Departing Indian vice-president contests BJP elite on minorities

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On the eve of his departure from office as vice-president of India, Mohammad Hamid Ansari on August 8 took on the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the situation of India’s minorities.

In a remarkably candid television interview, he deplored trends involving cow vigilantism, beef bans, “love jihad”, lynchings and so on directed against minorities, saying these amounted to a “breakdown of Indian values” and constituted a threat to the “ambience of acceptance” in a plural society. The fact that the authorities had failed to discharge their normal law-enforcement responsibilities was disturbing.

Questioning attacks on citizens over their citizenship, Ansari stated firmly: “A citizen is a citizen, that’s it.” He agreed with critics who noted the growing intolerance in Indian society, and acknowledged that he had shared his views with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Earlier at a public lecture in Bangalore, Ansari castigated nationalism that placed “cultural commitments” at its core as a “conservative and illiberal form of nationalism”. He said that while tolerance is a good virtue, it needed to be elevated to acceptance, which “is not happening”.

Stating that “pluralism and secularism are essential for our democracy”, Ansari noted that frequent demands for the singing of the national anthem indicated a sense of insecurity. It was also disturbing that the very fact of the Indianness of any citizen was being questioned.

Controversially, the problem in the minority-dominated Kashmir region, said Ansari, “is and has always been a political problem and must be addressed politically”. The BJP government in New Delhi, however, has opted for a muscular rather than a conciliatory approach in Kashmir, which has led to human-rights violations on a large scale.

Ansari recalled the  statement of the late former president Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan that “democracy is distinguished by the protection it provides to minorities, but at the same time minorities also have their responsibilities”.

Expression of such frank views by a high constitutional dignitary seems to have displeased many in the ruling BJP who have said that Ansari showed a lack of grace on the eve of his departure from office.

Modi and the incoming vice-president, Venkaiyah Naidu, expressed their displeasure at such outspokenness. While Modi quibbled at the farewell function for Ansari, Naidu was direct.

Modi hinted that Ansari, a former diplomat, had been cocooned for long in the Muslim world of the Middle East. He was allegedly unprepared for the wide world of the Rajya Sabha (upper house of Parliament) of which he was appointed chairman. His diplomatic experience and way of thinking were conditioned by the Muslim ambience of the Middle East.

Ansari’s post-diplomatic experience in the Aligarh Muslim University as well as in the National Minorities Commission was allegedly a continuation of his previous Islamic experience. In running the Rajya Sabha as chairman from day to day, Modi said that Ansari might have felt a degree of unease.  

Modi was perhaps patronizing and sarcastic in suggesting that Ansari’ s operating procedure at work had been shaped by his Islamic experience; he was perhaps uncomfortable in the wide world of the Constitution of India and the institution of the Rajya Sabha. While stepping down, therefore, Ansari would perhaps feel a sense of relief or exhilaration. He now could go back to his old ways of thinking and speaking, a conclusion drawn from translations of Modi’s remarks by Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr published in Newslaundry on August 11.

Naidu was more direct than the prime minister, saying Ansari’s observations were a form of political propaganda. Minorities in India were not insecure and there was no intolerance against them, the incoming V-P claimed.

However, the report of a Prime Minister’s High Level Committee chaired in 2006 by Justice Rajinder Sachar provides a graphic account of the social, economic and educational status of the Muslims of India (13.4% of the population). Its findings are in sharp contrast to the opinions of BJP leaders.

The findings of the Sachar Committee are in tune with the enlightened and sensitive views expressed by Ansari.

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