Obama’s caution on religion: Why Modi needs to pay attention

Barack Obama, the 53-year-old leader American President went on to cite Article 25 of the Indian Constitution to remind Indians of the "right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion." (Image: Associated Press)

Barack Obama, the 53-year-old leader American President went on to cite Article 25 of the Indian Constitution to remind Indians of the “right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion.” (Image: Associated Press)

In the final speech of his India visit, US President Barack Obama told the audience at Delhi’s Siri Fort Auditorium that India would progress as long as it is not “splintered” on religious lines. The 53-year-old leader even went on to cite Article 25 of the Indian Constitution to remind Indians of the “right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion.” Obama’s exhortation on religion was his strongest message to the Modi government.

Ever since his arrival in India on January 25, Obama and Modi concentrated on increasing the trade relationship between the USA and India. During the course of the visit, the Indian government focused on showcasing the nation’s rising military might and economic progress. The domestic media was all praise for Modi’s new friendship with “Barack” who acknowledged the Indian PM’s popularity by comparing his reception at Madison Square Garden to that of a “Bollywood star”.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Throughout his visit, Obama stood shoulder to shoulder with Modi as shutterbugs immortalised handshakes and hugs. The only opportunity Obama had to address the Indian populace alone, without the presence of Modi, was at Siri Fort Auditorium. And he used the opportunity to raise the concerns of the US about India.

Obama’s emphasis on preserving diversity indicated perhaps that Washington wasn’t as concerned about the increasing financial clout of India as it was about the increasingly apparent religious bigotry.

So why did the most powerful person on the planet choose to caution a country which is known for encouraging pluralism and secularism?

The answer lies in the fact that ever since the Modi government has taken to office, fringe groups belonging to the Hindu Right have increased their vitriol towards minorities, mainly Muslims. In Uttar Pradesh, BJP MP Yogi Adityanath raised the false bogey of “love jihad”, claiming that Muslim men were eloping with Hindu women to convert them and increase the Muslim population. Uddhav Thackeray, quoted in the Shiv Sena mouthpiece Saamna, backed Yogi Adityanath, stating, “Love jihad is an international conspiracy to destroy the Hindu culture.” In another speech, Adityanath also claimed that the rise in the population of a certain community was the reason behind the UP state government failing to maintain communal harmony. The notion of “love jihad” didn’t inspire the electorate, however, as the BJP recorded a poor show in the UP by-elections. Interestingly, the same state had provided the party with over 70 legislators in the earlier held general elections.

But the Sangh Parivar learnt no lessons and carried on with their agenda.

In October, Vishwa Hindu Parishad patriarch Ashok Singhal told reporters that since the BJP government had majority, it must fulfil its promise of building a Ram temple in Ayodhya. In Ghaziabad the next month, Praveen Togadia said that the Ram temple would be built at “any cost”.

By the time December came, incendiary comments were flying thick and fast. Union minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti made the reckless “ramzaadon” remark at a public meeting in Delhi. Instead of being shown the door, she walked free with an apology. Sakshi Maharaj, a BJP MP, referred to Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a “patriot”, while BJP UP chief Laxmikant Bajpai claimed that the Taj Mahal was an ancient temple.

Such proclamations were not limited to the lesser known leaders. RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat repeatedly stated that India was a Hindu Rashtra, while External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj demanded that the Bhagavad Gita be declared as the country’s “national scripture.” But the biggest controversy of all was the alleged forceful conversion of 300 Muslims to Hinduism in Agra, resulting in pandemonium inside Parliament.

As the Hindu Right grabbed headlines, their Muslim counterparts were not far behind. The politics of competitive communalism was underway. Samajwadi Party leader Azam Khan demanded that the control of the Taj Mahal be handed over to the state Waqf Board; earlier in April 2014, he had said that the Kargil war was won by Muslim soldiers.

MIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi tried a reverse definition of “ghar wapsi”, proselytising that the real homecoming would be when people returned to the Islamic faith.

Unfortunately, the communal atmosphere wasn’t limited to merely hate speeches. In June 2014, a Muslim techie was beaten to death by a group of Hindu fundamentalists. Communal tensions spread in several cities including Delhi, Meerut and Vadodara.

