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Narendra Modi's championing of Kabir ironic, given contrast between Bhakti poet's social radicalism and BJP's political vision

Despite prevailing academic disagreement over almost every facet of Kabir – from exact dates of birth and death to his origin and beliefs and varied interpretations of what he wrote – the medieval Bhakti poet unequivocally remains a leading representative of Indian syncretism. He remains a frequently invoked name whenever conversation veers on two principal blemishes in the Indian social-scape: communalism and caste discrimination.

Consequently, eyebrows were raised when it became known a few weeks ago that Prime Minister Narendra Modi intended visiting Maghar, the small town where the poet breathed his last in the eponymous district in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Conjectures were made if this was indicative of Modi donning a more socially inclusive visage? If yes, did it reflect jitters in the prime minister's mind regarding the 2019 election? Eyes were thereby riveted on what Modi would say and if he would reach out to embrace alienated communities.

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Kabir. PTI

File image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. PTI

Eventually, on the day Modi visited the town and offered 'chadar' at the poet's mazar (mausoleum), besides paying floral tributes at his samadhi, before laying the foundation stone of a research institute named after the Bhakti poet, a significant part of the spotlight was negatively grabbed by Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath.

This was due to his contentious refusal to wear a karakul cap offered by the khadim or custodian of the shrine, who was quoted as saying that "as per tradition" he offered the cap, but Adityanath refused it. The chief minister later grudgingly agreed to a photo-op where he is seen jointly holding the cap.

In September 2011, when Modi embarked on the voyage which eventually ended with his swearing-in as India's prime minister, he had done so with a programme which was significantly named Sadbhavna. Etymologically, although the word has Sanskrit roots, it is inclusive in connotation and in 2011, it appeared to reflect Modi's realisation that to become prime minister he had to soften his hardline image.

Yet, within days of the launch of the programme, the effort came unstuck when Modi refused to don a skull cap offered by a Muslim cleric. The incident stirred a controversy and Nitish Kumar, then a principal Modi-baiter despite being in the NDA, later mockingly advised Modi in public that in India "sometimes you will have to wear topi and sometimes tilak (kabhi topi bhi pehenni padhegi, kabhi tilak bhi lagana padega)."

In almost seven years since then, Modi has become prime minister but is yet to make a symbolic concession. After the Maghar visit got known, all eyes were on him for any possible shift in his stance, especially as this was announced shortly after he not just visited the Chulia Mosque in Singapore, but also shared on Twitter a picture with a green stole wrapped around the lower portion of his head.

However, at Kabir's shrine, he did not either wear a cap or even cover his head, as seen in the pictures tweeted from his handle, when garlanding Bhakti poet's tomb. By then possibly, the khadim may have been briefed not offer the cap to the prime minister. But since media coverage of his visit was better managed, this episode did not generate any controversy.

But Adityanath's refusal – the video has since gone viral – has ensured that Modi's effort for symbolic outreach to other communities gets mired in needless controversy.

Despite the fact that orthodox Muslims couldn't care less for dargahs and mazars because they pay little heed to those deified in these shrines, Modi would be aware that perceptions matter on these matters.

It is evident that Adityanath did not accept the karakul cap because he does not wish to send 'wrong' message to his core constituency. The alacrity with which he refused the cap shows his clarity matches Modi's in 2011. In contrast, the decision to visit Maghar and lay the foundation of the Sant Kabir Academy now reflects ambiguity in Modi's mind. Besides having provided a venue to attack other parties and get his history wrong, what has been achieved by this visit is a matter to ponder for the prime minister and his team.

The incident also highlights the contradiction of wanting to the appear inclusive without playing along rituals which are part of this process. In any case, dargahs and mazars are revered by Hindus and Muslims alike and there is a long tradition of covering one's head while paying obeisance either by wearing a cap or by draping the head with a scarf or even a handkerchief. The problem, however, is that after consistently shunning visible symbolism of inclusive embrace – the BJP likes to call this appeasement – Modi cannot overnight change tack.

In his years as Gujarat chief minister, Modi discontinued the practice of hosting iftar parties and this has continued after he moved to Delhi. He has also repeatedly refused to discuss issues that are minority-centric separately, instead arguing that the sabka saath, sabka vikas credo is inclusive in character and reflective of his notion, or genuine, of secularism.

At the Maghar meeting, there was also an effort to co-opt Kabir within this government's political worldview. The Minister of State for Culture, Mahesh Sharma, said Kabir’s life, words and deeds are "on the lines of the philosophy of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam" and that in his legacy which united all sections of society, "we can easily find the message of Ek Bharat, Shrestha Bharat." It is a different matter that academics who have studied Kabir from various perspectives, would squirm at such a claim.

It is almost ironical that the Adityanath's video surfaced on the day when United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, visited the Jama Masjid and Gurudwara Sisganj where she was seen even preparing food at the community kitchen or langar.

She also issued a statement on religious freedom. "We think freedom of religion is as important as freedom of rights and freedom of people," she said. The statement apart, her demeanour appeared sensitive to the faiths of others.

There are several other ironies that surface in the wake of Modi's embrace of Kabir. They show that despite outward championing of Kabir, Modi and his political fraternity will find a fundamental contradiction between their political vision and Kabir's social radicalism, especially on the troublesome 'two Cs' – communalism and caste.


Updated Date: Jun 29, 2018 22:53 PM

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