If you’re forgiving, then the incident in which an Indian MP force-fed a government cafeteria staffer was a case of belligerence and entitlement, common to people with power all over the subcontinent (see Waheeda Shah), but nothing more. A more sceptical observer, however, would see it as yet another despicable case of communalism in a religiously charged country that is becoming increasingly hostile towards religious minorities.
The MP in question, Rajan Vichare, belongs to the Shiv Sena, a Mumbai-based coalition partner even further to the right of the BJP. In numerous cases, the party has been linked to communal violence, particularly against Muslims. The staffer, Ashraf Zubair, a government employee, was not only a Muslim, but he was fasting as well.
Vichare, after initially denying reports, admitted to force-feeding Zubair a chapati after a video was leaked catching him in the act. After ‘expressing regret’, he maintained that he didn’t know Zubair was Muslim, and only fed him chapati ‘in protest’ against the low quality of food he was being served. But it didn’t take long for things to escalate. Social media, predictably, exploded. Shiv Sena, also predictably, went into conspiracy mode. Party president Uddhav Thakeray said the incident was being used to ‘silence’ the party. “It’s a conspiracy by the Congress. The Resident Commissioner, Bipin Mallick, has the backing of Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. This is an attempt to defame Shiv Sena in view of the upcoming assembly elections,” Vinayak Raut, a Shiv Sena MP, told a local newspaper.
Whether the nature of the incident was actually religiously motivated or not is difficult to surmise, but it holds serious consequences for India’s Muslims and Indian secularism itself. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP had largely kept away from communal tones during the elections, insisting on economic growth. But charges of communalism continue to dog his administration, and after this latest incident, not altogether unfairly. An independent investigation has been called for in Parliament. That is welcome. How the administration handles the issue is a test of how Modi can maintain communal harmony in India — if at all.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 28th, 2014.
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