Obama, Ansari And The Patriotism Of India Muslims

30/01/2015 8:13 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST
SAUL LOEB via Getty Images
Indian Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari (R) gestures as he arrives alongside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L) as they attend the country's Republic Day Parade in New Delhi, January 26, 2015. Rain failed to dampen spirits at India's Republic Day parade January 26 as US President Barack Obama became the first US president to attend the spectacular military and cultural display in a mark of the nations' growing closeness. AFP PHOTO / SAUL LOEB (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images)

Following a weekend of an American president watching a soviet-style display of military strength and cultural diversity, Obama's town hall speech was perhaps a fitting end to his trip. For all the talk of defence deals, FDI, shared security concerns and other economic issues, Obama's observation that none of this will be possible without a stable society is noteworthy. What is particularly salient is that he asserted that without religious harmony, progress will simply not be possible. Although these points have become cliché to the point of being nearly meaningless -- Obama will certainly not encourage 'strength in diversity' while visiting Saudi Arabia -- their relevance is underscored because of an event that has taken place over the last few days.

During the unfurling of the flag during Republic day, while the national anthem was playing, Hamid Ansari, the Vice President of India, did not salute the flag. He is a senior diplomat, a man of letters and the grand nephew of the freedom fighter and Congress party president Dr. M. A. Ansari. His office subsequently explained that as per protocol he is not required to salute. Section VI of the flag code of India states that all persons present should stand and face the flag. Adding "those present in uniform should render the appropriate salute." However, despite the legal provisions and the importance of protocol, a storm of vitriol and abuse, aimed at the Vice President, was unleashed on social media.

He was termed a jihadist, anti-national and a treacherous dog, while being advised to go to Pakistan or join ISIS after being sacked. Others suggested he be impeached. These comments, many accessible on Facebook and Twitter, are alarming for their content. Last year a number of people were arrested in Mumbai and elsewhere for 'liking' photos on Facebook deemed to be libellous and I do not advocate a similar reaction since freedom to abuse, some would argue, could be seen as a fundamental component of freedom of expression. However, the double standards are noteworthy since the Vice President is the second highest constitutional authority of the country after the President. The fact is that the only reason the Vice President has been targeted is because he is Muslim. Sushma Swaraj, minister of external affairs, and Rajnath Singh, the home minister, were both also present during the ceremony and neither saluted the flag. The openly bigoted and often abusive kind of language in much of the commentary is not an aberration. All one has to do is to read the comments on any article (perhaps even this one) that is about Muslims or Islam. This is the case even when it is written by a Muslim who offers an analysis which is critical of certain parts of their own communities.

As a result of these recent allegations, much criticism has also surfaced because of the perception amongst certain people that the Vice President did not take part in Hindu religious rituals during Dusshehra a few years ago. As it happens there are photographs of him performing the Aarti, in which light from a oil lamp is offered to deities and songs of praise are sung. Others accused him of being anti-national by not singing the Vande Mataram despite the fact that when he adjourned the proceedings of the Upper House of Parliament he signalled for the song to be played and stood up as it started.

It seems that the problem that many people have is not even to do with whether Muslims are patriotic or not but rather they are concerned with how their patriotism is expressed. It is not about emotion but it is about ritual. No one tells children to love their parents in the same way, and indeed each child is encouraged to have their own distinctive relationship. Similarly, surely patriotism is something that is unique and particular to each individual and can be expressed in an infinite number of different ways? This distinctiveness depends on language, amongst other things, and so Tamil, Gujarati, Oriya or Urdu speakers would all express their patriotism in ways which are borne out of their particular experiences.

In a speech in Parliament last year Prime Minister Modi declared that he would work for the uplift of all Indians and likened Muslims to an organ of the body that is India, saying that if one organ is weak then the body cannot be termed healthy. He added that this could not be termed appeasement. Perhaps it is time that the Prime Minister reiterate this point and emphasise his admirable goal of Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas or together with everyone, development for all. Neither should the Vice President nor any other Indian citizen feel the need to or be required to make a declaration of their patriotism and love of their motherland.

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