Analysis, Church & State, South Asia

India’s new President hardens Hindu nationalist grip on India

Ram Nath Kovind, the 14th President of India, assumed office on 25 July 2017, as the Head of State and the Commander-in-Chief of the

President of India – Ram Nath Kovind

Indian Armed Forces. He is the first person linked with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the second Dalit to ascend to the highest office in India.

He was relatively unknown prior to being declared as the ruling coalition’s Presidential candidate and hails from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

President Kovind is 71 years old and won the 2017 presidential elections against Mrs. Meira Kumar, the presidential candidate fielded by the opposition, securing 65.65 per cent votes from law-makers across the country.

Mrs Meira Kumar, a lawyer and former diplomat, is also a Dalit leader and a five-term member of parliament and the first woman speaker of the Lok Sabha (the lower house of the Parliament). She was also a cabinet minister in the UPA government between 2004 – 2009.

His Career

President Kovind is a lawyer by profession who enrolled as an advocate in 1971 with the Bar Council of Delhi. He practiced in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court till 1993.

In 1991, he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and was the President of the BJP Dalit Morcha between 1998 and 2002. He was a Rajya Sabha (Upper House of the Parliament) member from 1994 to 2000 and from 2000 to 2006, serving as the Chairman of the House Committee between 2002 and 2004. He was appointed as the Governor of Bihar on 8 August 2015, a position in which he was still serving when declared as the Presidential candidate of the ruling coalition.

A known “RSS loyalist”, he even donated his ancestral home in Derapur, Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, to the RSS.

He had also served as the BJP spokesperson in 2010, during which he made the now infamous comment against Muslims and Christians, mentioned below.

The Controversy

The announcement of his name as the Presidential Candidate generated much controversy. In particular a statement ascribed to Mr. Kovind in 2010, in which he had stated that “Islam and Christianity are alien,” to India, was remembered by the national media and minority leaders with much apprehension.

Prominent civil society members also expressed concern on how can an RSS loyalist be the protector and guardian of the Indian Constitution. RSS leaders in the past have “expressed contempt for the Constitution, its principles and the National Flag.”

RSS is an “Indian right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organisation that is widely regarded as the parent organisation of the ruling party of India, the Bharatiya Janata Party.” It has “historical links to Nazism and Fascism” and senior leaders of the RSS in its early days “had direct links to both Benito Mussolini in Italy and Adolf Hitler in Germany.”

Professor Shamsul Islam, Retired Professor of Political Science in Delhi University, in his open letter to Mr. Kovind on 22 June 2017 expressed his fear that “there is going to be a serious conflict of interests between your beliefs in RSS ideology and being the highest constitutional authority of democratic-secular Republic of India.”

Islam closed his scathing letter with these words, “Respected Kovind ji, I hope as President of India you will follow the constitutional oath and not the one obligatory in RSS, you will be flag-bearer of Indian Nationalism and not Hindu Nationalism, you will defend democratic-secular Constitution of India against any attempt to enforce Manusmriti, you will resist any attempt to bring back Untouchability by glorifying Casteism as essential ingredient of Hinduism and Hindu nationalism, you will check denigration of Father of the Nation and glorification of his killers, you will not allow any mischief with the National Flag and Indian democracy. And finally, you will not allow present India to be converted to a Hindu Pakistan.”

Acceptance Speech

During his swearing in ceremony at the Central Hall of the parliament, President Kovind stressed that India is a “diverse yet a united country” and that is the key to its success. He said, “I will stand by and represent all 125 crore fellow Indians. I understand the massive responsibility that this is. Former Presidents, from Rajendra Prasad to Pranab Mukherjee, all have been great leaders…. I hope to live up to that greatness.”

Reaction of Christian Leaders

Dr. John Dayal, Spokesperson of the United Christian Forum and Member of the National Integration Council, said to Global Christian News, “While congratulating Mr. Ram Chandra Kovind, a Dalit, on his becoming the 14th President of India, we have called upon him and Prime Minister, Mr. Narendra Modi, to order exemplary action against hate mongers. Although the government has sought to appease Christians in Goa and the north east by keeping the states out of the ban on beef, the politics of the cow has targeted Muslims and other communities whose food habits and economy depended on the trade in bovines. Its ramifications have not been fully understood, we have fears they will irretrievably damage the economic health of the farmers and the poor. As a Dalit, we hope the President will also be concerned.”

Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India said, “We welcome President Kovind in his new role as the first citizen of India. We pray that God will bless him with good health and wisdom, as he discharges his duties as the head of the Executive, Legislature, and Judiciary, as well as the head of our armed forces. He is taking office when the ideals and the Idea of India as envisioned by our founders and as enshrined in our constitution, seem to be in danger. We hope that he will guard the values enshrined in our constitution and like his predecessors, be above party politics.”