In those moments when questions emerge about the fragility of the state’s constitutional principles — over what has transpired since the >Dadri lynching and the killing of Kannada scholar M.M. Kalburgi, for example — it is incumbent on high constitutional functionaries to rise to the occasion and seek to answer them. These incidents have triggered a response from India’s intellectuals who have earned recognition, with a string of litterateurs returning their >Sahitya Akademi awards , concerned about the silence of the august body over rising intolerance. Right-wing chauvinists have seemingly become more emboldened, with even former fellow-travellers of the BJP such as Sudheendra Kulkarni being targeted for initiatives related to bettering India-Pakistan ties. It is in this context that President Pranab Mukherjee’s statement a week ago at Rashtrapati Bhavan, where he underlined the need to retain diversity, plurality and tolerance as the core values of our civilisation, came as a balm. The President later re-stated those sentiments on foreign soil – in Israel, speaking to politicians in the Jewish state, suggesting that “religion should not be a basis for a state”. While the remarks were more apposite to the Israeli context, these could be seen as a reiteration of how India should not go the Israeli or Pakistani way. The words by the President, who occupies a ceremonial role, are in contrast to the reticence shown by the Prime Minister in reassuring citizens about his government’s seriousness in tackling communal hatred.
The Prime Minister could do that in several ways. He could reprimand >Culture Minister Mahesh Sharma who has come up with several controversial statements recently. He could acknowledge that communalism — especially of the majoritarian kind that seems to have received a fillip since the present government came to power — would not be tolerated. He could reiterate the commitment of his government, which was elected on the promise of development, to stem the rising tide of intolerance, and reassure those returning their Akademi awards of his government’s commitment to secularism and law and order. Instead, we have heard Narendra Modi merely expressing sadness about the Dadri lynching, and using the clichéd argument of law and order being a State subject, trying to avoid the onus. Mr. Modi’s colleague, Nirmala Seetharaman, tasked with giving a response, also came up with a faulty argument, suggesting that there is something to be debated about communalism. Secularism is a bedrock of India’s Constitution, and what needs to be debated is the means to achieve the separation of religion and the state. The sense is that the ruling party wants to disregard this and bring the very question of secularism under debate. This is clearly untenable, and it is to be hoped that Mr. Modi would live up to his constitutional role. The President has shown the way.