India’s election season: bad for minorities

Meenakshi Ganguly
3 November 2008

The world's largest democracies are holding great election contests in 2008-09. There are intriguing parallels and contrasts in the way that prominent issues are discussed and managed by the respective political systems in Washington and New Delhi.

Meenakshi Ganguly is senior researcher on south Asia for Human Rights Watch

Also by Meenakshi Ganguly in openDemocracy:

"Sri Lanka: time to act" (10 September 2006)

"India's Dalits: between atrocity and protest" (9 January 2007)

"China and Bhutan: crushing dissent" (4 July 2007)

"India and Burma: time to choose" (14 January 2008)

"Nepal: the human-rights test" (28 April 200

The United States presidential election, which reaches its climax on 4 November 2008, was dominated for a good part of its course by debates about race and gender; the result has been to make the prospects of a first black president and first woman president look far more normal than they once did. India's election (to be held by May 2009) will take place in a country which has had Sikh and female prime ministers, as well as Muslim, Sikh and Dalit presidents; today, a Dalit woman is a serious contender for the prime-minister's job (see KV Prasad, "Can Mayawati do a Barack Obama?", The Hindu, 4 November 2008). In this, India could try to claim that it has already successfully addressed the problems which the US is now only beginning to face. 

But the reality is not so benign. India's experience also shows that access to a position of power does not of itself entail an end to rampant discrimination against minorities or marginalised groups. In 2008, some of India's largest political parties and their supporters have instigated or defended violence and hate against ethnic minorities - thus demonstrating that electing a woman or a Dalit is far from enough to guarantee equality and human rights. Rather, electing leaders from disadvantaged populations can - unless this is matched by coherent social action and education - come to be a shiny facade that conceals a vacuum where real commitment by the state to protect minority rights should be. 

A turn inward

A number of recent events has focused attention on the wounded status of minorities in India. Since August 2008, Kandhamal district in Orissa state has been the scene of acts of religious violence following the murder on 23 August of an elderly leader of the extremist, rightwing Hindu group the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP). In retaliation, mobs went on a protest rampage of killings, rape and arson. Initially, a Maoist insurgent group active in the region was held by many to be responsible for the death of Swami Laxmanananda Saraswati and his four aides - and even made a claim of responsibility itself. But the VHP and its youth wing, the Bajrang Dal - which are closely affiliated to India's main opposition party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - chose instead to blame and target the local Christian community.

For decades, Christian missionaries have offered health and education programs to marginalised tribal groups in Orissa and similar areas; this has led many residents subsequently to convert to Christianity. The Hindu groups have over the last decade demanded that they "reconvert" to Hindusim, in a campaign that often included force and intimidation. Thus, when the VHP leader was shot, they found it convenient immediately to assume that local Christians were responsible (see Jacob Ignatius, "India's Christians: politics of violence in Orissa", 1 September 2008).

Among openDemocracy's articles on Indian politics and democracy:

Rajeev Bhargava, "Words save lives: India, the BJP and the constitution" (2 October 2002)

Rajeev Bhargava, "The political psychology of Hindu nationalism" (5 November 2003)

Antara Dev Sen, "India's benign earthquake" (20 May 2004)

Rajeev Bhargava, "India's model: faith, secularism and democracy" (3 November 2004)

Ajai Sahni, "India and its Maoists: failure and success" (20 March 2007)

Sumantra Bose, "Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip" (29 May 2007)

John Elkington, "India's third liberation" (21 August 2007)

Kanchan Lakshman, "India in Afghanistan: a presence under pressure" (11 July 2008)

Ajai Sahni, "India after Ahmedabad's bombs" (29 July 2008)

Paul Rogers, "China and India: heartlands of global protest" (7 August 2008)

Antara Dev Sen, "India at 61: here's looking at you, kid!" (19 August 2008)

Jacob Ignatius, "India's Christians: politics of violence in Orissa" (1 September 2008)

Muzamil Jameel, "Kashmir's new generation" (13 October 2008)
One family described how they managed to flee into the nearby jungles when the mob arrived. But a relative, confined to a wheelchair, could not get away and was beaten and killed. Priests described how they suffered extensive beatings; one of those attacked, Father Bernard Digal, died in hospital on the night of 28-29 October. Two days later, on 31 October, five police officers were suspended for dereliction of duty after a nun recounted her rape. Nearly forty people were killed, scores injured and thousands displaced in the violence. 

