When Pope Francis received Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s invitation to visit India, he considered it the “greatest gift” that he could receive. When he embraced and kissed him, he was doing that to the 1.3 billion Indians whom the Prime Minister represented. The Catholic community in India, which is the second biggest in Asia, rejoiced that their Pastor and Shepherd was going to visit them. They had felt pained that the Prime Minister had not thought of inviting him earlier when Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh had done so and rejoiced at his visit and at his encouraging words. It took time for our policy makers to realize that ignoring a person of Pope Francis’ stature in world affairs was damaging their own interests.
Modi stayed on with the Pope longer than scheduled, not only because the areas of common interest were wider than he had foreseen, he also realized how much he had missed ignoring a person of such universal outlook for so long. The papal visit to Iraq had thrilled the entire Middle East. Initially, it may not have been easy for an ex-RSS-pracharak like Modi to shake off the inhibitions built into him by his Saffron Masters in his junior days. Prejudices, once planted deep, cannot be pulled out easily. And traces remain even after conscious eradication.
Today, prejudice-building has been turned into a skilfully planned art, to which Indian society is made pliant, with all other sources of information subject to merciless Orwellian control. Such collective mind-control and brain-washing work for a while; but, then, realities reveal themselves for what they are.
Reality: Injustices Presented as Achievements
Maria Ressa, a recent Nobel Prize winner from the Philippines, referring to such problems, speaks from experience. She says, “When citizens are manipulated on social media with no accountability, they distrust everything”. Mutual deceptions increase. Emotions are stirred against “others” (other religionists, ethnics, nationals). People today are led by “palaeolithic emotions” than sound reason, she contends. And freedom of speech has become “freedom of reach” (Sacha Baron), i.e. as far as lies can be made to reach. “Lies laced with anger can spread further than facts” with ruinous results. For example, Facebook has failed to control the volume of hate speech in India so that it has become a part of our daily diet. Results follow.
What Yogi Adityanath or Amit Shah say thrills their admirers, but kills the hapless. Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines is proud to have killed 19 journalists, 63 lawyers, 400 human rights activists, and innumerable victims of drug war, to construct an orderly state! Yogi Adityanath is equally proud that he has eliminated 151 ‘criminals’ in encounter killings during the last four years. He stands for zero tolerance of crime. His vigilante-killings remain uncounted. He got 45,603 arrested under the Gangsters Act, and 657 under National Security Act. He threatens to arrest anyone who rejoices over Pakistan’s cricket victory under sedition laws…to make sure that India is safe!
Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar worries that such state harassment by FIRs are on the increase nationwide. Shiv Visvanathan feels despondent that these pathologies are here to stay: a “soft totalitarianism”, a flatland of majoritarianism and mediocrity, patriotism of uniformity; decline of the university and of science; the figure of a “monster nation state”, and ongoing social disorder. “Today, riots have become part of policy”. We just have no choice but get used to these things. Even as Visvanathan was saying that Modi was cutting a great figure in the US calling for a “rule-based” global order. Can he wash his hands clean of his responsibility towards cultural vigilantes, communal senas and criminal vahinis? If he has succeeded to do so this far, it proves the statement that ‘lies can reach further than facts’. But, for how long?
Human Fraternity Ever under Threat
When the Pope gave Modi a book on “Human Fraternity”, he was trying to tell Modi that his primary concern was not merely immediate issues like covid or climate, but the long-term wellbeing of Humanity. It pains him when people suffer whether they be in Kabul or Kashmir or Khandamal. The RSS will ask, is not the Pope’s main concern conversion? Conversion, yes; if you mean, conversion to the acceptance of human co-belonging. The VHP philosophy of exclusion may not approve of that. But the core of Indian thought has always accepted it. “Let noble thoughts come to us from every side” (Rigveda I-89-i). “O men! Just as my commandments are for the good of all mankind, so do ye treat all human beings, the Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, Shudras, or even still low born people” (Yayur Veda 26,2). Such an attitude builds up trust, it contributes to solidarity among communities within the nation, in the neighbourhood, in the world. This is evidently a common ground to build on.
As of now, there is a trust deficit, as for example in Kashmir. More than 700 people were detained ahead of Amit Shah’s visit. Centre has moved in 5,000 paramilitary forces into Kashmir of late. Mufti Mehbooba insists, patriotism cannot be enforced with the barrel of the gun. As people are deeply distressed about the recent targeted killings of 21 Muslims, 23 political workers, Amit Shah himself admitted that more than 40,000 had lost their lives in Kashmir.
Critics ask how it differs from the killing of a 1000 by Gen Min Aung Hlaing of Myanmar; how Mufti Mehbooba’s detention differs from Aung San Suu Kyi’s; how Bajrang Dal’s religious extremism differs from Taliban’s in Afghanistan or Monk Gnanasara’s in Sri Lanka. They point out, just as China cannot win the hearts of the Tibetans or Uighurs by force, India cannot win Kashmiri confidence through army action alone.
