One year old Narendra Modi ‘Sarkaar’

- Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. (Image Courtesy - Reuters)

– Narendra Modi addresses a rally in Agra, Uttar Pradesh. (Image Courtesy: Reuters)

The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party government at the centre will soon complete twelve months in office. Under the magnetic leadership of the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, the saffron party set an electoral record of sorts by bagging a total of 282 seats in the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament. This was the first time in the history of independent India that a party except for the Indian National Congress had bagged a majority of its own in the central legislature. The mandate which the electorate handed out to the Modi Sarkaar was the biggest electoral victory at the union level since the time Rajiv Gandhi stormed to power in Delhi riding on a massive sympathy wave generated following the tragic assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi.

However, the critical question at this moment concerns the major talking points which have emerged during the past eleven months of Narendra Modi’s rule. Prime Minister Modi’s first year in office coincided with a string of electoral victories at the state level for the BJP. Courtesy the popularity of the Prime Minister, the BJP formed government in several states including Maharashtra, Haryana and Jammu and Kashmir. In the process, Narendra Modi was able to perform a number of political manoeuvres which the old guard of BJP under Vajpayee and Advani failed to achieve. For instance in Maharashtra, the BJP overpowered the might of the Shiv Sena by emerging as the single largest party. This altered the relationship between the two saffron outfits as now BJP was playing the role of the elder brother and Sena was forced to assume the role of a sidekick.

Manohar Lal Khatter became not only the first BJP Chief Minister of Haryana but also the first non-Jat CM of the state. In the insurgency hit state of Jammu and Kashmir, BJP swept through the region of Jammu and formed a coalition government with the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). But all streaks come to an end as the law of averages kicks in. The challenge posed by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party was too humongous for the BJP to overcome. From being the single largest party in Delhi Assembly, the BJP was reduced to a tally of just three seats. Thus, the AAP ended the electoral dominance of Modi-Shah combine.

The second most visible feature of the Modi government has been a stark increase in communal rhetoric and hate mongering against minorities. While Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) chief Mohan Bhagwat repeatedly stated that India was a Hindu Rashtra, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj wanted the Gita to be declared as the country’s national scripture as her cabinet colleague described the government as one of “Ram Bhakts.” The more insensitive remarks were credited to the likes of Yogi Adityanath, Sakshi Maharaj and Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti. From Sadhvi’s Ramzaade remark to Adityanath’s crusade against love jihad, BJP MP’s left no opportunity to embarrass the government. Unfortunately, the communal atmosphere wasn’t limited to speeches and press statements. The disease had spread to the ground and manifested in the form of vandalism of several churches. Even the national capital of Delhi wasn’t spared as it witnessed communal clashes in Trilokpuri area which led to the imposition of a curfew.

Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar had once referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an “event manager” owing to his ability to host glitzy programs. If there was one thing which Modi did relatively better during his first year in office then it has to be in the realm of foreign policy. It all began with the invitation forwarded to leaders of SAARC nations prior to the swearing-in ceremony of the new government. What followed next were a series of diplomatic visits to countries like USA, Australia, Sri Lanka and Nepal. The Prime Minister’s public address at Madison Square Garden in New York was one event which caught the eye of the global media even though the same event saw his supporters getting into a fistfight with noted journalist Rajdeep Sardesai. One has to credit Modi for bringing Obama to India on the occasion of the country’s Republic Day and paying a visit to war-torn region of Jaffna during his visit to Sri Lanka. However, Modi’s foreign policy initiatives had their own set of gaffes. The first one was probably when Modi referred to Bhutan as Nepal during his address to the joint session of Bhutan’s Parliament. During Obama’s visit, the BJP government earned criticism from the Delhi High Court for putting up over 15,000 CCTV cameras for the security of a foreign individual during a short span of time but not doing the same for the citizens of the country.

A noteworthy trend which has become very frequent during this government’s stay in office is the “ban culture.” From the BBC documentary India’s Daughter to AIB’s Youtube roast video to Tamil author Perumal Murgan, governments in different states as also the centre found themselves in the midst of heated free speech debates. Thereafter, came the Maharashtra government’s beef ban thus elongating the ambit of restrictions from literature and cinema to food. All of this was conveniently happening at a time when certain academic quacks made bogus claims of India having invented the world’s first flying machine and Prime Minister himself claiming that ancient Indians had knowledge of genetic sciences and plastic surgery as evident from the birth of Karna and the elephant head of Ganesha in Hindu mythology. But many free speech supporters were delighted on seeing the landmark Supreme Court judgement which declared Section 66A as unconstitutional on a plea filed by Shreya Singhal. Similarly, Delhi High Court’s judgement in the case of Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace activist, who was offloaded a flight while going to give testimony in relation to the violation of the forest rights of Tribal people in Madhya Pradesh before a British parliamentary group, was a vindication of the right to freely dissent.

