Why Kerala Nuns’ Train Incident is a Blot on India’s Soft Power

An incident like that of the nuns can adversely impact India’s soft power, even if slightly.

4 min read
Archival image of nuns in Kerala in a different unrelated incident used for representational purposes.

On 19 March, two nuns along with two other women — a group of four — were travelling by train. Following a complaint that the women were being taken for purposes of religious conversion the group was asked to de-board at the Jhansi railway station.

After an official investigation, the group was allowed to proceed on another train. Clearly, this shows that the allegations were found to be — prima facie — unfounded.

The incident has become an election issue in Kerala. Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan alleged that the nuns were attacked by right wing Hindutva groups. Union Home Minister Amit Shah assured that an enquiry would be held and the culprits would be brought to justice.


Why Was the Complaint About the Nuns Made in the First Place?

In a press conference on 29 March, railway minister Piyush Goyal asserted that the nuns were not attacked. He said that there was a complaint against the nuns and that it is the duty of the police to ascertain if it is correct. Elaborating, Goyal told the media that the police made enquiries, checked documents and finding that they were genuine passengers with the right purpose, “immediately” let them go.

The railway minister is also reported to have denied allegations that student activists with connections to the Sangh Parivar pulled the nuns out of the train. However, he did not disclose the identity of the complainants.

Goyal is right in pointing out that the authorities are obliged to look into a complaint.

But the question is, why was the complaint made in the first place? Was the conduct of the nuns on the train such that it justifiably raised the suspicions of some passengers?

This is an important question, for if they did nothing to really arouse suspicion then it could have been only the prejudice of some fellow travellers which led to a false complaint.

It is undeniable that being asked to de-board a train in such circumstances would cause anyone great inconvenience, if not, trauma. Hence, it is imperative that ordinary citizens and, for that matter, non-citizens living legitimately in India should not be subjected to an experience as suffered by the nuns.

Why Kerala Nuns’ Train Incident Must Not Be Dismissed As a ‘One-Off Aberration’

There can be no justification for anyone to be asked to de-board public transport on charges which cannot stand even preliminary scrutiny. This matter needs to be taken out of the context of electoral politics for it is the basic right of every citizen to move around freely, irrespective of dress, appearance, language or faith. This is especially relevant in a heterogenous country like India where there is no uniformity in these matters.

The Constitution guarantees the right of free movement and the laws provide that legal action can be taken by those who at the receiving end of false complaints.

However, it is often that those who have suffered on account of false complaints, as in the case of these nuns, do not want to take action.

They are simply relieved that they have been allowed to leave and go on with their journey. It is here that the authorities have to step in by initiating action against complainants who have levelled charges for completely frivolous or mala fide reasons.

Such an incident should not be dismissed as an insignificant aberration. For, often it can attract regional and international attention. It then harms India’s image and reputation. It can act as a disincentive to tourists and investors too.


A Blot on India’s Global Image

Tourists want to visit countries where they feel safe in public places. They need to move around freely without a fear of harassment either by the public or the authorities. Reports of such incidents remain in popular memory and are a disincentive to at least some potential tourists.

Thankfully, there have been no recent reports of vigilante attacks leading to violence, injury and death.

Some years ago, there were some cases of violent vigilante action. Although they were very few the international media, especially its liberal sections, reported them and made unfavourable comments. Some influential foreign newspapers went so far as to claim that these vigilante acts were the result of the climate generated by the ideology and programmes of India’s current ruling establishment.

Linking ideology to vigilantism cannot stand rigorous emperical scrutiny though some cases are cited where senior public figures have used words loosely. Nevertheless, they give rise to perceptions and impressions which lead to the formation of the attitudes.

And, attitudes in turn contribute to even investment decisions which should be only made on hard headed business considerations but are sometimes swayed by other factors.

India’s democratic order based on rights and respect for civil liberties is a great asset and a major component of its soft power. That India has engaged in socio-economic transformation and rapid development within the framework of a democratic polity has been an inspiration to many countries. An incident like that of the nuns can adversely impact the country’s soft power, even if slightly. It should not be taken lightly.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He tweets at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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