Narendra Modi’s state visits to the US and Egypt are conspicuous for his contrasting approach to the most awkward issue that beleaguers his regime ― the Muslim question.
In the US, specifically at the White House, Modi remained in denial mode on Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui’s question regarding steps his government was “willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities” and to “uphold free speech”.
But in Egypt, Modi paid a widely-publicised and amiable visit to the 11th century Al-Hakim mosque in Cairo and met Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawky Ibrahim Allam. Modi also was shown meeting select members of the 3,600-strong Indian community in Egypt, including a fair-sprinkling of Bohra Muslims with children in tow, to showcase his ‘humane’ side.
PM Modi at the Al Hakim Mosque in Egypt. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi
The objective of these publicised meetings in Egypt was certainly to project that Modi bears no grudge against Muslims. They were eye-catching and his smiling visage was markedly different from the grim countenance he sports on hearing the troublesome question. Modi’s ease at these interactions obviously stemmed from awareness that he would not face probing questions.
If these divergent responses do not communicate the difference in Modi’s attitude towards the Muslim community in India and abroad, and also in separate countries, the strident rejoinder, bordering on the offensive, of his party and ministerial colleagues to the statement of former president Barack Obama, has to be contextualised with his comments after meeting Allam and members of the Bohra Muslim community who have roots in India.
Modi tweeted that he had “enriching discussions” with the Grand Mufti, in which they spoke about “cultural and people-to-people linkages.” On his visit to the 11th century mosque, recently restored with contributions from the Bohra community in Egypt, Modi said that the mosque is “a profound testament to Egypt’s rich heritage and culture.”
Also read: Egypt’s Paeans to Narendra Modi Cannot Erase the Past or Present in India
Strangely enough, the PM does not regard mediaeval mosques in India as representative of Indian culture and heritage. In fact, it is not just mosques and other Islamic structures that are on the list of monuments and religious places that have to be obliterated and ‘replaced’. While addressing the joint session of the US Congress, Modi made the wholly ahistorical and politically venomous claim that last year, India celebrated 75 years of Independence “after 1,000 years of foreign rule in one form or another.”
Modi’s assertion was similar to the political rhetoric of bara sau saal ki ghulami (1,200 years of slavery) he has used during elections and in political speeches. But this time, the assertion was made on foreign soil, from a platform with immense symbolic value.
Modi has denied in a foreign country the existence of the entire Indo-Islamic civilisation of India, effectively negating the basis of its republican character, though he, and other BJP leaders, castigate opposition leaders for being critical of the Indian government, and thereby India, while travelling outside India. Rahul Gandhi has borne the brunt of these fusillades.
While Modi made his displeasure about the WSJ reporter’s question obvious, even his supporters back home and among the Indian diaspora mounted a fierce campaign against the journalist.
But while Siddiqui faced online trolling, for which the White House spokesperson issued a stern statement, post-visit reactions and mentions for the Egypt leg of the visit were most amiable and laudatory.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the US Congress. Photo: Twitter/@narendramodi
Modi was exultant in his praise of Egypt’s Islamic society while launching a broadside against Indian Muslims and his political opponents on the issue of Uniform Civil Code, which is being flagged again as a Lok Sabha election issue.
Also read: ‘Disentangle Uniform Civil Code from Electoral Politics’: English Editorials on the Renewed Debate
At an event organised because of impending assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Modi told booth-level workers of the BJP in Bhopal that he was “recently in Egypt where Sunni Muslims account for 90% of the population. Egypt outlawed triple talaq 80-90 years ago.” Modi also listed Islamic countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Syria and Jordan, which too had done away with the contentious ‘anti-woman’ provision on divorce. This is not the first time that Modi contended that because other Islamic countries had scrapped orthodox religious regulations and conventions, Indian Muslims should do the same.
In making this argument however, Modi paradoxically gives a shot in the arm for the disputable pan-Islamist sentiment which is otherwise condemned by Modi and others in the Sangh Parivar.
In fact, this is one of the principle bits of ‘evidence’ that Hindutva forces have cited to argue that the ‘loyalty’ of Indian Muslims is suspect – that they identify with Muslims outside India and should be considered ‘lesser’ Indians unless they accept that they are ‘cultural Hindus’.
The argument that Indian Muslims owe allegiance to other nations and civilisations was one of the basic premises of V.D. Savarkar, who codified Hindutva and inspired the formation of the RSS.
The Khilafat movement used by Mahatma Gandhi to forge Hindu-Muslim unity in the early years of the nationalist movement, was presented as ‘proof’ of Indian Muslims’ association with other lands and Muslims in other countries.
Modi has repeatedly used the pan-Islamist sentiment to coerce Muslims into accepting the Sangh Parivar’s position on issues related to religion and politics. But he remains oblivious to the fact that among most Muslims in India, the draw for the West Asian or other Islamic countries stems mainly from three ‘Ms’ – Mecca, Medina and money that poor Muslims in India earn by securing employment in these countries.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay’s latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. His other books include The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.