The darkest decade for Indian democracy
Since taking power Narendra Modi has dismantled the nation’s secular traditions, but there are signs Indians have had enough.
On 26 January, India marked the 71st anniversary of its constitution. This year, however, the customary Republic Day celebrations were overshadowed by uncustomary protests. Convinced that the ruling party is destroying the values the constitution represents, tens of thousands of Indians took to the streets to demand change.
Just weeks earlier, the government passed a citizenship law that reeks of religious discrimination against Muslims and is seen by many as unconstitutional. The bill lit the spark of the protests. Many of those who have watched the anti-democratic turn in India silently for some years found their voice on the eve of the Republic Day. They tore up the veil of fear and demonstrated in over a 100 towns and cities. Human chains running into miles were formed and sit-ins were widespread. Protesters recited the preamble of the constitution and a copy was sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the advice to read it when he “finds time from dividing the nation”.
There are widespread fears that the government is planning to follow the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act by implementing a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The scheme, which would require individuals to provide proof of their citizenship, could turn minority citizens into foreigners by demanding documents that a very large number of Indians will never be able to produce. Millions do not know the year they were born, let alone that of their parents. The NRC would give extraordinary powers to petty government officials and would disproportionately affect the poor, minorities, internal migrants, and the Dalits.
The student community is leading the movement to safeguard the constitution after the opposition parties lost the battle in Parliament, where Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party holds a majority. They are facing attacks not only from far-right groups, but also the police.
In early January, students at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, a special target of the government for being a centre of dissent, were attacked by a masked mob armed with sticks and rods. Police were accused of standing by while the attacks happened. The scenes of brutality were shared widely on WhatsApp and led to nation-wide condemnation, intensifying the protest movement.
In order to control dissent and free thinking at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Modi government has taken unprecedented administrative measures including the appointment of a cooperative vice-chancellor. Party activists have also been running a systematic campaign to malign the university.
Assured of political support, the police have got away with acts of unprecedented violence against students. In Delhi’s Jamia Millia University, they invaded the library, dragging out students. The police never entered a university library even during British rule.
Modi’s muscular Hinduism
Modi first arrived on the national scene when he won an overwhelming victory in the 2014 general election. He had cultivated a reputation for himself as a dynamic, populist and strong leader in his home state of Gujarat. In 2002, not long after he took office, over 1,200 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in riots. Many blame Modi for failing to intervene, but that failure only raised his political stock among Hindus nationalists.
Modi’s promise of an economic miracle seduced voters who were unswayed by sectarianism. They voted for him even though they did not support his party's divisive politics, religious polarisation and bigotry. After Modi demonstrated the success of his election-winning formula, the BJP fell behind him. Many senior leaders of the ruling party were sidelined, allowing him to effectively assume the role of president. It boosted his self-confidence so much that he started taking more and more decisions to “transform” India into a Hindu state.
The establishment of a Hindu nation, was a dream of Modi’s ideological forefathers. It remained a dream all these decades because the idea of a secular, inclusive India found overwhelming support among the people. However, Modi’s statements as well as decisions since 2014 have heartened the Hindu nationalists.
Indians are no strangers to sectarian bias and religious animosity, but such feelings have been laregly kept under control by wise and mature political leaders, an administrative machinery that largely shunned discrimination, and a judiciary that was generally free and fair. The arrival of a populist leader changed that all. Supported by the hardline Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi exploited the faultlines of religion and caste, making polarisation and marginalisation of Muslims the new normal.
The Modi government disregarded the constitution to capture power in the states where the ruling party fell short of a majority in elections. Their electoral strategy has relied on hatred and bigotry, mob violence and smear-campaigns, faux religiosity and ultra-nationalism, fake news and social media trolling buried civil discourse.
Voters were attracted to a strong leader selling the dream of an aggressive India and muscular Hinduism. Those looking for a messiah were mightily impressed by a leader who boasted of his chest size, talked of India’s glorious Hindu past and promised to make the nation mighty. While BJP activists have stoked antipathy towards Pakistan, the external enemy, and “anti-national” Indians, the enemy within.
The government is playing the politics of revenge and retaliation with the help of the official agencies as well as state-empowered vigilante groups. The latter intimidate people on the streets and through social media. They have silenced high-profile figures – from business leaders to sports personalities – critical of the government, out of fear of reprisals. A few daring human rights activists have paid a heavy price for their dissent.
Displays of power gained primacy and acquired a stranglehold on the national psyche. Political competition became aggressive and public discourse abusive. Modi’s supporters came to be known as devotees ever ready to take offense at any criticism of their leader. In the eyes of many Indians, Modi could do no wrong. If the people suffered, as they did due to demonetisation, they were told that it was just a small sacrifice for the nation.
So, ordinary aggrieved citizens generally thought it wise to grin and bear it lest they are branded “anti-national” and assaulted. They recognised that a large section of the populace swayed by Modi’s populism and Hindu nationalism do want an India in which majoritarianism replaces secularism.
