India’s media was set ablaze this week by the explosive allegation that a Hindu member of parliament had “force-fed” a Muslim during Ramadan. After vehemently denying the story, Rajan Vichare, an MP from Maharashtra, admitted to stuffing a staffer’s face with bread once a video began circulating catching him in the act. DNA has the report:
Defending his act Shiv Sena MP Rajan Vichare said, “I was protesting against the quality of food at Maharashtra Sadan. “Later, Vichare was forced to apologise and issued a statement saying, “I regret if anyone’s religious sentiments were hurt. I did not know that the employee was a Muslim. I respect all religions and have even attended roza as well as iftar parties. The real responsibility is of Resident Commissioner Bipin Mallick as to eat food we have to go to Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh bhawan.”
The employee rejected the explanation, saying that he had his name tag on, which ostensibly indicated his religion. Outrage blossomed on social media. In parliament, opposition lawmakers called for an immediate apology and an independent investigation. The Shiv Sena party, it’s important to note, is in governing coalition with Narendra Modi’s BJP, and has been directly linked to sectarian riots in Mumbai, particularly in 1993 when hundreds of Muslims were killed.While it’s easy to wring one’s hands over a story like this in horror—and some amount of horror is certainly justified—standard PC sanctimony is not adequate in this case. India a very complicated country with people at many different levels of education and development. It is four times the size of the U.S., with more linguistic and cultural diversity than Europe or China or the Americas, North and South. Things happen in India that can be deeply shocking when seen out of context, and it’s easy to draw over-broad conclusions from isolated events.That said, the Hindu-Muslim divide is a like a fault line that runs under India. Quakes have taken place along this fault line in the past and could again; extremists from any religious group who show anything less than tolerance and respect for members of any other religious group are playing with fire.It’s particularly difficult because, as the BJP’s recent electoral triumph shows, Hindu sentiment is one of the forces that can unite (some) Indians across the lines of culture and language that otherwise divide India. For many Indians, Hindu nationalism is a common sense ideology that can enable India to unite and develop—and it’s hard for them to understand just why religious minorities get so worried about what they see as a positive agenda.The secularist agenda in India, represented most conspicuously by the Congress Party, historically relied on class and caste rather than religion to mobilize its supporters (though like all generalizations about India, there are exceptions and complications to a statement like this). That tended to align Congress with the economically destructive nostrums of socialism, partly because a ‘pro-poor’ party with intellectual roots in the middle of the 20th century was going to swerve Left, and partly because Congress’ near-complete dominance of Indian politics since independence made the state bureaucracy essential to the party’s thinking and policymaking.India desperately needs to break free of the strangling bureaucracy and the socialist mindset it fostered; realistically, the only alternative is the BJP—a party which also has its drawbacks and vulnerabilities.India is a big country with huge tasks before it, and not everything that happens is going to please foreign (or Indian, for that matter) human rights groups and NGOs. The question will be whether the BJP and its allies can run the government without being sidetracked by communal politics and rivalries.