India, the land that gave birth to four religions and enshrined both secularism and free speech in its constitution, has been having a curious debate these past few weeks: Has the world’s biggest democracy become an intolerant nation?
Ironically, average Indians have been more than tolerant when it comes to enduring a lengthy political — and politicized — thrust-and-parry on the topic, one that has been playing out incessantly on the country’s some 400 TV news channels.
But beyond the theatrics, the reality is that intolerance is a serious issue with important ramifications — both social and economic.
The debate itself has mushroomed out of two separate, disturbing trends. The first is a spate of murders of Indian writers. In August, the Kannada language scholar M. M. Kalburgi was gunned down by a visitor to his residence. Kalburgi was a well-known critic of idol-worshipping, a practice adopted by most Hindus. Kalburgi’s death followed the murder of a Communist leader in February, as well as the 2013 killing of a writer who was committed to debunking superstitions.
The second trend is that of an increasingly violent reaction to Indians who consume beef. In September, just a two-hour drive from New Delhi, a Muslim man was beaten to death by his Hindu neighbors. The reason? There was a rumor that a carcass of a cow was seen nearby. When an announcement was made at the local Hindu temple, emotions flared, a mob formed, a (Muslim) target was identified, and a horrific act turned into international news. Over the next couple weeks, at least two other Muslim men were attacked: one over rumors that he was transporting beef, the other for allegedly smuggling cows.
The national response has included a growing chorus of anger directed at the government. Numerous writers have returned their prestigious Akademi awards to protest a lack of action. Even India’s central bank governor, Raghuram Rajan, made a rare foray into non-economic matters by calling for mutual respect and tolerance in public discourse.
But perhaps the most painful assessment for India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi came from an analyst at Moody’s Analytics, saying the country — and Modi — could “risk losing domestic and global credibility” if action wasn’t taken.
Here’s another headache for Modi: Senior members of his own Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have kept the issue in the headlines with a string of bizarre public pronouncements. Consider the following verbatim quotes:
1. “Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef.” — Manohar Lal Khattar, Chief Minister of Haryana and member of the BJP.
2. “If by any chance the BJP loses … [fire] crackers will be burst in celebration in Pakistan.” — Amit Shah, BJP President.
3. “Lynching a person merely on suspicion [of eating beef] is absolutely wrong.” — Tarun Vijay, BJP MP.
Rub your eyes, and read those three sentences once again.
Now consider the implications of those statements.
1. India has 175 million Muslims, more than the entire populations of Iran, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia combined. Khattar’s comment was essentially a threat: If you want to continue living here, be like most Hindus and stop eating beef. His remarks also suggest an unspoken validation for vigilante thugs, emboldened to threaten Muslims.
2. Shah was referring to the ongoing elections in Bihar. While he was obviously casting the BJP as the party of Hindus (80% of India’s population), he was also painting opponents of the BJP as not only pro-Muslim, but also pro-Pakistan. In essence, he was calling into question the patriotism of 175 million Indian Muslims.
3. In an editorial in The Indian Express, Vijay points out the need for tolerance. He condemns lynching a person based on mere “suspicion” of consuming beef, but in so doing seems to leave open the question of how to respond to a known beef-eater.
It seems barely a day goes by without a BJP politician putting a foot in his mouth with statements that inflame an already volatile debate.
The real mystery is why the face of the BJP — Prime Minister Modi — has been aloof. He has yet to condemn such statements from his colleagues, and has only occasionally mentioned the need for Indians to be tolerant. Almost every night on India’s TV channels anchors and pundits call for their usually vocal Prime Minister to say and do more on the issue. No luck so far.
There are two schools of thought whispered around New Delhi. The first is a truly despairing thesis: that deep down, Modi believes India is for Hindus. Modi’s roots as a member of the RSS — the umbrella Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which the BJP is a political offshoot — have left many assuming he shares the group’s core goals of a Hindu nation with Hindu values, beliefs, and practices endorsed by the state to the exclusion of other faiths.
The second thesis is that Modi is a realist. Modi’s first priority, the theory goes, is the growth and development he promised on the campaign trail. But he can’t push through reforms without electoral gains in upcoming state elections. And Modi can’t achieve those gains, goes the line of thought, without appeasing and enlisting the more hardline RSS factions of his party.
Both theories, frequently discussed among New Delhi’s liberal elites, suggest grim outcomes: an India where public speech, eating habits, alternative ideas, are all subservient to a restrictive interpretation of a single majority religion. In many ways it is the antithesis of centuries of inclusion in this region. Long before India formally became India in 1947 it was a refuge for Armenian Christians, for Jews, for Zoroastrians, for people of different religions from all over the world. Multiple faiths and beliefs intermingled for centuries in relative peace, a fact that has been celebrated and enshrined in India’s remarkably progressive Constitution.
One of India’s founding fathers (and pious Hindus) Mahatma Gandhi understood this well when he wrote about beef, more than six decades ago:
“No one probably experiences a greater agony of the soul when a cow is killed. But what am I to do? Am I to fulfill my dharma myself or am I to get it fulfilled by proxy? … To make a [Muslim], therefore, to abstain from cow-killing under compulsion would amount in my opinion to converting him to Hinduism by force.”
Modi would do well to remember Gandhi’s words, and not feel bound by either of the two theories being used to explain his silence. Tolerance is important not only to harmony within the country, but also to India’s considerable soft power abroad.
And there is anyway a third, more altruistic path to consider: Modi could take a lead on the issue, forging a progressive and forward-thinking path on inclusion and tolerance. He could set an example for the region and the world. Doing so would not only be good for the country, but it would also be politically expedient. Modi could start to close the debate, allow the country to move forward, and focus on his pet issue: the economy, stupid.
Ravi Agrawal is CNN’s New Delhi bureau chief. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.