Films and books fell victim too. While protests greeted against Aamir Khan starrer PK, Tamil author Perumal Murugan decided to stop writing after his book Madhorubhagan became mired in controversy. All this was conveniently happening at a time when Dinanath Batra was orchestrating the rewriting of Indian history books and ridiculous myths were being propounded. PM Modi joined the bandwagon by claiming, among other things, that people in ancient India knew plastic surgery (as evident from the elephant head of Lord Ganesha!).

It was under these circumstances that Obama reminded the government of the need to safeguard the freedom of religion. Not that it made much of a difference. Shortly after Obama left, there was another controversy around an advertisement published by the government on the occasion of Republic Day which had printed the original preamble to the Constitution, which did not have the words “secular” and “socialist”. The Shiv Sena was quick to call for the deletion of the word “secular” from the Preamble, even as the government defended the advertisement.

Political leaders in India need to realise that it is economic progress is hollow if religious amity is not preserved. But for that to happen, all political parties would have to rise above politics and stop playing the religion card.

http://www.huffingtonpost.in/saif-ahmad-khan/obamas-caution-on-religio_b_6629886.html?utm_hp_ref=india

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

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Zimmerman Verdict & UPPSC Reservation Policy – Two countries where injustice prevails.

The world’s oldest democracy and the world’s largest democracy are currently witnessing a common phenomenon. While the United States has been divided on racial lines following the high profile Zimmerman case, India’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh has seen a similar division on caste lines due to the newly proposed reservation policy of the Uttar Pradesh Public Service Commission (UPPSC). As far as the magnitude of the controversies is concerned, the Zimmerman verdict has certainly attracted a greater response with protests erupting across 100 cities in the US following the acquittal of Zimmerman. Protests against the new UPPSC reservation policy have remained concerted around the holy city of Allahabad which has witnessed angry protesters vandalizing shops and burning cars amidst presence of high security. These two developments taking place in two different parts of the world are indicative of the polarizing effect of race and caste and also the accompanying discrimination and injustice underlying them.

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Americans protest against the Zimmerman Verdict in New York. (AP)

The Zimmerman trial pertains to the killing of Black teenager Trayvon Martin on 26th February, 2012 in Florida by a White Hispanic neighbourhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman. Zimmerman was charged with second degree murder and manslaughter but he pleaded not guilty on account of having acted in self defense following a violent encounter with Trayvon Martin. In the court case that followed, Zimmerman was acquitted and released by an all white jury. This judgement has polarized the American society on racial lines at a time when the country is being governed by its first Black President and inter-racial marriages are at an all time high. The killing of Trayvon Martin has reignited and brought to national limelight the insecurities and frustrations of a community which has historically been subjected to humiliation and slavery. This controversy has also in some way reminded us of the changing dynamics of the United States where sooner or later, the Whites would slip into a racial minority.

It was not a long time back that Blacks in America couldn’t vote. White supremacists in the United States still view the Blacks as a burden on the nation and consider them to be capable of only doing menial jobs. In his first public comments on this high profile case, US President Barack Obama said that he could have been Trayvon Martin. He said that it wasn’t unusual for Black men to be followed in the evening while returning to home. He mentioned that while walking down the road, Blacks could often hear car latches going down. This was an indication of a very negative perception regarding Blacks as they are often viewed as drug lords or potential criminals and gangsters. The race problem in the United States shouldn’t be viewed with a parochial lens. In fact it should assimilate into its ambit several other issues pertaining to acceptance and multiculturalism. Why is it that even after 200 years of establishment of democracy in the United States, only 1 American Muslim, American Buddhist and American Hindu each has been elected to the US Congress? Why is it that prior to election of Barack Obama, all US Presidents were male, white and Christians? Why is it that there is opposition to the construction of Ground Zero Mosque even when 100 Muslims were a part of thousands of innocents who died during 9/11? These are questions which cannot be easily ignored by a country which claims to be the “land of the free, home of the free”.