Another major goof up which this government might be remembered for during its first year in office was concerning the BJP’s position on black money. Supreme Court advocate Ram Jethmalani was not at all happy with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley refusing to name black money account holders. This earned the BJP the dubious accolade of being a “U-turn Sarkaar” but the brickbats got more severe with Amit Shah’s description of Narendra Modi’s poll promise of depositing Rs 15 lakh in the bank account of every Indian family after bringing back black money stashed abroad as a “chunavi juml”a or poll gimmick.

Considering the massive mandate which this government possesses, it would be foolish to believe that the BJP would not complete its tenure in office. If the hapless UPA government under Dr Manmohan Singh can remain in power for ten years then the BJP can be expected to easily survive five years in office with a Prime Minister who is a naturally gifted orator and communicator. However, the challenge for the BJP lies not in occupying office as it was in the case of the politically fragile Congress led UPA. The BJP with a majority of its own should try and utilize these five years to prove why it’s a party with a difference which can only be done by providing world class governance facilities to the people of this country. Simultaneously the central government has to nurture an environment of pluralism and harmony where minorities are not threatened and intimidated. Very importantly, the government also has to protect the right to free speech of the citizens of this country as long as they do not transgress the reasonable restrictions in regards to the same.

(This article was originally published in The Kashmir Walla.)

Islam and the Western Media

(Image - Newslaundry)

(Image: Newslaundry)

The world changed forever after September 11, 2001. After having been locked in decades of a power struggle with the communists, the United States of America (US) had found a new enemy in Islamist extremism, which had claimed the lives of thousands of innocent beings by attacking the World Trade Centre in New York.

In a recent speech delivered at the Summit on Countering Violent Extremism held on February 18, 2015, US President Barack Obama came out as a cautious orator and refrained from using the much controversial term “Islamic terrorism”. Instead Obama went on to proclaim that “we are not at a war with Islam”. His comments invited both praise and criticism.

In an opinion piece for The Washington Post (February 19, 2015), journalist Fareed Zakaria stated, “President Obama stands accused of political correctness for his unwillingness to accuse groups such as the Islamic State of ‘Islamic extremism’, choosing a more generic term, ‘violent extremism’. His critics say that you cannot fight an enemy you will not name.” Zakaria stressed on the “limits of the Islamic label” by mentioning that there were as many as 1.6 billion Muslims in the world while only around 30,000 Muslims happened to be part of the Islamic State. He wondered as to how “0.9% of Muslims” can come to represent the entire religion.

On the other hand, New York Post published an article titled “Obama refuses to acknowledge ‘Muslim terrorists’ at summit” (February 18, 2015) whose tone and tenor seemed completely dismayed with the President’s comments. The lead paragraph of the article stated, “They are burning and beheading victims in the name of Islam, but President Obama delivered a major speech Wednesday on combating violent extremism – while refusing to use the words Muslim terrorists.”

The dichotomy in the approach of the Western media while dealing with the phenomena of Islamist terrorism became evident soon after 9/11. Not much has changed 14 years down the line. The debate still revolves around as to who is really responsible for unfortunate terrorist incidents like the ones in Paris and Peshawar: Islam or misguided Muslims.

Following 9/11, Time Magazine (September 23, 2001) carried a piece by author Karen Armstrong titled “The True, Peaceful Face of Islam”. In her strongly-argued piece, Armstrong stated that the Quran only permitted fighting in self-defence and that “it would be a grave mistake to see Osama Bin Laden as an authentic representative of Islam.”

Harvard Professor Roy Mottahedeh wrote a piece on similar lines in The New York Times (September 30, 2001) in which he sought to play up the pacifist face of Islam by quoting Islamic injunctions against indiscriminate killings. He concluded his article with the following words, “The people behind these atrocities committed a crime against all humanity. Under the precepts of every great religious tradition, they and their sponsors must be brought to justice.”

However, there were some who found a problem with Islam and took a contrarian view. The UKTelegraph published an article with the provocative headline “A religion that sanctions violence” (September 17, 2001). Written by Patrick Sookhdeo, the piece drew a comparison between Islam and Christianity by stating, “Many horrific acts have been, and continue to be, perpetrated in the name of Islam, just as they have in the name of Christianity. But unlike Islam, Christianity does not justify the use of all forms of violence. Islam does.”

Similar anti-Muslim observations were made by Daniel Pipes in a New York Post article “Muslims love Bin Laden” (October 22, 2001). He wrote, “The internet buzzes with odes to him [Bin Laden] as a man of solid faith and power of will. A Saudi explains that Osama is a very, very, very, very good Muslim. A Kenyan adds that every Muslim is Osama Bin Laden.”

