Thursday, September 17, 2015

SIDDHARTH VARADARAJAN - Shame on You, Mr. Culture Minister

“Despite being a Muslim”, APJ Abdul Kalam “was a great nationalist and  humanist.”
With these shocking words – uttered casually at the end of an interview to a television channel a few days ago – Union Minister of Culture Mahesh Sharma has not only insulted all Indian Muslims but also the former President of India. The minister was asked about the controversy over the renaming of Aurangzeb Road in New Delhi. He defended the decision by noting that the Mughal ruler was not someone that people considered ideal and then added,

Aurangzeb Road ka nam bhi badal kar ek aise mahapursh ke naam par kiya hai jo Musalman hotey hue bhi itna bada rashtravaadi aur manavtavadi insaan tha – APJ Abdul Kalam, unke naam par kiya gaya hai.” (The name of Aurangzeb Road has been changed to the name of a great human being who, despite being a Muslim, was such a great nationalist and humanist – APJ Abdul Kalam, we have named it after him). Just in case Sharma claims I am distorting his words or quoting them out of context, here is the video clip from India Today TV (watch from 16’16’’): https://youtu.be/qRBKJS8_q0Q?t=16m16s

So now that we have established that the minister actually said what he said, and that the context in which those hateful words were uttered provides him no alibi or escape route, let us consider what they tell us – about Mahesh Sharma the individual; about the Narendra Modi government in which he serves as an important minister; and about the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the organisation he swears allegiance to and which he describes as “nationalist”.


Bigotry plain and simple: The first thing we can say is that Sharma, for all his moralising, is a garden variety bigot who does not believe Indian Muslims are really Indian. If you are a BJP supporter and believe the minister said nothing offensive, substitute the words “Hindu” for “Muslim” and “Atal Bihari Vajpayee” for “APJ Abdul Kalam” and then see how awful that sentence sounds.

Let us be very clear. Even Kalam – whose popularity the BJP is trying to cash in on by getting a road named after him – must suffer the ignominy of having his patriotic credentials certified in this way by the small-minded men who are running the government. In the Culture Minister’s perverted worldview, being Muslim is a handicap that the former President had to overcome in order to serve the country.

Kalam was an extraordinary man – a scientist and administrator who was open to embracing the culture and philosophy of others in a way that fewer and fewer Indians of all faiths tend to be these days. There were many handicaps he had to overcome in a life he devoted to his country, such as the poverty he was born into, and the indifference of the Indian system towards providing quality education to its poorer citizens. If at all being Muslim was a handicap, it was because of the ignorance and prejudice he must have encountered along the way from people who questioned where his loyalties lay – and not because his religion made him have any doubts on this account.

Elsewhere in the same interview, Mahesh Sharma makes a pitch for the compulsory teaching of lessons from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Gita in school but demurs when asked whether the Quran and Bible will be given the same status. This can’t be done, he says, because only the Hindu texts reflect, the “atma” or soul of India.

There are many naïve people in India who believe their religion, caste, language or region is superior to others. Some among them might even become MPs and ministers. It is hard to say whether the minister’s belief in the exclusive claims of his religion to the “soul of India” is the act of a simpleton or the product of cynical majoritarian politics. Either way, how can a person who takes his oath of office on the Constitution of India defame an entire section of citizens in the way Sharma has?

That the Culture Minister has questioned the patriotism of Indian Muslims is bad enough. But there is something else that I find even more disturbing. The reflexive manner in which he uttered his throwaway line – ‘Musalman hotey hue bhi’ – tells us he is not ashamed of airing his bigotry in public, not even at a time when he and his government are already under fire for trying to pursue a communal agenda. It is this unapologetic, brazen assault on the honour of 14% of the population that worries me. I see it as a sign of bad days ahead for India.

If at all there is a context to Sharma’s shocking words, it is that they were made soon after he and other ministers attended a conclave organised by the RSS to assess the performance of the Modi government. We know from Ram Madhav that the government’s primary stakeholders – what he coyly calls the “ideological family” – went back to Nagpur “content with the general direction of the country under the new government.”

Time to go: What that cryptic sentence really means can be judged from the charged-up manner in which the Culture Minister has emerged from this remedial class. I won’t go into the other ridiculous things Sharma has been saying since the RSS conclave, including his desire to fight against “cultural pollution.” That is a topic we can save for another day. But impugning the Indianness of Indian Muslims – a central part of the RSS’s political agenda since the days of Hedgewar and Golwalkar – is a despicable thing for a minister to do. If Sharma wants to indulge his bigotry, he should resign from the cabinet and do so on his own time.