Human warmth missing
Unfortunately, we are not moving into a world of human warmth, but of warheads. When the digital warriors of the Sangh Parivar turned mercilessly on Mohammed Shami, the Muslim cricketer in the Indian team that lost to Pakistan, Rahul pleaded with him to forgive them. “No one gives them any love”, he explained. Truly, there is no love shared between the different parts of the fragmented society that the VHP has created in India. Their outlook has alienated all our neighbours as well.
While the Prime Minister claims that he wants to make India the greatest military force in the world, tests the 5000 km range Agni-V missile, and boasts about the indigenously built aircraft carrier Vikrant soon to be launched, he knows that China’s navy is three times bigger. Even America is taken aback by the Chinese preparations. Gen. John Hyten, the second highest officer in the US military, says, “The pace at which China is moving is stunning”. He considers China’s test of a hypersonic weapon capable of orbiting the Earth before hitting target as “very concerning”.
As winter is approaching, Chinese preparations close to Tawang are alarming. Incursions into Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand are a clear announcement of more things to come. The Chinese are busy setting up “well-off villages” all along the border for dual use: civilian and military. The nuclear warheads that China possesses today may rise to 700 within 7 years and 1000 by 2030.
And what is India busy with? Himanta Biswa Sarma of Assam says: “We will create a ‘population army’ to curb birth-rate in Muslim dominated areas.” Yogi is spending enormous sums on temple-building. Ayodhya works are in progress. Politicians of all parties are growing more and more munificent with mutts, temples, pooja pandals, and sadhu conferences… from the public funds of a “secular” state. Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar was stunned by the performance of the UP government in getting Kumbh Mela gloriously organized. However, he was not impressed by their care of Covid patients or under-nourished women or children. And he says: government services remain “corrupt, callous, unaccountable, and almost unreformable”. The consequence of such callousness reaches the borders too. India lost men, money and space at Ladakh! No lamentation, no downgrading of leadership evaluation. Further, in 2021, India has slipped to position 101 in the hunger index. Malnutrition is steadily rising. Realities cry for attention.
Recently we read of a “Crying Room” that Spain built in Madrid for mental patients. We may need such a room soon. Suicide among farm workers rose 18% in 2020. For all the hugs that Modi lavished on Xi, human warmth has not grown, warheads have increased. Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese war strategist, says, “Your security is in your hands; the enemy’s defeat is provided by the enemy himself”. History alone will judge who ensured whose defeat. Tzu still held on to his belief that the best battles were those that were won without fighting!
A “Conversion” is Possible
A change of mind is possible for everyone and in every field. Despite border tensions, India-China trade is booming ahead beyond the $100 billion mark. The Chinese are practical people, and where there is business advantage they are not likely to damage it. G20 has decided on a minimum 15% corporate tax that will reduce corporate diversion of funds. It will prevent tax evasions to a great extent, to the benefit of the respective nations. Modi is legitimately proud that over a billion people have been vaccinated in his country. Yogi promises to set up 30 medical colleges in UP. Petrol prices are being lowered. Certainly, all these positive trends have a shadow side. An “ulterior motive” is evident. But a change of policy, a change of mind, a ‘Conversion’, seems to be possible in every area, in every respect.
The other day, the RSS General Secretary Dattatreya Hosabale, took everyone by surprise with the statement, “We are not against voluntary conversions”. Of course, the UP elections are near. Muslims matter, their votes count. Election motives are clear in such statements! Is there, then, some “ulterior motive” to Hosabale’s conversion? Has he forgotten that already 10 states have passed anti-conversion laws where innocent people can be harassed in the name of conversion? Will he be questioned about his “conversion”?
Or, is it that “conversion” is allowed in the political field alone? Is the use of ‘force, fraud and inducement’ legitimate when getting someone to change parties and political stands, and break political promises?
Is Hosabale ready to put his new stand on ‘voluntary conversion’ into the central RSS policy documents’? Will the RSS promise that they will not allow the abuse of anti-conversion laws with arbitrary administrative regulations, limiting basic human freedoms? Centuries ago, Buddha told the Kalamas, ‘Judge for yourselves and make your own decision’. Against this background, the Hindutva elite have no right to pressurize Indians what they should decide!
The Desert Will Bloom
I have decided not to attribute any political motive to Hosabale’s statement “We are not against voluntary conversions”; nor to Prime Minister Modi’s invitation extended to the Pope. Gradually they begin to acknowledge what is right is right, and discover genuine goodness where it is to be found. It is their right to evaluate matters and judge and decide for themselves.
On the plaque that the Pope gave to Modi were inscribed the words from Isaiah, ‘the desert shall bloom’, evidently expressing the hope that their climate protection proposals would be successful. “The waste land will become fertile, and fields will produce rich crops.
Everywhere in the land righteousness and justice will be done. Because everyone will do what is right, there will be peace and security for ever” (Is 32:15). May this concern for nature go beyond the protection of environment to the care of humanity itself. May righteousness and justice reign and peace be established in every land! That is the Conversion that the Church has always sought. The wellbeing of humanity is what the Pope is sincerely seeking.