So what are we supposed to infer from the coverage Islam and Muslims got from the Western press immediately after 9/11. There is no denying of the fact that there exists a section of intellectuals who are deeply prejudiced against Islam. They view Islam as inherently violent and Muslims as actively supporting terrorism. But, importantly, there is another section within the Western press that realises the “true, peaceful face of Islam” as argued by Karen Armstrong.

To say that the Western media is entirely anti-Muslim is as wrong as stating that every Muslim is a terrorist. We need to go beyond maximalism and understand that the entire Western media is neither being completely hostile nor being overtly sympathetic towards Islam. The war against terrorism cannot be won by making enemies. If the war against extremism has to be won, it has to be won through engagement and friendship. The ideal engagement would be one which emphasises on the tolerant teachings of Islam.

The Western world has to become aware of what Islam really stands for. If people in the East, specifically Muslim societies, want that to happen, then they themselves have to shake off their anti-Americanism and realise the fact that there are individuals in the Western media who are objective enough to not indulge in the practice of muck-throwing on Islam and present the benevolent side of the faith.

(This article was originally published in Newslaundry.)

Why fear of Losing BMC Polls could be driving Shiv Sena’s anti-Muslim tirade

After having played second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra for several decades, the BJP has finally managed to wrestle control of the saffron leadership in the state. (Image: Getty Images)

After having played second fiddle to the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra for several decades, the BJP has finally managed to wrestle control of the saffron leadership in the state. (Image: Getty Images)

The right wing Hindutva brigade has this incredible ability to never prove wrong its detractors. And just when one starts thinking that the going can’t get any worse, they pop up with yet another “surprise”. This time it is none other than the Shiv Sena. In two venomous editorials published in its party mouthpiece Saamna, the Shiv Sena has suggested stripping Muslims of their voting rights and introducing compulsory family planning for Muslims and Christians. The former remark came from a sitting MP named Sanjay Raut who paraded his brilliant suggestion as a necessary measure to put an end to votebank politics.

The 2014 state elections in Maharashtra resulted in humiliation for the Shiv Sena. They bagged only 63 seats, while the BJP emerged as the single the largest party with 122 wins. Predictably, the BJP formed a coalition government in the state with the Shiv Sena but not before some hard political bargaining and the traditional tantrums of regional satraps. This indeed was a historical moment in the Sena-BJP relationship. After having played second fiddle to the Sena in Maharashtra for several decades, the BJP had finally managed to wrestle control of the saffron leadership in the state.

The electoral re-alignment which we are witnessing at present has definitely posed an existential dilemma before the Shiv Sena. If the Economic Times is to be believed, the Shiv Sena fears losing the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) elections slated to be held in February 2017. The same article states that BMC has “has literally bankrolled the Shiv Sena all these years, despite the party coming to power in Maharashtra just once.” Winning the BMC elections is no less than winning a state election – not only is the BMC the richest municipal corporation in the country, its financial budget is often more than the combined budget of several states.

During the recently held BJP National Executive in Bengaluru, party president Amit Shah stated that Modi Sarkar “will be in power for next 10 – 20 years.” Keeping this goal of the party in mind, we can easily ascertain BJP’s keenness to march into states like West Bengal where it has never tasted power. It is precisely because of BJP’s imperialist tendencies that the Shiv Sena has started feeling terrorised. Emboldened by its stellar performance in the Maharashtra state elections, the BJP might try and replicate its success in the BMC elections in 2017.

If this happens, the Shiv Sena would be literally crippled. We have seen how Narendra Modi behaves once he is in the driver’s seat. Keshubhai Patel and Lal Krishna Advani are fine examples. Shiv Sena supremo Uddhav Thackeray could well be on that list if the BJP manages to lay claim over the BMC. Uddhav’s nightmare at the moment might be to possibly face a Rahul Gandhi-like situation for failing to do for the Shiv Sena what his mighty father Bal Thackeray did – why, he might even have his leadership challenged by his nephew Raj Thackeray. To avoid such a development, the Shiv Sena might be doing what it is doing.

The strategy seems to be simple and divisive. Return to the Sena avatar of 1990s which gathered momentum courtesy the notorious Ram Janmabhoomi Movement. The two controversial editorials which have appeared in Saamna hint at the fact that the Sena is preparing for a militant run seeking to polarise voters in the lead up to the BMC elections. If the ploy works, the Sena would yet again be viewed as a burgeoning symbol of Hindu pride in the face of Muslim appeasement. Indeed, this would shift the ultra-conservative Hindu votebank from the BJP’s clutches back towards the Sena and the ensuing polarisation would enable Sena to retain BMC.

Needless to say, this kind of politics is devastating for the Marathi populace as well as Indian society in general.

Though the ideological moorings of the BJP and Shiv Sena are pretty much the same, one can only hope that the Central Government is aligned enough with the Indian Constitution to consider severing coalition relations with the Shiv Sena which has openly espoused disenfranchising the country’s biggest minority group.