The republic of fear
Until now, anger towards the government was suppressed despite economic decline, police atrocities, curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of expression, media capture, religious polarisation and violence by state-supported vigilante groups. When the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir was robbed of its semi-independent status last year, the prolonged lockdown of the territory, communication blockade and arrest of political leaders ensured that no protests could take place in what civil liberty activists described as a large open-air jail.
Independent institutions have started crumbling under relentless government pressure. Prominent opposition figures have been seduced or blackmailed, through the use of official investigative agencies rattling their closets for skeletons. Even when the opposition has scored victories against the prime minister’s party it was not because there was public revulsion against mob lynching, atrocities against a minority or suppression of dissent. This has encouraged the BJP to further intensify its Hindu nationalist campaign.
Modi’s mastery over dog-whistle politics remains unsurpassed in India. When politicians become performers, mendacity becomes irrelevant. What matters is how well you deliver the lines. The Prime Minister energises his core constituency with well-crafted wink-wink statements. At a rally he demanded that equal land must be reserved for Hindu crematoriums as Muslim cemeteries, leaving open the implication that Hindus have been discriminated. He has talked of recognising protesters by their apparel to suggest they belong to a single religious group. He loves to flaunt a variety of headgear but declines to wear a skull cap offered as a mark of respect at a public function organised by a minority community. But, of course, he cannot be charged with inciting communal passions.
The past five years will be known for the most bellicose political maneuvering. Power has been used to crush dissent in a most ruthless way, with the state agencies becoming willing accomplices. The Republic of Fear began to be talked about. Freedom of expression came to be discussed in seminars that were not disturbed by vigilante groups, who order people what to eat and women what to wear.
Political operators hijacked Hinduism, weaponising a glorious faith tradition. India saw rising intolerance, social poisoning and attacks on intellectuals, dissenters, critics, independent journalists and the ruling party’s opponents. A sustained campaign against secularism succeeded in making a very large number of voters see Narendra Modi as the “Emperor of Hindu Hearts”. Fake religiosity and faux nationalism went hand-in-hand. Hindus were made to feel like a besieged community. Every comment by a Muslim extremist was used to alert against a rising “Hinduphobia”.
These years saw the irresistible rise of a Hindu nationalist party committed to change the very idea of India enshrined in the constitution, an idea that drove India’s freedom fighters to achieve independence. A populist leader aided by a trained army of volunteers and cyber-bullies turned “secular” into a term of abuse, replacing in mass consciousness civic nationalism with religious nationalism.
Falling economic growth and rising unemployment made the decade end on a dismal note. Questions were raised about the fairness and competence of the administration, the law and order machinery, and the objectivity of sections of the judiciary.
The anti-democratic actions of the government sullied India’s international reputation. It was no longer seen as a model democracy. India lost its soft power as foreign media published enough material to damage India’s brand image. The battle of ideas with Pakistan was lost. These developments affected the image of Prime Minister Modi in powerful countries that had earlier overlooked the stigma of communal violence in Gujarat under his chief-ministership.
Even relations with India’s friendliest neighbour, Bangladesh, have turned sour over Modi’s citizenship bill. The controversial new law will cause more difficulties for Hindus in neighbouring countries by providing fodder for extremist propaganda against Hindu minorities. But that does not seem to concern the Modi government.
India’s annus horribilis
Modi has assured himself a prominent place in India’s political history. Books will appear on India’s Modi years. The decade gone by will remain infamous for the country’s regressive path. Modi and other BJP leaders have reopened the wounds inflicted by the partition of India on religious lines. Hatred, intolerance, bigotry, and violence have diminished democracy and disturbed social harmony.
“Modi and other BJP leaders have reopened the wounds inflicted by the partition of India on religious lines.”
A visitor today may see India inhabited by two major tribes, nationalists and traitors. The former are the supporters of the ruling Hindu nationalist party. The latter, as any BJP activist will tell you, include the critics of the government, intellectuals, left-liberals, dissidents, protesters demanding change, agitating university students and those belonging to a minority community. At an election rally, a call to shoot the latter group was heard repeatedly. Many of those participating in non-violent protests have been subjected to harassment by the police, while mob violence against critics of the government is overlooked.
Those writing about the just-ended decade will wonder why videos and images of Hitler started circulating on social media during this period and why posters against fascism appeared on the streets. In an editorial titled ‘Unfree in India’, The Telegraph commented that the year 2019 was the proverbial annus horribilis for democracy in India. This prominent Indian daily noted that India declined 10 places in the annual Democracy Index rankings, the country’s poorest score since the inception of the report in 2006.
Will a polarised nation be able to fight the genie of sectarian hatred let out of the bottle? Will the supreme leader and his ideologically fired storm-troopers curtail civil liberties further and destroy democracy? Or will the protesting students force the government to take a modest corrective action to temporarily stop the situation from worsening? Future historians will assess how the 2014 elections transformed India’s polity and society. These eventful years, they will find, wrote the story of India’s dangerous decade.
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