The past week and more has not been a good advertisement for either India or the United States, the largest and the oldest democracy, respectively. On 17 June, a white supremacist killed nine people at a church in the US. The victims were all African-American. Four days later, on 21 June, a few Hindu supremacists called into question the credentials of the Vice President of India. The victim in this case was a Muslim by the name of Mohammad Hamid Ansari, who holds the second highest constitutional office in the country. Though dissimilar, the two events highlight how pernicious race and religion could be for multicultural, multi-ethnic and multireligious societies such as the US and India. Incidentally, the same day (21 June), Obama himself was the target of a racist ‘joke’ when Israeli Interior Minister Silvan Shalom’s wife Judy Mozes tweeted: “Do u know what Obama Coffee is? Black and weak (sic).”
The mass shooting at the church provoked US President Barack Obama to say: “… we are not cured of [racism.] And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say nigger in public [italics added]”. In sharp contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s deafening silence only served to confirm the worst suspicions of the discerning Indian. For his part, the man at the receiving end of the taunt maintained a dignified silence, as only Ansari could. Not for the first time though. He had had to defend himself from a similar barb on 26 January, when he was trolled for no fault of his; by not saluting the National Flag during the playing of the National Anthem at the Republic Day parade, Ansari was only scrupulously remaining true to protocol and the Flag Code of India.
The (avoidable) dissonance between the Modi Government and the BJP is all the more jarring when one considers that Ansari was not invited to grace any International Day of Yoga celebrations anywhere. That protocol did not permit inviting Ansari to the premier event at Rajpath where Modi was the chief guest might not be invalid, but if President Pranab Mukherjee could grace a separate event held at Rashtrapati Bhavan, surely Ansari could have been made part of the celebrations at a suitable location, too. This, coming from a government that prides itself in choreographing every showpiece event to the last detail! Clearly, a private apology for a public insult is no apology at all.
Both BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav, whose tweet against Ansari caused the uproar, and Mozes have since apologised to Ansari and Obama, respectively, and deleted their tweets. But for India and the US, as is true of other countries, the challenge posed by bigotry and ignorance has never been starker.
“We insist that nobody should be targeted because of who they are, what they look like, who they love, how they worship. We stand united against these hateful acts.” You would be forgiven if you thought that these words came from a concerned Indian. But, no, they were Obama’s from an Iftar dinner recently hosted by him. He amplifies the sentiments of Indians who cower in embarrassment at the treatment meted out to Ansari.
The unsavoury episode is a hark back to 2002 when Modi, as the chief minister of Gujarat, targeted the then Chief Election Commissioner, James Michael Lyngdoh, for delaying Assembly election in the state. It had earned Modi the opprobrium of the then Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who censured him for making indecorous insinuations at Lyngdoh’s religion, Christianity. While on the subject of Iftar, Prime Minister Modi has carried forward his legacy, of not indulging in the symbolism of hosting Iftar dinners, from his Gandhinagar days to 7 Race Course Road. Yet, it poses a piquant situation: Those who hold that religion has no role in politics, that the government ought not have sponsored a yoga event with religious overtones, cannot now possibly hold the Prime Minister guilty of not hosting an Iftar during the month of Ramzaan, or so the argument goes. But, conversely, if Prime Minister Modi organised a yoga carnival, surely he could host an Iftar party, too, no?