult challenge, because it smells of a trap. For decades, as the Hindu right railed against conversions of Dalits and other backward castes to Christianity – and to a lesser extent Islam – secularists argued that the BJP’s demand for a law banning conversions had no place in a free country where the Constitution gave people the right to choose and practice any faith. Now as the same secularists oppose the VHP conversion campaign, key figures in the BJP have thrown down the gauntlet: You don’t want ghar vapsi? C’mon then, will you agree now to an anti-conversion law?
If you thought this was all an entertaining Christmas pantomime and will pass with the season, you were bound to be disappointed because there is no Christmas Day anymore, at least not for this government. The government’s decision to observe something called Good Governance Day on December 25, hauling in ministers and government employees to office, sending out BJP MPs into their constituencies to spread the good word, and asking students to participate in an online essay competition on the same subject has angered Christians and Hindus alike for taking the fun out of a good, old-fashioned holiday.
Nor were these the only controversies. Whether it was the Prime Minister saying that Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, was created by an early plastic surgeon, or the Human Resources Development Minister pre-emptorily ordering children in central schools to drop German and study Sanskrit, or a minister describing all non-Hindus as “haramzaadon,” the pronouncements of this government and its netas are getting more bizarre by the day, so much so that on social media, it is getting difficult to differentiate between their real Twitter handles and the parodies.
Some choose to think that this is all the handiwork of a fringe in the Hindutva family that can be reined in by the government. Those who want the government to get on with its agenda of economic reforms have been desperately urging Prime Minister Modi to tighten the leash. But his inability, and some would say unwillingess, to do so has disappointed even his supporters in big industry and capital. Only the abusive minister was forced to apologise in Parliament after a mild, indirect rebuke from Modi – he ignored the demand to sack her. For those who said from the beginning that the fringe agenda is no different from the government’s, there is no surprise in the way things have turned out.
The conversion row brought Parliament to a standstill. Two crucial Bills – one pertaining to foreign investment in the insurance sector, and the other on allocating coal mining licences – could not go through the Rajya Sabha, the upper house where the government does not have a majority, as it got adjourned repeatedly because of the protests.
Finally, the government did exactly what it had described while in opposition as a serious transgression of democratic practice by the previous Congress-led government: it used the Ordinance route to promulgate the two Bills. The irony: the decision to govern by executive fiat came on December 24, a day before the government’s “good governance day.”
I can’t helping returning to the prescient Fahmida Riaz:
Preyt dharma ka naach rahaa hai
Saarey ultey karya karogay
Tum bhee baithey karogey sochaa
Kaun hai Hindu, kaun naheen hai
Ek jaap saa kartey jao
Kitna veer mahaan tha Bharat
At the risk of offending purists, I offer here my own translation:
The monster of religion is dancing away
Everything you do will be wrong-side up
[Like us] you too will sit around excluding those of [other religions]
And living in the imagined past of a great Bharat.
Nirupama Subramanian is a Senior Associate Editor at The Hindu, one of India’s top national dailies.
This article was originally published in Newsline’s Annual 2015 issue under the headline “Of Conversions, Christmas and Controversies.”.
Nirupama Subramanian is Deputy Editor, The Hindu. She was the newspaper's correspondent in Pakistan from May 2006 to February 2010.