Indian leader Narendra Modi’s efforts to seize on yoga as India’s signature cultural export have his Hindu nationalist allies swelling with pride, but are leaving minority religious groups feeling marginalized.
An enthusiastic practitioner of the regimen himself, Modi set up a new ministry for yoga last year.
He also persuaded the United Nations to declare June 21 International Day of Yoga – the first of which will be celebrated in New Delhi on Sunday with a mega yoga event, with schools encouraged to take part.
“After the number zero this is India’s biggest contribution to society,” said Anil Ganeriwala, a joint secretary in the ministry.
“It is a symbol of our cultural richness.”
The ministry says yoga is “widely considered as an ‘immortal cultural outcome’ of the Indus Saraswati valley civilizations,” which date back to 2,700 B.C.
Hindu nationalist groups, including Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have said they want to resurrect India’s past glory, a concept based on a mix of history and Hindu myth.
“Yoga is part of ancient India’s cultural heritage,” said Manmohan Vaidya, an RSS spokesman. “By celebrating yoga on a mass scale we are validating our glorious past.”
The glory days, however, precede Islam and Christianity, and the yoga push comes at a time of heightened fears among religious minorities that the BJP and its right-wing allies are trying to change India from a secular nation to a Hindu country.
Members of India’s minority groups say the move to promote yoga is a ploy to whip up Hindu pride and marginalize the country’s 175 million Muslims.
India’s main opposition Congress party has also attacked the yoga event as a political gimmick.
“It is a campaign to enforce Hindu rituals on all non-Hindus,” said Abdul Rahim Qureshi, the assistant general secretary of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
Every morning when at his official bungalow, Modi sits cross-legged on a cotton mat for yoga and meditation.
He spends 20 minutes in a room overlooking manicured lawns and palm trees.
“For several years it has been his way to streamline his thoughts ahead of a gruelling schedule,” an aide said.
Some proponents of yoga argue that it is an exercise regimen that transcends religion, and so Muslims are wrong to oppose the government for encouraging it.
Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest who is now a prominent BJP legislator, said last week minority groups that oppose yoga should either leave the country or drown themselves in the sea.
The RSS last year passed a resolution calling for yoga to be made compulsory in schools and universities.
Rafiq Ali, an administrator at the Fatehpuri Muslim senior secondary school in Delhi, said the school recently introduced yoga in its curriculum and at least 350 Muslim students take lessons every week.
“We teach yoga but have excluded the prayers and Hindu chants,” Ali said, referring to “Om”, a Hindu chant evoked during yoga.
“Why end the event with a Hindu prayer?” Ali said.
“The government can end it with the national anthem if they believe yoga belongs to India.”