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Students of general category protest against the new UPPSC Reservation Policy in Allahabad. (HT Photo)

Reservations have always been a dividing issue in independent India. The decision of the Uttar Pradesh Public Service Commission to open seats of the unreserved category to applicants from both the reserved category and general category has invited mayhem from upper caste applicants belonging to the General category. The move is likely to ensure minimum representation of general category students in the final selection list. This is not the first time that the reservation policy is being challenged. No commentator or analyst in India could forget the anti-Mandal Commission protests which occurred during the early 1990s. The protesters in Allahabad have received messages of solidarity from countrymen who want to save the nation from the curse of caste based reservations. They argue that caste-based reservations give preference to a person’s caste rather than his marks, talent or ability. They also argue that it leads to a mismatch wherein an under-qualified person occupies a seat in a high office or educational institution. Some have also said that caste based reservations strengthen caste identities and lead to reverse discrimination because of which upper caste people suffer. Others say that such reservations even hurt the progress of lower caste people as all their advancements are brushed aside in the name of reservations. What such people fail to realize is that there is a historical dimension to the caste problem. People who are born in lower castes face certain imposed social disabilities. It is true that reservations were initially planned to be done away with in 10 years but that was so because it was expected that social inequities caused due to the caste system would cease to exist by that time. This never happened. In the remotest of villages of India, lower caste people are still meted out inhumane treatment. They are denied entry in villages and temples and stopped from drinking water of public wells. Access to education remains minimal for lower castes and prohibition on inter caste marriages is a virtual law. Some of these disabilities have even contributed to caste wars with caste killings in Tamil Nadu and Bihar. An upper militia by the name of Ranvir Sena murdered thousands of Dalits on account of lower caste support for Naxalites. It is but obvious that people who are born and bred up in such conditions would face more difficulties than the one who has taken birth in an upper caste family.

Positive discrimination or affirmative action isn’t relegated to India. It’s practised in nearly every corner of the world in some form or the other to ensure advancement of downtrodden groups or oppressed sections of the society. It is through reservations that the Indian government has tried to educationally uplift the lower castes. Reservations are the best way through which an under-represented section of society can get due representation. The notion behind having reservations in public jobs as stated by BR Ambedkar in an interview to the BBC in 1955 was to enable persons from lower castes to occupy strategic positions in the government through which they could look after the welfare of their community. Dr Ambedkar’s dream is yet to be realized as benefits of reservations haven’t flowed down to the lower castes. Only 11.6% of the SC’s and 4.6% of the ST’s are employed in Group A services of the Central Government. Out of the 93 secretaries of the Government of India, there is not a single Dalit. Anyways, the answer to avoid divisions in the name of reservations is by increasing the number of seats in educational institutions and public sector jobs. If there is space to accommodate everyone, then opposition to reservations would gradually dilute as opposition basically props up when instead of creating new seats for the reserved category people, the government carves out a certain portion of the seats from the existing few. Secondly, reservations should be given to only those who deserve this. Announcing the entire Muslim community as “pichdas” or increasing the creamy layer for reservation up to individuals earning over 6 lakhs annually is just as ridiculous as denying reservations to Dalit Christians and Dalit Muslims. Thirdly and most importantly, politicization of reservations shouldn’t be allowed. Declaration of castes and communities as backwards should be supplanted with relevant empirical data based on wholesome analysis of the degree of their backwardness. Reservations can’t be utilized as electoral sops to strengthen vote banks.

Geographically, the United States and India are two completely different nations but there are a lot of problems which these democracies have in common. Both the countries need to strengthen their levels of toleration and work towards empowerment of disadvantaged groups without letting the well-off sections of society think that their interests are being sacrificed. The essence of a democratic society lies in following the midway which accommodates viewpoints of all which is extremely essential and important.    

Glamourizing terror? Rambo and Obama do it better!

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The controversial cover page of Rolling Stone which allegedly “glamourizes” Boston bombing suspect, Dzokhar Tsarnaev (Rolling Stone)

A popular magazine in the United States by the name of Rolling Stone has courted controversy by placing a glamorous image of Dzokhar Tsarnaev on the cover page of its latest issue which will hit the stores on August 3rd. Dzokhar Tsarnaev happens to be an accused in the Boston Marathon Bombings which took place on April 15th this year and led to the death of 3 people besides injuring 264. Dzokhar carried out the entire attack in complicity with his elder brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev. While Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in the shootout which occurred between the brothers and Boston police, Dzokhar was arrested in an injured state and has been charged with several offences pertaining to terrorism. The attack carried out by the brothers was in retaliation to what the brothers considered to be an unjust and hostile foreign policy of the United States towards Muslim majority countries.