(This article was originally published in The Huffington Post.)

The sole synagogue of Delhi

Rabbi Malekar is the head of the Jewish community in Delhi. He is a former government servant, having served for 15 years as Deputy Registrar in National Human Rights Commission. (Image: Reuters)

Rabbi Malekar is the head of the Jewish community in Delhi. He is a former government servant, having served for 15 years as Deputy Registrar in National Human Rights Commission. (Image: Reuters)

It is Friday morning and as part of an academic assignment, I am to visit a little known place of worship in New Delhi.

On my way to the Judah Hyam Synagogue, I meet Saleem Khan. Saleem, 35, hails from Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh and runs an auto rickshaw in the Indian capital to make ends meet. He agrees to take me to my destination on the condition that I pay him Rs 20 more than what the electronic metre installed in his auto rickshaw computes as travelling fare.

“I hate the Jews for what they’re doing in Palestine. I once saw internet videos of Palestinian children who had been amputated as a result of bombardments by the Israeli Army,” says Saleem, after learning that I was going to visit a Jewish place of worship.

I try to convince him that not all Jews can be held accountable for the excesses committed in Palestine. We discuss several issues ranging from Islam to ISIS and by the time our journey ends, he concedes, “It would be wrong to say that all Jews are responsible for the violence perpetrated on Palestinians.”

Saleem drops me off at the Taj Mahal Hotel, a few metres away from Judah Hyam Synagogue, the only Jewish house of worship in Delhi. Guarding the synagogue are two Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel who were posted here following the 26/11 terror attacks on Nariman Point, a Jewish settlement in Mumbai.

“Is Ezekiel Isaac Malekar available?” I ask the CRPF personnel.

They don’t appear to be familiar with the name and ask me to ring the doorbell at the entrance of the synagogue to check for myself. I thought it rather odd that the security personnel were clueless about the man who has been striving since three decades to prevent the flame of Judaism from extinguishing in Delhi.

Located at 2 Humayun Road, the Judah Hyam Synagogue stands right next to the busy Khan Market. The synagogue was built by the Jewish Welfare Association in 1956 on land allocated by the Indian Government.

The establishment of a formal building was made possible due to a handsome donation given by Dr Rachael Judah in the memory of her father Dr Judah Hyam, who happened to be a prominent religious scholar. Prior to this, the Jews of Delhi held their prayers in a private residence located in the older part of the city.

The synagogue is attached to a Jewish cemetery, which shares its boundaries with two more cemeteries belonging to the Parsi and Christian communities. This in turn makes the place a sort of meeting spot for the micro-minorities of India. Since it is Sabbath day and the Rabbi is busy with preparations for the weekly prayers, he agrees to speak to me for no more than 15 minutes.

“We are not orthodox. Men and women have been praying together in this synagogue since 20 years. We don’t believe in gender discrimination,” says Ezekiel Isaac Malekar.

Rabbi Malekar is the head of the Jewish community in Delhi. He is a former government servant, having served for 15 years as Deputy Registrar in National Human Rights Commission. He also recited Jewish prayers at the funeral ceremonies of Indian Prime Ministers Indira and Rajiv Gandhi.

Malekar has a liberal approach. He has conducted several inter-faith marriages but his daughter Shulamith’s wedding to Sharon Pinhas Bhalkar in 2012 was the first Jewish wedding in Delhi in over five decades.

Though the synagogue was originally established to cater to the growing needs of the Jewish community, the population of Indian Jews has fallen drastically over the years.

Out of a total population of 1.2 billion, there are no more than 5,000 Jews living in India. A large chunk of the Jewish population in India resides in Mumbai, the commercial capital of the country. The city is home to the famous Gate of Mercy Synagogue which was built in 1796 and is alternatively referred to as Juni Masjid.

At one point in time, the membership of the Judah Hyam Synagogue was held by 250-300 people but currently, it’s down to just 10 families.

However, the place has retained its importance courtesy high profile visits from Israeli diplomats and officials. After the establishment of diplomatic ties between India and Israel, the synagogue had a surprise visitor in 1995 in the form of Israeli politician Shimon Peres.

Besides holding prayers regularly on Sabbath days, the synagogue conducts the Jewish rituals of bat and bar mitzvah for girls and boys.

“India is a very tolerant nation. The Jews have never faced any persecution in this country. There’s not even a trace of anti-semitism,” says Malekar.

Interestingly, Malekar supports the proposition of the Uniform Civil Code, an overarching central law which would do away with personal laws of various religious communities and replace it with a common civil law.

“We support the Uniform Civil Code. The Jewish religious laws are anyway not recognised in India. We register our marriages under the Special Marriage Act, 1954,” he says.

Malekar has often been asked why he doesn’t move to Israel. He says that while “Israel is in my heart, India is in my blood.”

(This article was originally published in Dawn.)