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.