If the Parliament is the temple of India’s democracy, the Central Hall in the stately Sansad Bhavan is its garbh grah, its sanctum sanctorum. Since I am using the Hindu imagery of a temple, I should mention who the main ‘deity’ in this sacred place is. It is Janardana. More specifically, Janata Janardana.
A compound word in Sanskrit − ‘Janaihi ardate iti Janardanaha’ − Janardana means one who is the lord of the people, their protector from distress, and bestower of peace and progress. But in the age of democracy, Janardana is none other than janata – or “We the People of India”, the resounding words with which the Preamble of our Constitution begins.
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In what form or icon does the ‘deity’ appear to us? Prime Minister Narendra Modi answered this question for us on 25 May 2019, when he addressed the newly-elected MPs of the NDA, led by his own Bharatiya Janata Party.
Before he began his speech – and it was indeed a commendable speech – PM Modi bowed his head in worshipful namaskar, before a bedecked copy of the Constitution of India.
Along With Vikas, Modi Makes A Plea For ‘Vishwas’
“The Constitution is supreme for us,” Modi said. He likened India’s 130 crore citizens to 130 crore ‘Gods’, and promised that his government would serve them with a similar spirit. To drive home his late conversion to the concept of an ‘inclusive India’, he affirmed, “Our mantra should be ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ and ‘Sabka Vishwas’ (We shall take along all, for the development of all, and to gain the trust of all).
‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ was a promise Modi had made in 2014. How much of that promise was kept, is a different matter.
But Modi has felt the need to add a new promise this time: ‘Sabka Vishwas’. Just to make sure his message reached those – mainly Indian Muslims − who do not so far trust him and his party, he emphasised, “We have to win their trust. There will be no discrimination on the grounds of religion.”
Fine words. But, clearly, Modi’s message has not reached many of his own party’s legislators, as was evident in the Lok Sabha when the swearing-in process of the newly-elected members started early this week.
Triumphalist Sloganeering Amidst the Solemnity of Swearing-In
If ‘Jai Constitution’ was the prime minister’s pledge, many BJP MPs enthusiastically demonstrated that their allegiance is to ‘Jai Shri Ram’. With Hubris generated by the “teen sou paar” mandate (BJP’s tally in 2019 – 303 seats), they used the solemn occasion of swearing-in for triumphalist sloganeering.
Worse still, they weaponised the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan for heckling Muslim MPs like Asaduddin Owasi, president of the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen (AIMIM), and Shafiqur Rahman Barq of the Samajwadi Party, and also for taunting MPs belonging to the Trinamool Congress from West Bengal.
Owaisi gave it back with his own slogan, “Jai Bheem, Allahu Akbar, Jai Hind”. He cannot be blamed for raising a religious slogan because he didn’t start the battle.
Why BJP MPs’ Wrongdoing Far Exceeds Mere Unparliamentary Conduct
That the raising of religious slogans inside the Parliament qualifies as unparliamentary conduct is one thing. But the BJP MPs’ wrongdoing goes far beyond the limits of overzealous misdemeanour. Their offence is grave on three counts.
- First, it has to be seen for what it really is – as a rebuke to, and a rejection of, Modi’s ‘Sabka Vishwas’ pledge. These MPs are unmistakably telling their own leader, “We do not need the vishwas of Muslims to govern India, just as we did not need the votes of Muslims to get elected. Hasn’t our party been able to form the government again, with a larger majority, without having a single Muslim MP in the Lok Sabha? We don’t have to care for them, unless they toe our line.”
- Second, their way of using a Hindu religious slogan to jeer Muslim MPs also means a haughty repudiation of a key assurance of the Indian Constitution – namely, that all citizens of India are equal, irrespective of their religious belief. In the eyes of the Constitution, an Owaisi or a Shafiqur Rahman Barq has exactly the same status as any Hindu member of the BJP, even though the latter may belong to the ruling party. But that’s not how many BJP MPs, or their supporters outside Parliament, see it. There are already several instances of fanatical Hindu mobs forcing ordinary Muslims to chant ‘Jai Shri Ram’, and beating them up if they refuse to do so.
- The third offence is against Hinduism itself. If the Ramayana has any one moral message, it is one of nonviolence, love for all, and penitence for wrongdoing. In the excellent new book ‘Hinglaj Devi: Identity, Change, and Solidification at a Hindu Temple in Pakistan’ by Jürgen Schaflechner, we read how legend has it that Lord Ram (along with Sita and Lakshman) went on a pilgrimage to Hinglaj Mata in Balochistan to atone for his sin of killing Ravana. For those who care to know, the very meaning of Ayodhya, the seat of Ram’s kingdom, is that it is a place of “no-war”. And ‘Ram Rajya’, which Mahatma Gandhi extolled so much, stands for an ideal government that ensures security, justice and welfare for all.
Two Silver Linings: Adhir Ranjan & Om Birla’s Speeches
In themselves, there is nothing objectionable about either ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (Victory to Lord Ram) or ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great). However, it is one of the great tragedies of the Indian civilisation, also of contemporary Indian history, that the slogans ‘Allahu Akbar’ (which have issued forth from the lips of fanatical Muslim invaders and temple-breakers in the past) and ‘Jai Shri Ram’ (which became the war cry of the Ayodhya movement) are being used as tools for communal polarisation.
Even though the shouting of slogans and counter-slogans somewhat tarnished the solemnity of the occasion of swearing-in, there were two silver linings.
One, the newly-elected Lok Sabha speaker, Om Birla, said he would not allow a repeat of the chanting of religious slogans or the heckling that occurred in Parliament on Tuesday.
The second was even more cheer-worthy. Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, the Congress party’s newly-elected leader in the Lok Sabha, has endeared himself to all sensible people in the country with his very first speech, delivered extempore. And what a short but sweet speech it was! Referring to the unfortunate episode in Parliament, he said: “Jab Mullah ko masjid mein Ram nazar aaye, Jab Pujari ko mandir mein Rahman nazar aaye, Duniya ki nazar badal jaayegi, Jab insaan ko insaan mein insaan nazar aaye!”
(The eyes of the whole world will change when a Muslim sees Ram in his masjid, when a priest sees Allah in his temple, and when we human beings see a human being in every other human being.)
Will Modi Pull Up His Errant Colleagues?
Let me add a third silver lining, which is still a half silver lining. Speaking to reporters outside the Parliament House on Monday, at the start of the first session of the 17th Lok Sabha, PM Modi made another welcome statement: “When we come to Parliament,” he said, “we should forget paksh (ruling party) and vipaksh (opposition). We should think about issues with a nishpaksh (non-partisan) spirit and work in the larger interest of the nation.”
Again, fine words.
But if Modi wants the Parliament to function in a non-partisan manner, and if he wants ‘Sabka Vishwas’ to be his motto for the second term, why hasn’t he reprimanded his own MPs for shouting the ‘Jai Shri Ram’ slogan, and, especially, for using it to boo and barrack Muslim MPs?
It is one thing for the prime minister to bow before the Constitution, the icon of ‘Janata Janardana’, inside the Central Hall of Parliament for the entire country to watch on TV screens. It is quite another to credibly re-orient his own, his government’s and his party’s conduct according to the lofty canons of the Constitution. PM Modi certainly commands the authority to pull up errant party colleagues. The question is – will he? Or will he again leave a troubling gap between words and deeds?
The choice before him is simple: ‘Jai Constitution’ or ‘Jai Shri Ram’? Modi’s choice will make or mar India’s – and his own – next 5 years.
(The author was an aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which advocates India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)