By Patricia Lee Sharpe
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appearance at Madison Garden before thousands of Indian-Americans during UN Week was dubbed a “love fest.” It was certainly a tamasha, which is Hindi for big blast: music, dancing, balloons— plus the true sign of great importance today: protesters on the street outside. Why the anti-Modi demonstration? Many Indians still fear that Modi will allow Hindu extremism to tear India apart. The colors the controversial PM chose to wear while addressing the Indian-American crowd must have intensified the protestors' anxiety.
During the latest round of parliamentary elections, many Indians laid aside their well-justified concerns about divisive religious issues and registered their hopes for change by deserting the Congress Party and voting for Modi’s BJP. Campaigning vigorously in person and via his mastery of modern media, Modi had promised to get the economy roaring. Perhaps more importantly, he had pledged to preside over a little less corruption. Still, in a bewilderingly diverse country where the greatest threat to law and order is communal violence, anxieties remained. The Bharatya Janata Party is not only well to the right of Congress on economic issues, it is anything but a rigorously secular party.
The BJP shelters a strident Hindu nationalist wing that not only condones but encourages violence to hound those who do not conform to an exceedingly narrow view of Hinduism. (Think of Salafism in Islam or Christian fundamentalism in the US.) Thanks to aggressive Hindu nationalists, erudite Sanskritists have had their books removed from book stores, and India’s foremost modern painter, a Muslim but secular to the core, was forced into exile. (Fairness note: India’s Muslims succeeded in getting Salmon Rushdi’s The Satanic Verses banned.) More boldly, a long march was staged to tear down a historically important mosque supposedly built over an ancient temple devoted to the man-god Ram, of which to date no archaeologically convincing evidence has surfaced. Infamous Hindu nationalist groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or RSS (an ex-member, outraged by Gandhi’s sympathetic attitude toward Muslims, assassinated the Mahatma in 1947) find a welcome at the leadership level in the BJP, and Modi himself was accused of culpable passivity during a bloody Hindu-Muslim riot in his home state of Gujerat while he was Governor. India’s judicial system never sanctioned him, but his apparent favoring of Hindus over Muslims during that slaughter led the U.S. to deny him a visa for years.
The Modi government has not yet moved to execute a Hindu nationalist agenda, but many non-fans are waiting for the shoe to drop and Hindutva proponents are chaffing at the bit. So far, the worst the ideologues have done is to revive demands for eliminating the use of English as an alternative national language, even though such action would so alarm the non-Hindi speakers of South India that a long dormant movement for Tamil independence could be revived. If anything, Modi has reined in his overly enthusiastic nationalists, but not strongly enough to be convincing. What’s more, some analysts believe that the reason he has not moved aggressively on any BJP agenda item, be it economic or communal, is that he is waiting for state elections to give the BJP broader control at the state as well as the national level. We’ll have to wait more than few months to see if this hypothesis is correct.
Whatever Modi’s thought processes these days, one thing was clear to US officials last month. When Modi became India’s prime minister, visa denial had to be reversed. As a result, when he came to the US during UN Week, his schedule reflected his importance in the international scheme of things—and his importance to Indian-Americans who want India to get its act together and become a credible superpower rival to China. Hence the tamasha. So what did Modi choose to wear when he wanted to rev up the desi crowd? Look at the photo above. See the pale yellow shirt or kurta? See the orange vest? These are the classic colors of Hindu holy men, the symbolic colors of Hindu nationalists in India. In short, at Madison Garden the prime minister of a constitutionally secular state chose to flaunt a politically-charged Hinduism. To hammer in the visual message, a half dozen aides draped in orange scarves followed him as he strode to the microphone. This was a pretty shocking sight.
