Union ministers garlanding and felicitating convicts was bound to become the talking point in India, which heads into a general election in 2019.
However, the question is why would a democratically elected leader choose to do so? Was it appealing to a certain segment of the society or brazen overconfidence on the part of a minister who boasts of Harvard University as his alma mater?
The controversy arose when a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet garlanded and welcomed eight people who were convicted of slaughtering a man in the name of cow vigilantism.
The minister in question is Jayant Sinha, a member of the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) and son of a party stalwart and former minister Yashwant Sinha, who is now estranged from the party. The father tweeted his disapproval of the son’s actions but the damage was done by then.
On 29 June 2017, a mob lynched Alimuddin Ansari in Ramgarh district of Jharkhand state on the suspicion that he was carrying beef. A lower court convicted eight men in the case but the High Court later granted them bail.
As pictures of these convicts being garlanded by the minister went viral and television channels jumped up and down in angry debates, the political discourse hit a new low.
In his defense, Sinha tweeted: “I have repeatedly expressed my misgivings about the fast-track court’s judgement sentencing each accused to life imprisonment. I am pleased that the honorable high court will hear the matter as a statutory court of appeal to test the correctness of the fast-track court order”.
“I have full faith in our judicial system and the rule of law. Unfortunately, irresponsible statements are being made about my actions when all that I am doing is honoring the due process of law. Those that are innocent will be spared and the guilty will be appropriately punished,” Sinha added.
I have repeatedly expressed my misgivings about the Fast-Track Court judgement sentencing each accused to life imprisonment. I am pleased that the Hon'ble High Court will hear the matter as a statutory court of appeal to test the correctness of the Fast-Track Court order.— Jayant Sinha (@jayantsinha) July 7, 2018
But his explanations found few takers with the opposition parties and a group of ex-bureaucrats coming out in a strong critique of his actions. Moreover, Sinha is not the only minister accused of openly siding with convicts, especially when the crime has been perpetrated against Muslims.
The embarrassment which his pictures have caused the BJP party and the government were apparent when there not too many voices coming out from within his own party in his defense. Nilanjan Mukhopadhya who writes in The Hindu and is the author of the book, Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, is strongly critical of Sinha’s actions.
“Firstly, Sinha’s actions are not to be seen in isolation, there have been various lynching incidents. And this is symptomatic of a government trying to impose the ideology of Hindutva,” he says. Mukhopadhya says that this is also symptomatic of political desperation on the part of the BJP with the general election around the corner.
“What has been achieved by this government is a matter of debate. To win the 2019 elections, they need a national narrative like in 2014 they had development. However, today there is no unanimity unlike in 2014 when everyone believed the UPA was bad.”
According to him, Sinha’s actions seem to suggest that the BJP is trying to create a national narrative on the communal level with an eye on 2019.
But the problem in India today runs deeper. It is not a question of just a minister felicitating convicts, it is also about fringe elements running loose, fake news being widely accepted as the truth and mobs then going in a frenzy and killing innocent people.
The incident has once again brought to the fore the issue of secularism and the place of minorities in the country. Sadly, no political party seems to be above the other in these matters.
It is only in 'New India', where those who are supposed to get the noose are instead being garlanded. pic.twitter.com/GoZ2RoBKMn— Congress (@INCIndia) July 7, 2018
Calls for change
Historian Aditya Mukherjee, who teaches at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said that this is an absolute shame and hopes that the people of India will throw out the present government in the next elections.
“They said this is a lunatic fringe who is doing all this but when men like Sinha do it, it is no longer the fringe but the best people among them doing this,” says Mukherjee. According to him, the row has definitely backfired among the educated Indians but then no one really knows what is happening on the ground.
Opposition Congress party’s President Rahul Gandhi was quick to tweet in response to Sinha’s actions and demand that Harvard University drop him from the alumni list. For many political observers this was adding another insult to the injury.
Gandhi could have demanded Sinha’s sacking from the party or a stronger action within the parameters of the Indian constitution, but he failed to do so. And for his demand that Harvard drop him, there were many eager fingers pointed at the skeletons in Congress party’s own closet.
Former finance minister P Chidambaram is out on bail and so is Dr. Shashi Tharoor, albeit on different charges.
Kavita Shrivastava, National Secretary of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) says the incident is shocking as it shows how brazen as a society we have become in “encouraging, supporting and reinforcing those who lynch Muslims”. She warns that Sinha has become a hard liner Hindutva just for votes.
Remove Jayant Sinha from alumni list: Harvard alumnus https://t.co/ilbyxLhERX— Catch News (@CatchNews) July 11, 2018
Paradox of ideology
The Left parties and the regional parties too came out condemning actions of Sinha. But therein lies another paradox. The Left ideology in India is more or less over and in a democratic fashion they have been given a farewell kiss. So did minister Sinha really believe that playing one religious community over the other would translate into greater share in the vote bank?
Seen in the context of a general election staring India in the face, the political debates and discourse is likely to get worse. And the actions of political actors across the spectrum likely to get more desperate.
If Sinha displayed a great misjudgment of the mood of the country, worse is likely to follow. He probably overstepped the party line too but then he was merely being a politician. In his eagerness to please one religious community over the other, Sinha was playing vote bank politics.
The status and security of Muslims and other religious minorities in the country today is a worrisome issue. This is likely to get worse as the country enters into election mode.
What the ruling BJP party needs is to be wary of is ministers like Sinha who may turn out to be their Achilles heel. Stepping in to weed out such elements would be a smarter and more successful strategy for the party and a wise one for the country.