On Sunday morning, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi paid a surprise visit to Delhi’s Gurudwara Rakab Ganj Sahib to pay tributes to Guru Tegh Bahadur. He tweeted that it was an honour that the 400th birth anniversary of the Guru would be marked in his government’s tenure — and pledged to celebrate it in a historic manner. The PM’s symbolic appearance at a gurudwara comes at a time when farmers from Punjab, largely but not exclusively Sikh, have expressed their firm opposition to the Centre’s agrarian reforms. The protests have acquired an element of identity-based grievance too, and while policy differences are legitimate in a democracy, it is crucial that they don’t assume a divide which runs on community lines. And that is why the PM’s gesture was significant, for it indicated that the reforms were not targeted at a community, which is an integral part of what constitutes the Indian nation, and the government respected Sikh religion and heritage.
On Tuesday, PM Modi addressed the centenary celebrations of the iconic Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) — an institution that has contributed enormously in bringing modern education to Indians, largely but not exclusively Muslims, over this period. AMU is often the target of the foot soldiers of extreme Hindutva groups for its so-called Muslim character, and the institution has been unsure of its future. That is why the PM’s unequivocal tribute to AMU and its role in nation-building and deepening India’s relations with the world; his emphasis on the non-discriminatory approach of his government’s policies, including welfare schemes; and reiteration that the constitutional rights of every citizen are secure is significant. At a time when Muslims feel a degree of insecurity about their place in Indian democracy, the PM’s words matter.
Sikhs and Muslims — along with other minorities — help make up the cultural mosaic that is India. As they fulfil their duties as Indian citizens and exercise their rights — including the right to protest, organise, assemble peacefully — they must always have a sense that India is as much theirs as that of members of a religion that may constitute the majority, irrespective of differences on policies and legislations. The PM clearly recognised this and has reached out and reassured the country’s minorities at a time of ferment. It is now important that this message is internalised down the chain, both in government and in the ruling party.