UN week all but overlapped Fashion Week in New York, but Modi’s costume was no sartorial coincidence, no laughing matter. It was deliberate and unique during this visit to the US. For essentially non-political events, while addressing the General Assembly, when conferring with business leaders, during his meeting with U.S. President Obama, Modi was more soberly dressed, usually in outfits topped by a tailored Nehru jacket. Once he sported a long-tailed, dark tangerine turban and sometimes there was a splash of light blue, not unlike the politically insignificant light blue of Man Mohan Singh’s turbans. Singh, of course, was the Congress leader who preceded Modi as PM. (Deep dark blue would be another matter. It could be associated with the Hindu god Krishna.)
Blue turban aside, Ram Mohan Singh was always to be seen in the standard Congress Party neutrals–white, tan or beige. These, the natural shades of undyed cotton, wool or silk, preferably homespun and hand-woven, are the traditional fabrics of political India, which is to say, the traditional choices for the Congress which, since the late 1800s, has always been a secular umbrella party. Thus, Ram Mohan Singh, a Sikh, could be PM. And Muslims, under successive Congress governments, have risen to the highest levels of authority in India, as judges, ministers, generals—and even to the presidency. In Pakistan, by contrast, Hindus are hopelessly marginalized. So village-produced khadi was the perfect cloth for a party whose image capitalized on the ideals of economic justice and non-communalism. By contrast, saffron aka orange shouts Hindu superiority, just as green traditionally calls for Muslim power (except among today’s venemous salafists, who prefer piratical black and white flags).
My venture into textiles is not far-fetched or irrelevant. Wardrobe symbolism is an Indian constant. Village-produced khadi has roots in the Indian independence movement, when nationalists refused to wear or sell British textiles. To this day, Indian politicians favor national dress over the western coats and ties that Chinese Communist officials have taken to. Usually, this means a rather rumpled kurta-pajama look but some politicians prefer the more elegant calf-hugging churidar. Either comes with a vest. In fact, everywhere in India, clothes are strong signifiers. When it comes to dhotis as opposed to Western trousers, Bengali men tuck them up, while South Indians wear them like sarongs. Indian army units, so far from seeking homogeneity on parade, proudly display their history and origins by sporting dramatically distinctive turbans and cummerbunds. Note also, in this age dominated by the unisex preference for jeans as a symbol of modernity, the persistence in India of the sari. It can be draped in many ways, each a social or ethnic identifier. In India, then, clothes are more than fashion. When Modi wears saffron/orange, he’s making a statement we need to be concerned about.
Why? Why should anyone gasp when Modi flaunts his Hindu identity as he did at Madison Garden? Because India’s population is about 25% Muslim. Although, as I have noted, many Muslims have been highly successful in all fields—and in Bollywood the most glamorous male stars have tended to be Muslim, Indian Muslims are on average poorer than members of other communities. Part of this is due to traditional self-segregation, but minorities always have some genuine grievances, which means that the potential for cataclysmic Hindu-Muslim discord can never be discounted, a horrifying thought in light of the ghastly loss of life during Partition when Pakistan was born.
And yet, for all the upheaval in the Middle East, there’s been little Hindu-Muslim violence in India in recent years, one reason why that murderous rampage in Gujarat retains such resonance. What's more, domestic peace has held despite Pakistan’s efforts to create communal discord by instigating breathtakingly brazen acts of terrorism within India. Egregious examples: the attack on the Taj Hotel and other sites in Bombay and the assault on India’s Parliament building. Provocations like these might have caused a war between India and Pakistan. They might have resulted in horrendous Hindu retaliation on innocent Indian Muslims within India. Neither happened because, whatever might be said about the failures and corruption that have besmirched the Indian National Congress in recent years, the Party’s devotion to secular governance has maintained Muslim confidence and overall communal harmony.
But outside provocateurs more vicious than Pakistan’s India-hating military intelligence unit have announced that they are ready to change all that. A branch of Al Qaeda has declared its intention to provoke the Muslims of India into terrorism and rebellion. For Narendra Modi to give encouragement to divisive Hindu bigots under such circumstances is playing with political fire in the most reprehensible way.
Orange is fine for wandering holy men. Non-commital khadi is better for responsible prime ministers.