Jacinda Ardern’s response to the New Zealand terror attack is profoundly constitutionally Indian
If you are a prime minister of a non-Muslim majority country, how do you respond to an act of mass slaughter by an Islamophobe who has written a hate-filled manifesto? Many leaders might respond by manfully deriding the ‘cowardly’ killer. That is what Norway’s Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg did after a farright extremist massacred 77 people in 2011. Such a strategy, however, makes invisible the country’s Muslim minority. By contrast, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has shown us a different path.
Immediately after the murder of 50 Muslims during Friday prayers in Christchurch on March15, Ardern appeared before the media to damn the shootings as a ‘terrorist act’. She said of the victims, “They are us.” She announced a ban on the semi-automatic machine guns the killer used. She mourned with the victims’ families. And she said that, although the killer came from Australia and imbibed his ideology overseas, his views aren’t alien to New Zealanders — implying that some national self-scrutiny is in order.
The international media has been quick to draw sharp contrasts between Ardern’s handling of the atrocity and the hateful pandering of other Western leaders — in particular, US President Donald Trump — to pro-gun lobbies as well as to racist and Islamophobic outfits. But as a Kiwi migrant to India, I find it impossible not to compare Ardern’s words about the massacre’s victims with the reactions of leaders in my adopted country.
I happened to be back in Auckland, visiting family, when the shootings took place. Even though I was at a distance from Christchurch, the atrocity felt shockingly close to home. Or, rather, to my homes — plural. It wasn’t just that my father’s family is from Christchurch, or that the news of the killings exploded my sense of New Zealand as quarantined from the storms of hatred that have roiled the rest of the world. It was also that, after seeing the first interviews with survivors, I realised that many of them are from the Indian subcontinent.
Mourning in Silence
Among the victims were Ansi Alibava, a student of agricultural engineering who migrated with her husband last year from Kerala. There was Ramiz Vora, who had recently become a father and moved from Gujarat, and his father Asif, an insurance agent who had joined him this February. There was also Mohammed Imran Khan, a restaurant owner, who had emigrated from India some years previously, and Farhaj Ahsan, an electrical engineer from Hyderabad. Their trajectories mirrored, in reverse, my own.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has yet to utter a single word about these five Indians. Modi wrote to Jacinda Ardern, expressing “deep sadness” about the shootings. But he has not publicly mentioned Albi Alibava, Ramiz Vora, Asif Vora, Mohammed Imran Khan and Farhaj Ahsan. Nor has he mourned with their families, or held a press conference about the shootings. Silence has been his watchword.
Of course, this is hardly surprising. India is no longer a country in which the prime minister submits to press conferences. India is no longer a country in which its Muslim émigrés can be mourned as ‘ours’. (It is invidious to draw comparisons, but think of the public mourning in India that accompanied the tragic death of Indian-origin US astronaut Kalpana Chawla in the Columbia space shuttle disaster of 2003.) And India is no longer a country in which acts of majoritarian violence against Indian Muslims are publicly denounced by the State as ‘terrorist attacks’. The government has been deafeningly quiet about the wave of lynchings of Muslims since 2014.
People ask, why should governments speak out against such acts when they aren’t directly responsible for them? And why should they speak about the victims? Jacinda Ardern’s words in the wake of the Christchurch killings give us one answer. It is the responsibility of a prime minister to provide moral leadership in times of communal tension — leadership that refuses the seductions of rabble-rousing hatred, leadership that invites national introspection, leadership that reminds us that all minorities, no matter how small, are ‘us’, not ‘them’.
In short, leadership that draws on values enshrined in the Indian Constitution. That document safeguards the rights of minorities by insuring that no one community can be considered more or less Indian than others. It is important to remember that constitutional commitment to inclusivity at a time when Indian Muslims feel increasingly unsafe in their country of birth.
A Forgotten Export
New Zealand has its own deeply painful histories of white settler violence against the indigenous Maori people and, more recently, racism against immigrants. But Ardern has helped spark a national conversation about who ‘we’ New Zealanders are, and who ‘we’ should be. It is a conversation that, in the week after the killings, has seeped into every corner of the country.
At the supermarket next to my sister’s house, a banner says, ‘We Stand Together/ Arohanui [Maori for ‘Big Love’]/ As-Salamu-Alaykum.’ Three different messages, in three different languages, but one hope: that New Zealand’s morethan-oneness must prevail over the zealots of purity and majoritarianism.
It warms my heart to find such a constitutionally Indian message in New Zealand. It breaks my heart that India is forgetting how to abide by it.
The writer is professor, English, Ashoka University, Sonipat, Haryana