My previous column (‘Modi’s idea of India-1’, January 27) interpreted the external features of PM Narendra Modi’s idea of Indian nationhood. Modi, I argued, is redefining the idea of India by emphasizing the blood ties of India’s “diaspora” with the “homeland” — politically, if not legally. His concept is closer to the German-Japanese conception of nationhood than the French-American one, which relies on birth in a territory, not blood ties. India’s Constitution-makers had rejected the German-Japanese model.
I did not comment on whether Modi’s attempted redefinition was right or wrong. To my mind, whatever theoretical position one takes on blood ties as a principle of national belonging, mobilizing diasporic energy for India is an exercise in pragmatism. India’s diaspora has risen in affluence and is beginning to exercise its weight in politics. When Modi spoke at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Indian Americans recruited more than 40 congressmen and senators and also a few governors to share the stage with him. Something like that was impossible without the community’s electoral or financial clout. If such clout can be leveraged for India’s economic development, or for the enhancement of India’s international power, the basic canons of realism would endorse such a move.
Let me now turn to the internal dimensions of Modi’s idea of India. Historically, two master narratives — based on caste and religion — have defined the idea of India. Several politicians have attempted to break out of these narratives, but Indian politics, with unfailing regularity, returns to its customary grooves. “Dams are the temples of the modern age” was Nehru’s attempt to turn economic development into a master narrative, but dams could not become temples. Modi, too, campaigned on development, but before long, reconversion of Muslims and Christians, beef bans and a Dalit suicide overtook the development discourse. India awaits the day when economic issues (beyond inflation) would determine mass politics.
What is PM Modi’s record on caste and religion? On caste, the Constituent Assembly had accepted that Hindu society had historically heaped multiple indignities on its lowest orders, especially Dalits, and the grave historical wrongs could be remedied through affirmative action. Words of contrition were not enough; ameliorative state action was necessary. Modi has repeatedly endorsed these ideas. “Daliton ko avsar dena hamara dayitva hota hai (It is our responsibility to give opportunities to Dalits),” said he in Parliament, adding that “aarakshan Ambedkar ki dirghdarshita ka prateek hai (affirmative action was a sign of Ambedkar’s farsightedness)”. But Modi’s silence on the actions of his colleagues mars his record. He did not have to speak against the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, when Bhagwat expressed doubts about affirmative action. Bhagwat, after all, is not in the BJP. But ministers in Modi’s cabinet, directly responsible to him, have also taken anti-Dalit positions.
The suicide of Rohith Vemula is a case in point. Reportedly, Rohith liked films that critiqued Hindu nationalism and clashed with the leading Hindu nationalist student organization, the ABVP, on campus. After one such clash, some ministers of the Modi government pressured the university, whose main funds come from the Central government, to expel Rohith as a student, which it eventually did. The expulsion ostensibly led to the suicide of Rohith, who wanted to “write like Carl Sagan”, but bemoaned that “the fatal accident” of his birth had haunted him in the university.
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The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.
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