Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought to project the twin issues of sustainable development and India’s soft power when he mooted an International Yoga Day in his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly last year.
“Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature. By changing our lifestyle and creating consciousness, it can help us deal with climate change,” he had said on the occasion.
But what he did not anticipate was the heat this would generate in his own backyard. The protests against organising yoga programmes in schools and elsewhere to mark the International Day of Yoga on 21 June are reminiscent of the opposition in the past to the introduction of the National Song in schools or the mandatory usage of Hindi language. Predictably, organisations such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board have been quick to oppose yoga, citing religious objections to Asanas such as Surya Namaskar.
For her part, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj sought to dispel the impression that yoga is religion-specific by pointing out that 47 member-states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) supported the resolution in the UN and countries such as Saudi Arabia and Indonesia co-sponsored it. However, where the government erred, and Swaraj obliquely referred to it, was in not reassuring people that the celebrations planned for the occasion were voluntary.
Clearly, coercion cannot be condoned. Swaraj might have added, for effect, that anything that the BJP does is not “anti-minority”; yet, a perception is gaining ground, thanks to Yogi Adityanath on Surya Namaskar, Naqvi on beef and Sakshi Maharaj on the myth of the Muslim population bomb, that this government intends to propagate a certain worldview. What is equally disconcerting is that for every Naqvi there is a Shafiqur Rahman Barq, too, who found the National Song offensive to his religious beliefs.
It is unfortunate that in spite of yoga’s worldwide popularity (communist China included) and celebrity endorsements in Hollywood, it is perceived by some at home as being more Hindu than Indian. For some, yoga epitomises all things Hindu. Others, in a classic action-reaction paradigm, would tell you that eating beef is un-Hindu-like. Lost in between these competing narratives (and flawed arguments) is the idea of India.