Coming back to the core issue, the Rolling Stone’s latest move has attracted sharp reactions from persons based both inside and outside the United States. Some have given a call for boycotting this issue of the magazine. However, the intimidating response which the magazine has attracted appears “immature” and “shallow in perception”. There has not been a single news report which has suggested that the Rolling Stone have anywhere by means of its content tried to justify the act of terrorism and butchery carried out by Dzokhar Tsarnev. The head caption on the cover reads “The Bomber” and the text printed underneath it reads “How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam and became a monster.”

The subtext makes it quite evident that Rolling Stone’s cover story attempts to trace the personal journey of Dzokhar from being an everyday college going lad to a terror bomber. The allegation that the photograph used promotes terrorism or glamourizes it would be more suitable for those Facebook fan pages and groups where American girls have described Dzokhar as “cute” and have asked for him to be “pardoned”. It would also apply to Internet sympathizers of Dzokhar who actively lend support to the acts of terror carried out by the likes of Dzokhar in response to what they consider to be a “ruthless assault of America on Islam and Muslims.”

The American entertainment industry however cannot be totally absolved from the allegation of lionzing terror as was done in Sylvester Stallone starrer Rambo. The representation of Afghan Mujahideen as patriotic freedom fighters fighting against Soviet repression was done effectively and repeatedly by Hollywood as part of CIA-sponsored propaganda against communism. The world today is aware of the havoc which was caused by these mujahideen once they came to power in Afghanistan. If American human rights activists are genuinely opposing glamourization of terror then they should not only condemn several award-winning movies made in the 1980s but they should also stand in opposition to US President Barack Obama’s decision to lace Syrian rebels (associates of Al Qaeda) with weapons to fight the illegitimate regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. We need to categorically realize two things in regards to the Syrian conflict: First, the United Nations and not the United States has to take the lead in toppling the Assad regime which is guilty of fuelling a conflict which has left 93,000 people dead and second, the United States cannot aid an Al-Qaeda affiliate group when Al Qaeda itself is responsible for murdering thousands of innocents citizens across the world. Till Washington doesn’t take such a step, there is no point in misinterpreting and blowing out of proportion a story whose purpose is nothing but to bring to its readers the transformation of a boy into a terrorist.

Romney Cruises Past Obama in Debate No. 1

The astonishing victory of Governor Mitt Romney in yesterday’s first Presidential Debate is indicative of a possible change of guard in the White House which could see Barack Obama become yet another victim of the global voter disillusionment fuelled because of the economic slowdown and which has already stumped leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy and Silivio Berlusconi in the past one year.

The bleeding economy was the main issue of discussion during the first of the three Presidential Debates and was dominated by concerns relating to jobs, tax cuts and deficits. None of the two candidates could deliver a devastating blow to their competitor’s Presidential ambitions but what worked for Romney was his controlled aggression when compared to Obama’s lack of responsiveness as he repeatedly failed to dodge the accusations leveled against him by his Republican compatriot. One of the biggest strengths of Obama when he ran for Oval office four years ago was his amazing personal story which he exploited in the best possible manner to woo voters. Last night too Obama began on the same personal note by wishing his wife a happy anniversary from the stage but the magic didn’t work this time around as tales and anecdotes of personal struggle and valour got buried under the heavy mountain of financial problems faced by America.

It was disappointing to see Governor Romney lead the opinion polls after the debate since he indulged in moral impropriety last night by capitalizing on a number of untrue statements. Global politics has since 2007 witnessed a wave of populist political rhetoric and anti-government sloganeering but the reason why it needs to be despised is because those who are indulging in such mudslinging have themselves had a very dismal personal record. They offer no real solutions and do nothing except from basing their campaigns on opprobrium of the incumbent government.