The strong admonition by the RSS and BJP leadership against demonising Indian Muslims in the context of the Tablighi fiasco is welcome. These worthies need not be awarded brownie points for doing their job by promoting amity. At the same time, dismissing their efforts as a panic response to negative coverage in the global media is counterproductive.
RSS sarsanghchalak Mohan Rao Bhagwat has warned against stigmatising Muslims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called for “unity and brotherhood” because corona has no “creed”. BJP President J P Nadda has issued a show-cause notice to the Uttar Pradesh MLA who denounced Muslim vendors. Earlier, Maharashtra Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray had warned of strict action against those spreading communally divisive messages.
Drawing a distinction between Muslims at large and a handful of Tablighi Jamaat members was necessary, after reports of their egregious behaviour during quarantine fuelled public outrage. At a time when the country is fighting the pandemic with its back to the wall, maintaining peace and harmony is paramount.
To portray these emollient statements as nothing more than a public relations damage-control exercise is unfortunate. Granted, reportage on India's handling of the pandemic has been rather selective. Good news from India is no news. The exemplary discipline, solidarity and street-level charitable efforts by Indian citizens during the lockdown have not merited coverage. Nor has the fact that the majority of “nationalist” middle-class India are sickened by WhatsApp campaigns against Muslims, as many of them have said on social media.
International focus has been on hungry migrant workers, random acts of stupidity like disinfecting people with bleach and revolting social media messages circulated by the loony fringe. The global media had even inveighed against the lockdown which, in retrospect, should have been imposed at least a week earlier.
From an electoral standpoint, Modi has nothing to fear from the characterisation of his “Hindu nationalist” government as bigoted, incompetent and uncaring in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. After all, the “fear and loathing” response is nothing new. His back-to-back electoral victories were greeted with similar outrage and did not impact his popularity in the slightest.
Fatuous comments on Modi's 'image' obsession and purported desire for a Nobel Peace Prize are unworthy of a response. Every leader wants a positive image, but none of them, regardless of political affiliation, will bend over backwards to appease the media.
However, the relentless disparagement of India could negatively impact the geopolitics on the other side of the pandemic. At a time when sovereignist and nationalist sentiments are gathering strength worldwide, the need for multilateralism in critical areas like climate change, terrorism and the looming debt crisis in Africa cannot be ignored. Like it or not, India – the world's fifth largest economy – is a significant global player.
From this perspective, a rapprochement between the Indian government and the international media is desirable.
On the one hand, the BJP feels that by preaching solely at India, overlooking the worst violators of human rights and civil liberties, the international media appears to exercise a double standard. The bar for India is invariably set higher, as compared to any of its authoritarian neighbours. Its democratically elected Prime Minister has been equated with some of the worst dictators in history! Anti-Modi diatribes light on facts and rich in rhetoric, the valorisation of Modi-baiters and one-sided rants on supposedly unbiased media platforms have become par for the course.
Some ideologues feel that this reverse bigotry works to the advantage of China and its client states, notably Pakistan. For example, China's “re-education” of lakhs of Uighur Muslims cannot be weighed in the balance with the Delhi riots, which saw casualties on both sides of the communal divide.
On the other hand, the Modi government must be quick to respond to alleged or real violations of human rights. It must not only act decisively against communal assaults, but must be seen to act. Although law and order is within the purview of state governments, issuing public advisories to chief ministers in cases where minorities are targeted will prevent allegations of inaction. And since most of these assaults take place in the cyberworld, executing and announcing an uncompromising crackdown on the more egregious anti-minority posts is necessary.
The statements by the RSS chief and the PM are a positive step in this respect and all party leaders must take their cue accordingly – thereby signalling that India remains a strong, pluralistic democracy with an independent media that does not need foreign agencies to vouch for its freedoms.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.