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Ten days in Narendra Modi’s India

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants us to believe his speeches on religious bigotry, he'll have to do more

Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving his Independence Day speech at the Red Fort in New Delhi last year. Photo: AFP
Prime Minister Narendra Modi giving his Independence Day speech at the Red Fort in New Delhi last year. Photo: AFP

The speech is playing on loop. He looks angry, his forehead furrows, the no-nonsense words—as fuss-free as the white and beige outfit he wears—flow freely; he appears to be a real protector of the idea of India. He emphasizes often, jabbing alternately with the forefingers of his left and right hand, occasionally gesturing to himself when he says “my responsibility". Nobody has the right to discriminate on the basis of religion, he declares.

His punchline is powerful: “My government has only one religion—India first."

They say great leaders make great speeches. Prime Minister Narendra Modi certainly owns the room most times he takes the microphone. As he pauses for the claps in Parliament, the mischievous cameraperson cuts to Modi critic Asaduddin Owaisi, who represents Hyderabad and is barely stifling a smile.

I’m no fan of Owaisi, but it’s obvious why he’s smiling. Modi has himself on several occasions, most recently before the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat state elections, used phrases that play on anti-Muslim sentiments.

If 2017 was the year of hate crimes against minorities, 2018 has certainly started out as the year of hate speech. Consider the following statements—all made by elected representatives of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—i.e. no longer the political fringe—in the first 10 days of January:

“The way the Muslim population is increasing, the existence of Hindus is in danger."

“If Siddaramaiah (Karnataka chief minister) is a Hindu, then let him ban cow slaughter and beef in the state."

“If Hindu, vote for me, if Muslim, vote for Congress."

“You see the history of leaders of the opposition parties. Earlier, they used to go the madrassas of a particular community, wear a round cap and call it secular. Visiting temples was communal. Now, all those leaders go to temples."

“This country belongs to Hindus" and “Jiski jitni lambi dadhi, usko utna lamba cheque (The longer one’s beard, the more the amount on his welfare cheque)."

Maybe the prime minister’s “India first" memo hasn’t reached BJP politicians who are making these divisive speeches? Unlikely. After all, it’s not a new message. A 2013 news story in The Hindu is titled “‘India First’ Is Modi’s New Mantra". Surely it doesn’t take five years for the leader’s message to trickle down to his well-oiled network?

Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, used the phrase at an hour-long video conference with the Indian-American community. According to the story, he also said: “The country is above all religions and ideologies" and “Nothing less than India’s well-being should be our goal. And if this happens, secularism will automatically run in our blood."

How his colleagues really think of secularism and blood was laid bare last month by Union minister Ananthkumar Hegde, who said that secular people were those who do not have an identity of their parents and their blood. He also made a comment on changing the Constitution which he later retracted, but nobody in the party disagreed with or challenged his definition of secular.

Pseudo-secular has always been a more popular word than secular among BJP politicians. Right-wing Twitter trolls routinely distort the latter to their favourite insult: sickular.

One obvious response—strengthening the hate-speech law—has the undesirable side effect of cramping our freedom of speech at a time when countries across the world are struggling to reconcile these two issues. Germany’s new law that requires social media sites to remove hate speech, fake news and illegal material within 24 hours of being told off or pay a multimillion dollar fine has been widely criticized.

Back home, legal experts worry that strengthening hate-crime laws by inserting two new provisions in the Indian Penal Code to combat digital hate, as the Law Commission recommended last year, will chill our right to speak out.

Lawyer Shreya Singhal, whose petition resulted in the Supreme Court striking down Section 66A (that threatened free online speech) in 2015, said in an opinion piece on last year that the new tweaks would only bring back the spectre of 66A.

Here are some suggestions. If the leader of India’s powerful ruling party wants us to believe that his government has only one religion—India first—and that no citizen should face discrimination because of his/her religion, he can start by telling his colleagues and close associates that he will not tolerate their hate speech. According to a news report, BJP members of Parliament are being assessed on a variety of issues, including “diligence in following party directives". Modi can give them extra points for embracing the “India first" chant when they travel across the country to campaign for eight state elections this year.

He can also give bonus points to those who ensure no cow terrorism takes place in their constituency and to those who have inter-religious partners because aren’t they practising the credo of “India first"?

Besides “India first", the two speeches by Modi have one more thing in common: They were both made a year before India’s general election. For us to believe what he is saying, the PM must act against divisive speeches and actions that go against his idea of India. He must also practise spreading love. Otherwise, the only thing left to determine is whether this will be the year of hate speech or the year of empty speeches.

Priya Ramani shares what’s making her feel angsty/agreeable.

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