Criticism of government and PM policies is not tantamount to ‘tarnishing’ India’s image

Two things the Prime Minister said last week worried me. Both were in a speech he delivered virtually at a gathering of Brahma Kumaris. It is a cult of Hindu nuns who believe in celibacy, abstinence, meditation and wearing white clothes. It is unclear why the Prime Minister chose these ladies to make an important political speech which reflected his deepest concerns and his vision for the ‘new India‘. It could just be that these thoughts came to him by coincidence that morning or that he would like the help of a cult that has branches all over the world to help him carry his message. This is a message that cannot be ignored.

Before writing this article, I tried to find a video version of the speech, but failed. So I base this analysis on a report that appeared in this newspaper last Friday. According to her, the Prime Minister spoke of how “the evil of ignoring duties and not keeping them paramount has entered our society, our nation and each one of us”. He linked this lack of sense of duty to fundamental rights, saying that over the past 70 years too much time had been spent “on rights and fighting for rights” and that it had weakened India.

In fact, the only people who seem to have forgotten their duties are the civil servants who govern India and the politicians whom voters so hopefully elect every time elections are held. It is because high officials, elected and unelected, have failed in their duties that the average Indian is deprived of rights that are taken for granted in other democratic countries. The tragic reality is that millions of Indians cannot even afford to go to court to seek justice when they are disenfranchised. This is what should worry our leaders.

If it is the Prime Minister’s thesis that because Indians have spent too long fighting for their rights, India is “weak”, then he is dead wrong. We should have fought much harder not only for freedom of speech, thought and justice, but also for basic rights such as good public schools, health care and clean water. It is the neglect of these rights that weakens India and reduces its stature in the eyes of the world.

This brings me to the other point raised by the Prime Minister in his speech. He said, “We are all witnessing how there are attempts to tarnish the image of India. A lot of this is happening internationally. This point was also raised last week by our Permanent Representative to the United Nations, TS Trimurthi, who in a speech at the UN said that there was “a religious phobia which is spreading against Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs”. Personally, I have no idea in which country this is happening. A significant change in recent decades has been that the world has embraced yoga, Buddhism and Hindu spirituality to such a degree that the old image of India as a country of “snake charmers and millions of people hungry” is now completely forgotten.

So what worries the Prime Minister so much that he believes there is an international conspiracy to ‘tarnish’ India’s image? Could he have read these stories in the international media about how Muslims and Christians were targeted by violent Hindu mobs? Does he worry that the Western media has been very critical of the activities of vigilantes who have lynched Muslims suspected of eating beef? And, churches attacked on the suspicion that they are used to lure misguided Hindus away from the mother faith?

If this is what he means by tarnishing India’s image, then some soul-searching is needed. Why was he silent when gatherings of Hindu priests declared genocide to be the “final solution” to our Muslim problem? The activities of violent Hindutva mobs, many of which have direct ties to the RSS, have certainly damaged India’s image as a liberal democracy. But, much more than that, they damaged the image of Narendra Modi. It is worth recalling that when he first became Prime Minister, Modi was hailed by world leaders as the man who could truly transform India’s economy and help it move forward confidently into the 21st century. .

It was when he won his second term and turned his attention away from economics and the introduction of the real ‘parivartan’ and ‘vikas’ to hyper-nationalism and hindutva that the image of his government began to slowly decay. It is not only the Western media that has taken a hostile attitude to the kind of changes that have taken place recently, it is also the watchdogs of democracy, who watch for signs of illiberalism and autocracy, that have seen with a dim view of the Modi government. It is important for the Prime Minister to remember that criticizing his government and its policies does not amount to “tarnishing” India’s image.

The great privilege of living in a democratic country is that we can take certain rights for granted. The right to speak out against the government is one of them, and this right has been so violated in recent times that dissidents, journalists and students have been imprisoned under preventive detention laws intended for terrorists. These are the things that have “tarnished” the Prime Minister’s image.