By Andrew MacAskill
The Indian government has apologised to the country’s Muslim vice-president after comments by a senior member of the Hindu nationalist ruling party triggered allegations that sectarianism had tainted a mass event to celebrate World Yoga Day.
The row has taken some of the sheen off the event led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who along with 36,000 people flexed his way into world records on a New Delhi avenue on Sunday at the largest ever session of the ancient Hindu discipline.
In a post on Twitter, Ram Madhav, a general secretary in the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party who coordinates closely with Modi and top ministers, questioned why the vice president, Hamid Ansari, did not attend the celebrations.
It was later revealed that Ansari had not been invited. In his post, Madhav also, wrongly, stated that a TV public broadcaster that Ansari heads had not covered the event.
Madhav later deleted the tweet and Modi’s yoga minister said sorry.
“We apologise for that,” yoga minister Shripad Naik told reporters. “It should have been avoided, it’s a mistake.”
Ansari, a veteran diplomat who previously represented India at the United Nations, has often been a target of hardline Hindu nationalists who accuse him of putting his religion before the nation.
Hardliners in Modi’s party believe that India is a Hindu-first nation and mistrust the country’s religious minorities, especially Muslims, who make up about 18 percent of the population.
Since coming to power a year ago, Modi has at times seen his reform agenda stymied by inflammatory attacks on religious minorities by ministers and members of his party.
“All too often, when it comes to assertions of crude majoritarianism, in the ruling establishment, there is no separating the mainstream from the fringe,” the Indian Express newspaper wrote in a leader on Tuesday.
In a bid to make the yoga day event inclusive, the government dropped the “sun salute” from the exercises, since some Muslims say it represents sun worship and is against their faith.
India’s education minister on Monday announced plans to introduce yoga in government schools.
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board, a group representing Muslims, is considering bring a case before the Supreme Court to challenge any decision to make yoga compulsory at school, saying it is a breach of religious freedom.