Political Line newsletter by Varghese K George

Political Line | Modi at BRICS, a President from a Scheduled Tribe and more

(The Political Line newsletter is India’s political landscape explained every week by Varghese K. George, senior editor at The Hindu . You can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox every Friday.)

Leaders of the BRICS nations during a video conference, in New Delhi, India.

Leaders of the BRICS nations during a video conference, in New Delhi, India.

Modi’s balancing act at BRICS summit

India has been doing a balancing act between the demands of the West led by the U.S., and its long-standing friendship with Russia for some time now. Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has made this task even more difficult, but India appears determined to stay the course. Attending the BRICS summit virtually, along with the leaders of Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said BRICS countries have had a “very similar view of the governance of the global economy”, and hailed “practical” cooperation in a number of areas, including the New Development Bank, a satellite agreement, a COVID-19 Research and Development Centre set up in South Africa, and the mutual recognition of pharmaceutical products including COVID vaccines and medicines within BRICS countries.

The Ukraine conflict increases the pressure on India from the West, but also reinforces the wisdom of strategic autonomy that the country has pursued for long. For one, the weaponisation of trade and finance by the U.S. against Russia has given a whole new force to the argument that India must not put all its eggs in one basket. BRICS countries are now discussing alternatives to dollar tied trade, and alternatives to the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency. Dethroning the dollar is not easy, and market forces will have the last word on its status, but countries are talking about it. Mr. Modi’s statement that India shares BRICS’ vision on the global economic governance is notable in this context.

English dreams and vernacular realities

The BJP wants to promote Hindi and replace English, going by public statements. But English remains the benchmark of upward mobility in the country, like it or not. The demand for English education is so high that it is difficult to find qualified teachers who can teach the language. In Rajasthan, the Congress government has started more than 700 English-medium schools under a new scheme in three years, and plans to raise that number to 2,000 by next year. Most teachers are not themselves proficient in English, and the scheme remains a challenge going forward.

In Gujarat, the BJP government — yes, the same party that wants to do away with English and promote Hindi — is starting English language teaching from Class 1, the coming week. In more than 32,000 government-run primary schools in Gujarat, English has been introduced from Class I for the first time. The State government says that this is being done, considering the widespread demand from parents.

Alongside the promise of English education for the people, the BJP also continues its cultural politics. The State will go to polls later this year. Inaugurating a revamped Mahakali temple on the Pavagadh hill in central Gujarat which was apparently destroyed by the 15th century Gujarat ruler Mahmud Begda, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said the country was now witnessing “cultural independence that started with Sardar Patel renovating Somnath temple.” “For five centuries and 75 years of Independence, there was no dhwaja atop [the] Mahakali temple. Today, the flag once again unfurls on the temple. This flag is not only a symbol of our faith and spirituality but it shows that centuries change, eras go by, but our faith remains eternal and strong.”

Global Hinduism; a Scheduled Tribe President

India has repeatedly intervened in the UN in the recent past, in favour of ‘non-Abrahamic religions’ i.e. faiths other than Christianity, Judaism and Islam. India has by implication claimed a right to speak on behalf of Hinduism, Sikhism, and other religions that originated in the country.  

Cultural politics of the Narendra Modi government has scored some successes on the global stage, the institution of June 21 as International Yoga Day by the UN being an important one. In some context and places, even the most harmless cultural symbolism can take a controversial turn as it happened in the Maldives.

Protecting the Hindu faith and protecting Hindus anywhere in the world is increasingly being considered a responsibility by the Modi government, which has even tweaked citizenship laws. This week, India granted emergency visas to 111 Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan, hours after a terror attack at a gurdwara in Kabul. All had applied for the visa in September 2021, but the applications were cleared after the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), a terrorist group, attacked the gurdwara on Saturday killing two people including a Sikh granthi.

Federalism Tract

Talking of Hinduism, are India’s indigenous populations -- the tribal communities -- Hindus? The question will resonate again now, with the country set to get its first President from a tribal community. “For the longest time, there had been confusion over who India’s tribals were, especially given the territorial expanse of the subcontinent and the diversity of its peoples. Could they be located within the caste system ( jati)? Were they groups who had been isolated geographically? Were they societies ( jana) with distinct social, economic and political organisations?”

For instance, the Kurubas in Karnataka seek ST status, and the Supreme Court recently decided that a larger bench would fix fool-proof parameters to determine if a person belongs to a Scheduled Tribe and is entitled to the benefits due to the community. A two-judge bench was no longer sure about an “affinity test” used to sift through anthropological and ethnological traits to link a person to a tribe.

Droupadi Murmu sweeps the Purnandeswar Shiv temple at Rairangpur in Odisha.

Droupadi Murmu sweeps the Purnandeswar Shiv temple at Rairangpur in Odisha.

Droupadi Murmu, the BJP’s candidate for President, swept the floor at a local Shiva temple and also visited a Santhal sacred site before heading to Delhi, demonstrating her adherence to the notion that tribes people are Hindus anyway.

The RSS-affiliated bodies argue that tribals that convert to Christian or Muslim worship forms must be denied the benefits of ST reservations, as it already happens in the case of SC members who convert to Christianity or Islam. Conventional tribal politics resisted the influence of all outsiders -- Christian missionaries, British imperialists and Hindu immigrants in their lands. 

Balancing conflicting demands from caste groups is not easy. The Karnataka textbooks issue continues to stir up emotions. A Dalit worker of the BJP told a minister that the community would drift away from the party if the textbooks appeared to not honour Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. The textbooks were rewritten to account for objections from Brahmins who contended that references to caste oppression and ritual practices showed them in a bad light.

The Dravidian model of social justice that sought to ensure equitable representation of all communities in government may require additional measures in response to changed circumstances. Quotas in the private sector may be one such, this piece argues.

Following protests from local communities, the Manipur Chief Minister, N. Biren Singh, has written to the Centre to stop the construction of a fence along the India-Myanmar border.

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Printable version | Jun 25, 2022 5:31:09 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/modi-at-brics-a-president-from-a-scheduled-tribe-and-more/article65561740.ece