NEW DELHI (Reuters) - India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing criticism for remaining silent about incidents deemed anti-Muslim in the past week, underscoring fears that his Hindu nationalist followers will upset religious relations in the multi-faith nation.
Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party swept to power in May after an election campaign that mainly focused on promises to revive the economy but that also made reference to India’s majority Hindu identity.
Footage emerged this week of a radical Hindu party lawmaker trying to force food into the mouth of a Muslim caterer. Separately, a BJP politician questioned the national identity of an Indian Muslim tennis star, while an ally of the prime minister said India could become a Hindu nation under Modi.
Several commentators said Modi’s failure to speak out about the incidents risked encouraging aggressive behavior by fringe elements of his party and related organizations.
“The prime minister needs to come out strongly against such comments in order to reassure the minorities that their apprehensions about the intent of his regime are misplaced ... Silence on his part will only encourage such elements,” The Times of India said in an editorial.
India has a dark history of religious violence, especially between the Hindu majority and Muslims, who account for more than 150 million people, making India the world’s third most populous Muslim nation.
On Wednesday, footage was aired of a lawmaker from the Shiv Sena, a radical Hindu political party and ally of the BJP, trying to shove chapati, an Indian flatbread, into a Muslim caterer’s mouth during the Ramadan period of fasting.
The Shiv Sena lawmaker, Rajan Vichare, a high school dropout and suspect in 13 criminal cases, later said he did not know the caterer was Muslim and that he was fasting. He said he had been making a point about the bad quality of the food being served.
The incident led to chaotic scenes in parliament, with one BJP member demanding that some opposition politicians be sent to Pakistan. He later apologized for his comments.
On Thursday, BJP politician K. Laxman denounced a move to name Indian tennis star Sania Mirza the brand ambassador of newborn Telangana state, calling Mirza, who is married to a Pakistani cricketer, the “daughter-in-law” of India’s rival nation.
Mirza broke down during a television interview to a local news channel and said it was unfair that she had to keep asserting her “Indianness”.
“I am an Indian who will remain an Indian until the end of my life,” she said on Thursday in a statement posted on micro-blogging site Twitter.
The BJP distanced itself from Laxman’s remarks.
“Sania Mirza is the pride of India,” cabinet minister Prakash Javadekar told reporters, but newspaper editorials highlighted Modi’s silence.
“He could say these are non-issues, he could say these are trivial misunderstandings being communalized by a hyperactive media. But he chooses to say absolutely nothing,” said an editorial on the Firstpost news and opinion website.
“Unfortunately his silence can get uncomfortably loud.”
The BJP itself burst into prominence in the late 1980s as it helped mobilize a movement leading to the destruction of a 16th-century mosque in the Uttar Pradesh town of Ayodhya that Hindus say was built on the birthplace of the god-king Ram. About 2,000 people were killed in riots across India in 1992 after the disputed mosque was torn down by Hindu mobs.
Modi has long faced accusations of looking the other way when Hindu mobs went on a rampage of revenge against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, when he was that state’s chief minister, after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched.
Modi has denied the allegations and an inquiry ordered by the Supreme Court absolved him of responsibility.
Also on Thursday, a local minister from Goa state allied to the BJP said India could become a Hindu nation under Modi’s rule, drawing criticism from the opposition Congress party.
“Please stop this - communalizing the country. This is our request to the ruling coalition,” said P.C. Chacko, a Congress spokesman, according to a statement of his remarks.
Reporting By Sruthi Gottipati; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel