Sir Jadunath Sarkar, the eminent historian, records that in 1679 Shivaji sent a letter to the emperor Aurangzeb protesting against the imposition of jizya during a time of great hardship. The Maratha icon pointed out that Aurangzeb’s predecessors, Akbar, Jahangir and Shahjehan also had the power to levy this discriminatory tax on non-Muslims, “but did not give place to bigotry in their hearts, as they considered all men, high and low, created by God to be examples of the nature of diverse creeds and temperaments”. In a memorable admonishment, Shivaji reminded Aurangzeb that the Quran called Allah “Rabb ul alamin, the Lord of all men, and not Rabb ul muslameen [only the Lord of Muslims]… To show bigotry for any man’s own creed and practices is equivalent to altering the words of the Holy Book…” Sir Jadunath dwells on this remarkable letter in both Shivaji and His Times, as well as in his History of Aurangzeb [Volume 3]. Equal honour to every faith is a pillar of Indian civilisation; and it is this common moral and cultural inheritance that provides the enduring inspiration for our Republic. Shivaji’s 17th century letter could serve as a preface to India’s 20th century Constitution.
It is not the job of a column to lecture, let alone pontificate, but there are occasions when a reminder is apposite, even if the scale of an MP’s provocation is minor compared to the far-reaching impact of an emperor’s prejudice. The irrational, almost schoolboy-bully, anger of a few Maharashtra MPs who were served disagreeable food in a government hostelry is an immature misdemeanour rather than government policy, but we must take it seriously, for the edifice of India’s democracy is built by the innumerable bricks of individual and collective rights.
It is perfectly true that a man’s religion is not written on his face, as an MP who sought to thrust a chapati down a Muslim server’s mouth at the Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi pointed out. But in which script does one write the language of human dignity, the language that Shivaji made his creed? The question is particularly appropriate when the relevant MP claims to wear the mantle of Shivaji. We are talking of more than an affront to a particular religion; it was brash display of the arrogance towards a much larger community of the poor. This was negation of the central message of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign, where he repeatedly stressed three core themes and reiterated them during his first major speech in the Lok Sabha: the foremost responsibility of a government is to work for the poor; development and jobs must go to every Indian, including minorities [“If one organ of the body remains weak, the body cannot be termed as healthy. We are committed to this… We don’t see this as appeasement”]; and that India can become a modern nation, with double-digit growth, only when we make development into a mass movement, in the manner that Gandhi made the freedom struggle into a mass movement. The volatile variations that are now rising across public debate could throw the government off-message.
Some of the volatility is predictable if not explicable. The election results were an earthquake, and the after-shock tremors will trouble the earth for a while. There will be a fringe which claims justification for its views in the results. A few carpetbaggers will imagine that they can improve their chances of preferential treatment during the distribution of rewards by pandering to the fringe. But marginal facts should not be confused with a central reality. A government can only be run from an inclusive perspective. Home Minister Rajnath Singh did well to reassure Parliament, and the nation, that such behaviour was unfortunate, and by implication unacceptable.
There are practical dangers in veering off-message as well. Politicians might be surprised to discover that voters have become volatile as well. Voters want delivery on what they were promised at campaign time; they are not interested in the sudden spout of a new rhetoric. Voters are not doctrinaire; they want jobs and homes and electricity and water and lower vegetable prices, and they want it sooner rather than later. They enjoy the luxury of electoral options, and have the ability to recognise a leader who they believe will deliver better than the competition. In state elections, candidates for Chief Minister will influence the outcome significantly. With power comes responsibility, of course; with responsibility comes a face and a name.
Narendra Modi has inspired a pervasive hope that the politics, language and governance of an arid past is behind us. No one expects results to be immediate, or transition to be easy; but the country senses an absence if he shifts to the background for even a week or a fortnight. The travails of July will soon be over. August needs a return of that fresh breeze.