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Published in the 1-15 June 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition

India's new humane face 
By Tahir Mahmood

Tahir MahoodFor a full one week since 13th May India, the largest democracy in the contemporary world, remained in an unprecedented turmoil. The political outfit firmly occupying the seat of power for the last about six years had been suddenly knocked out. Shocked by the wholly unexpected verdict of the electorate imposing on it a crushing defeat, some well-wishers of the routed group went berserk and announced such hysterical plans of action that made the world feel amazed and amused. In a bid to retain power by hook or by crook they expected to generate anarchy of sorts by denying the woman-chief of the winning conglomeration her rightful place in the country's governance, firmly believing that her response would be 'either me or none in my party'. They were absolutely wrong and had made a terrific miscalculation. The woman they had targeted proved that her statesmanship excelled theirs. She kept them on tenterhooks for several days, while amply demonstrating that the masses were solidly on her side and had rejected as sheer nonsense all loose talks about an Indian citizen's birth outside the national frontiers. Once this was firmly established beyond all doubts, in an amazing show of unparalleled dignity she stepped down from the high pedestal on which the people of India had placed her. Undoubtedly she did it out of her deepest concern for the maintenance of peace and social harmony in the country, describing her thoughtful decision as her considered response to the voice of her inner-self. Flabbergasted, her followers did not believe their ears. They cried, shouted, lamented, tried to cajole her and indeed left no stone unturned to persuade her to change her mind. Showing abundant will power and great strength of character, she remained unfazed and stood as a rock by what she in her wisdom had decided in the best interest of the nation. The world saluted this woman-citizen of India who, though born abroad, had made an unprecedented sacrifice and proved that she was indeed much more concerned about the people of this country than her bitter opponents who would treat their accidental birth on its sacred soil as a license for letting loose all sorts of lawlessness.

And look who has stepped into her shoes -- of course at her own insistence and by her personal choice. She has crowned a man of great abilities whom the world deeply respects for his learning, integrity, simplicity and humility. In the past India has had several heads of the state who were extraordinarily educated and possessed doctoral degrees, but he is the first head of the government having the highest academic qualifications up to a doctorate - actually earned by his own hard labour, not conferred honoris causa - and that too in a discipline which is of fundamental importance to the nation's development. And, incidentally, he is also the first head of the government belonging to a minority community, which is indeed a bonus point. Indira Gandhi had given India its first minority-community President -- followed by two more who also were her creation - but it was left to Indira's daughter-in-law to give the nation the first ever prime minister belonging to a minority community.

Today the heads of both the state and the government are members of India's minority communities. Undoubtedly both stand on their own unparalleled merits and their faith has played no role whatsoever in their spectacular rise. Yet this is a coincidence that gives India a singularly unique place of pride among the nations of the contemporary world. It restores India's secular image and washes away to a large extent the ugly anti-minority face that it had unfortunately assumed in the world-view in recent years. Frankly speaking, it largely revives India's lost traditions of pluralism and missing love for unity in diversity. In its glorious past record India has had two Presidents and three Chief Justices belonging to the second largest religious community of the country, the Muslims, whose population incidentally exceeds the total population of the UK and France taken together. Appearing among the nation's top echelons in half a century of the post-independence era, these Muslim names affirmed India's Constitutionally-proclaimed secular credentials. The faith of the people in that very Constitution - proclaiming for the citizens dignity of the individual, equality before the law and equal protection of the laws -- had been dwindling in recent years for reasons too well known to be recapitulated. The names and stature of the top-level custodians of state authority under the present dispensation restore it and radiate rays of hope for good days ahead. 

We, the devoted children of Mother India, do hope that the world will no more look at us through the spectacles of the solo super power of the time as a 'country of particular concern' as portrayed by the US Commission on International Religious Liberty in its most recent report. Since times immemorial our great country has given the world lessons of religious tolerance. We may now hope to play that role once again.

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