Exclusivist narratives of religion and caste are becoming increasingly strident in politics, and they are being spelt out aggressively even by those who hold high public offices. They have always been part of public life and politics and were visible on the surface or present not far below, but politics and perceptions defined only in terms of religion and caste are taking firmer hold now. Prime Minister Narendra Modi did no service to his office or to the nation when he spoke the language of religion and flagged themes and symbols associated with it from a public platform. He was not using religion and its symbols for more effective communication of a political idea but was misusing its evocative power to condemn the Opposition. The Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Om Birla, demeaned his office when he sang the praises of the Brahmin community, reinforcing an age-old casteism, again from a public platform in Rajasthan.
At a rally in Mathura last week, Modi said some people “get a shock” when they hear the words cow and Om. He also said those who think that mentioning the word cow is regressive are destroying the country. So, are those who do not have the same beliefs about cows as the PM ‘anti-nationals,’ in the present lexicon of his party? Modi was making a case for animal husbandry, but it was inappropriate to use religious imagery for that. The public exposition of cow protection at this juncture would only give strength and legitimacy to lynch mobs. His statements against cow vigilantism had not, in any case, sounded strong even when he made them. Now, he has sought to link the cow with Om. The association, and condemnation of those who do not believe in them, amount to creating a religious divide in politics. It is a violation of the Constitution, which he is oath-bound to protect. He is the prime minister, and the economy is in difficult straits. The country would like him to speak about that, not deliberately rake up cows and Om.
Speaker Om Birla’s praise of Brahmins and commendation of their high position in society, which he said they deserved “by virtue of their birth”, amounted to an endorsement of the caste system. For centuries, reform movements and enlightened and progressive individuals have tried to fight casteism and a social order based on caste. The Constitution and its laws disapprove of casteism and assert the idea of equality of all citizens. But a person who holds a constitutional office is now seen justifying a casteist society. Aren’t such people taking the country back to the past?
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