My friends kept counting on social media — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Indonesia, Libya…
I detected an unmistakable relief, bordering on joy, at the way the Narendra Modi government was being roasted on the international stage for blasphemy by its now ‘fringed’ spokespersons. I thought: doobte ko tinke ka sahara. Yet I was uneasy, not quite sure if we should clutch on to this straw.
I have always been uneasy about inviting or welcoming external support for our internal battles. Whether it is the denial of United States visa to Modi, or some European Union indictment of our government’s human rights records, or the UK parliament discussing the farmers’ movement, it doesn’t turn me on. In December last year, I was approached by a Washington DC publication to respond to this question on US President Joe Biden’s democracy summit: What’s one concrete thing America could do to help bolster your country’s democracy? I am usually slow in responding to emails, but this answer was swift: “I’m afraid I have a one-word answer to this question: keep off.”
Sure, West Asian autocracies are not white supremacists, nor are they imperialist masters. No doubt, this international backlash brought a badly needed respite in the unrelenting campaign of hatred. Modi government’s capitulation was a vindication of the sustained efforts of young journalists like Mohammed Zubair, who have called out hate mongers with exemplary courage. You can’t but heave a sigh of relief when the nation does not discover a new buried temple or a shivling for 72 hours. You cannot grudge vicarious pleasure when bullies turn into mice and the BJP discovers respect for all religions. I must confess to enjoying some of the cartoons, memes and social media posts.
Yet, we must resist the temptation of joining or welcoming this international chorus. As Indians, we cannot celebrate India’s diminution on the global stage. As global citizens, we must know better than to pin hopes on the international Islamic community. As well-wishers of the beleaguered Indian Muslims, we must not overlook the long-term cost of this support. As defenders of the Indian republic, we must see that this intervention is not very helpful in our struggle against the politics of hate. We must learn to say: Thanks, but no thanks.
Outcry based on hypocrisy
Let us note, first of all, that this collective outcry is only about blasphemy because it involved a direct and deliberate insult to Prophet Muhammad. This is why the Islamic world has reacted, just as it did against the Charlie Hebdo cartoons. Once this issue is addressed, or buried, or forgotten, most of these countries would have little difficulty carrying on business as usual.
Our challenge is different and deeper. We don’t have a blasphemy law in India. And we don’t need one. Section 295 A, which penalises insulting any religion or religious beliefs of any class of citizens with deliberate and malicious intention, is good enough for us. Let us not unthinkingly endorse the idea that blasphemy is the ultimate crime. Let us not get distracted from our main focus: the real issue currently is hate speech and violence directed at the Muslim community.
Besides, this outrage does not have an ethical leg to stand on. Most of these Islamic countries have a poor record of freedom of religion for their own minorities. It is rather rich of them to lecture India on this count, even if what they say happens to be true. As a matter of fact, most of them have an embarrassing record of supporting even Muslims outside their own country. Ever heard Pakistan utter a word about how Uighur Muslims are treated in China? Nor do they have a track record of caring for the plight of ordinary Indian Muslims. Frankly, these countries care just as much for Indian Muslims as does the BJP for Kashmiri Hindus.
Support can be counter productive
Leaving morality aside, what about feasibility? Would this episode not at least help to halt the BJP’s juggernaut against Muslims? I doubt this. Yes, it has caused considerable embarrassment to the Modi government. Yes, it drills a hole in the grand claims about Modi’s international stature. But this is not going to affect the BJP’s core constituency. The BJP’s loyal voters would easily “understand” his party toning down its rhetoric without changing its colour. The official spokespersons would be a little more mindful of political correctness, while the second rung leaders would continue with Muslim bashing—both verbal and physical. Blasphemy may stop, but bulldozers will continue.
If some Muslim majority countries take their own protests seriously, leading to some real consequences for India, then the BJP eco-system can play the victim card. In the long run, the image of ummah, the international Muslim brotherhood, being the real saviour of Indian Muslims is not a good image for India or its Muslim citizens. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh can easily twist this around and deploy this in its propaganda war as proof of extra-territorial loyalty. There could be a backlash to the current backlash. Either way, this episode is not going to cost the Prime Minister or his party much.
Even if it were to go the other way, should we invite and support this intervention?
Should we watch and applaud this humiliation of the Indian government on the global stage, because it might restrain it from dismantling our constitutional democracy? I should think not. India’s public life has maintained a sacred boundary: as democratic citizens, we reserve the right to question, critique and resist our government, but as citizens of this country we don’t attack our government on the global fora. The Internet has nearly erased this boundary in today’s world. Yet this imaginary line must still be drawn and respected. I will resist this government with everything at my command: call it out for damaging the hard-earned international reputation, but I cannot allow the Taliban to lecture my country on minority rights or even listen to the US pontificate on human rights, for that matter.
I will hold on to this nationalist convention until I lose all hope of resistance within. Have we not reached that point already? I hear this voice of despair among my friends. I suspect that the celebration of external intervention on blasphemy is driven by an acceptance of the inability to take on the bulldozer. To these friends, I wish to say: this battle has just begun. This is our battle. We have to fight it ourselves. And we cannot fight this battle by chopping the branch on which we are perched.
(The author is among the founders of Jai Kisan Andolan and Swaraj India. He tweets @_YogendraYadav. Views are personal)