The perpetrators of this brutality show no remorse. Instead, they display a confident assertion of Hindu identity, no doubt in the hope that such aggression will be rewarded with Hindu votes for the BJP. The attacks on churches and Christians have even spread to other parts of India, including the states of Kerala and Karnataka. In Orissa, where the state government failed to anticipate and prevent the violence, villagers still report that they are allowed to return to their ravaged homes only after they have been through a "reconversion" ceremony. 

The VHP and Bairang Dal have also sought to exacerbate tensions in the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir. In an election-year there, a dispute exploded over the proposed transfer of land to build shelters during an annual Hindu pilgrimage into the Muslim-majority Kashmir valley; some parties (including separatist groups) mobilised to oppose this, and when the transfer was revoked the Hindu-majority areas of Jammu in turn erupted in protest (see Muzamil Jameel, "Kashmir's new generation", 13 October 2008). Some demonstrators attacked police officers and government property. There are persistent allegations that the violence was to a large degree instigated by vote-seekers. 

In Mumbai (Bombay), the cosmopolitan capital of Maharashtra, the glorious bustle of emerging India is often disrupted by violence from supporters of the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), a regional party that claims to speak for people native to the state. The supporters of the hardline MNS leader Raj Thackeray, regularly harass and assault migrants to the city from the poorer Hindi-speaking states of northern India.

The effect is to coarsen and politicise local discourse and social relations. Two incidents in October 2008 are emblematic. First, MNS activists broke into a railways-recruitment examination, insisting that such jobs should be reserved for locals, and beat up and chased away the candidates from other parts of the country. Second, around a quarter of the near-800 Jet Airline employees who were to lose their jobs appealed to Raj Thackeray for support and found a ready response, including threats to the airline.

From words to action

After a spate of terrorist bomb-attacks in several Indian cities in 2008, police arrested a number of alleged members of the group that claimed responsibility - which called itself the "Indian Mujaheddin" (believed by investigatoes to be affiiliated to the Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami [HuJI] and Students Islamic Movement of India [Simi]). The true perpetrators of such indiscriminate attacks should indeed be brought to justice, though a long history of "rounding up the usual suspects" (which usually means Muslims) and failing to arrest the perpetrators mean that there is little faith in the Indian authorities' counter-terror efforts (see Ajai Sahni, "India's urban war: through the smoke", 17 September 2008).

Moreover, Indian politicians usually ignore demands for transparent and independent investigations into incidents of arbitrary arrests or deaths in custody. Now, however, elections are due: and suddenly, the issue of human rights finds itself at the centre of extraordinary attention in political debates. Some parties are demanding judicial investigations into allegations of police killings in New Delhi, while other parties oppose this; each accuses the other of base attempts to appeal to their Muslim or Hindu voters. 

An election is supposed to be the cornerstone of a democracy, the event where its core principles of debate, plurality, tolerance, and free choice are displayed and celebrated. The electoral process in India is increasingly distant from this ideal (see Sumantra Bose, "Uttar Pradesh: India's democratic landslip", 29 May 2007). What it churns out is a lot of ugliness, a poisoning of societies with hate simply in an effort to gain votes.

India's political parties would serve citizens, the country and ultimately also themselves better if they remember that what voters want most is safety and security. These can be achieved only through respect for minorities - whether migrants from other parts of the country or people of different religious faiths.

India may have had a Dalit president, and the country has laws that outlaw descent-based caste discrimination; yet the practice remains all-pervasive and deeply rooted. The authorities do little to punish lawbreakers.

Instead of grand pronouncements, strong action is needed to end discrimination based on caste, religious or ethnicity. Active opposition to abuses such as killings, arbitrary arrests or threats against whole communities, from whatever source, should be a minimum qualification for any person or party that wants to govern any nation - and particularly one that prides itself on being the "world's largest democracy." 
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