The political responses to Rajan Vichare, a Shiv Sena MP, stuffing a chapati into a fasting Muslim’s mouth at the Maharashtra Sadan in Delhi last week tell us something about the texture of Indian politics after the general election.
Arshad Zubair, a catering supervisor for the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation, was accosted in the kitchen of the Maharashtra Sadan by 11 Shiv Sena MPs enraged about the quality of the Sadan’s catering.
When the story broke, the Shiv Sena’s reaction was to flatly deny that such an incident had occurred. Several Shiv Sena spokespersons, including a young MP who had been part of the belligerent group that had pushed its way into the Sadan’s kitchens with camerapersons in attendance, told news channels that the story was a fabrication, an attempt by the Sadan’s resident commissioner to obscure his own incompetence and corruption.
Unluckily for the Shiv Sena, its keenness to create television spectacle meant that the goonery of Rajan Vichare had been captured on camera. Footage aired by CNN IBN showed Vichare repeatedly shoving a chapati into Arshad Zubair’s mouth. This bore out the allegation made in Zubair’s formal complaint to the Sadan’s commissioner that despite wearing a name tag that made his religious identity explicit and his protestations that he was fasting for Ramzan, he was coerced into breaking his roza.
But ignore for a moment the fact that the Shiv Sena was caught out lying about the incident. The Shiv Sena is what it is, a party that makes a political living out of bigotry and brazenness and violence. The parliamentary ‘debate’ on the incident gave us an insight into how the Bharatiya Janata Party, as the principal party of government, is likely to deal with the thuggery of its Hindutvavadi allies.
L.K. Advani, the BJP’s relegated Bhishma Pitamah, was the only party leader to categorically say that what had happened was ‘wrong’. Rajiv Pratap Rudy, a BJP spokesperson, declared that the Shiv Sena had no intention of hurting anyone’s religious feelings. Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP’s parliamentary affairs minister, said that the allegations were unsubstantiated. “We are dealing with a sensitive issue,” he said. “Let us not try to rouse communal passions unnecessarily. Nobody knows the truth. Let the Chair get the facts and then we can discuss it.”
Naidu’s statement became the stock BJP response to the uproar about the incident. Prakash Javadekar repeated it in the Rajya Sabha. Another spokesperson, the ubiquitous Sambit Patra, turned up on television to ‘humbly’ urge everyone not to sensationalize the matter merely because the person involved was called ‘Arshad or Ahmad’.
The effrontery of this is remarkable: the reason why it’s difficult to give Rajan Vichare the benefit of the doubt is that he belongs to a party that has a long history of hostility towards Muslims, that is avowedly Hindutvavadi and that had, in the face of all the evidence —a formal complaint by Arshad Zubair, the testimony of the IRCTC and video footage — denied that the incident had occurred at all. That Naidu, Patra, Javadekar and Rudy chose to believe that the reports were ‘unsubstantiated’, or that offence had not been intended, tells us more about the BJP’s majoritarian reflexes than it does about the party’s high-minded commitment to due process.
But let us, for a moment, ignore Arshad’s Muslimness and the Shiv Sena’s ideological bigotry. Shouldn’t the fact that a gang of allied MPs publicly intimidated and humiliated an employee in a government institution like the Maharashtra Sadan for the benefit of television cameras be enough for the BJP, the principal party of government, to condemn their conduct? What stopped Venkaiah Naidu from saying that this was unacceptable behaviour? He could have been as scrupulous as he wanted about shunning the ‘communal angle’ by simply censuring Vichare’s behaviour as a species of secular lumpenism.
There are several reasons why the BJP didn’t do this. The first, of course, is that in the run-up to the state assembly election in Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena is a crucial Hindutvavadi ally and assembly seats and political office will always trump any scruples or misgivings about political thuggery. Rajan Vichare, by his own affidavit, has over 13 criminal cases registered against him, the charges ranging from rioting to criminal intimidation. The Sena’s mouthpiece Saamna, warned critics of Vichare’s behaviour that “tomorrow’s rulers of Maharashtra are the Shiv Sena, let them not forget.” This is the company that the BJP keeps, so it isn’t surprising that its first response to a scandal like this is to prevaricate.
The second reason is that the BJP genuinely can’t see what the fuss is about. A bunch of National Democratic Alliance MPs strong-armed a functionary who happened to be a Muslim…yes, mildly embarrassing, but come on, no one died! It’s worth remembering that the BJP has just appointed Amit Shah as its party chief, a man, who, during the general election campaign, said dreadful things about Muslims; this isn’t a party that is likely to be particularly sensitive to an obscure Muslim’s roza regime.
But it is Ramesh Bidhuri’s antics in the Lok Sabha that best explain why Rajan Vichare’s despicable behaviour elicited a ‘move along now, nothing to see’ response from the ruling party. Ramesh Bidhuri is a BJP MP who represents South Delhi. During the zero hour debate in the Lok Sabha, he charged into the well of the House, bent on a confrontation with Asaduddin Owaisi, yelling that “this is Hindustan, not Pakistan”, and allegedly saying other things so vile that he embarrassed his own party members into restraining him. He was subsequently forced by an outraged Opposition into a pro forma apology.
The fact of the matter is that Bidhuri’s libel — that Muslims are fifth columnists, Pakistanis in mufti —is part of the stock-in-trade of Sangh Parivar politics. Muslim ghettoes in Gujarat are routinely called ‘Pakistan’. There’s a reason why the BJP’s absolute majority in Parliament doesn’t include any Muslims, and the reason is that the party doesn’t like them, doesn’t even, as Ramesh Bidhuri’s tirade illustrated, consider them properly Indian. It’s a mistake then to expect the BJP to be appalled by or even concerned about Vichare’s assault on a fasting Arshad Zubair.
What happened in Parliament during the Maharashtra Sadan discussion was a strange sort of theatre: the senior BJP MPs, who seemed disapproving of Bidhuri, were embarrassed by his indecorousness, not the substance of what he said. It was — with apologies to that master of the political neologism, L.K. Advani — a kind of pseudo-embarrassment: the BJP’s leadership was miming discomfort with a prejudice that it agreed with.
The prime minister, naturally, said nothing.