Decline of democracy in India

The entrenched rule of the BJP and its leader, Narendra Modi, has led to a truly alarming degradation in India’s democratic institutions (link). Hindu nationalism and the degradation of citizenship rights for Muslims and other non-Hindus; the rise of paramilitary violence in cities; the repression of non-compliant students and academics through violence and the threat of violence; the systematic undermining of judicial institutions — India is fast becoming an “illiberal democracy” (link) in which single-party rule and an autocratic leader systematically erode the principles of equal citizenship, freedom of speech and association, and the integrity and independence of other constitutional mechanisms. 

The well-respected Freedom House index of freedom documents the decline of democratic freedoms in India (link). Here is a summary of the 2021 Freedom House assessment:

India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.

Overview

While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population. The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized. (link)

Here is a sober account of Hindu nationalist violence, organized by RSS groups, against students and faculty in February 2020 at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi (link). 

The group, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidya Parishad (ABVP), is the youth wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Founded 94 years ago by men who were besotted with Mussolini’s fascists, the RSS is the holding company of Hindu supremacism: of Hindutva, as it’s called. Given its role and its size, it is difficult to find an analogue for the RSS anywhere in the world. In nearly every faith, the source of conservative theology is its hierarchical, centrally organised clergy; that theology is recast into a project of religious statecraft elsewhere, by other parties. Hinduism, though, has no principal church, no single pontiff, nobody to ordain or rule. The RSS has appointed itself as both the arbiter of theological meaning and the architect of a Hindu nation-state. It has at least 4 million volunteers, who swear oaths of allegiance and take part in quasi-military drills. (link)

The violence was organized and brutal, and eye witness reports assert that the police stood by without intervening.

The police were called, but they didn’t move to stop the violence. Instead, a posse of policemen installed itself at JNU’s gate, allowing no one in. Yogendra Yadav, a political activist, arrived at the gate at 9pm. Ninety minutes later, the attackers emerged, still masked and armed. Even then, the police detained no one. Instead, they were permitted to walk away as if nothing had happened. When Yadav’s colleague took photos, Yadav was set upon by a knot of men, knocked down and kicked in the face. The police did nothing. Later, from a video, Yadav identified a local ABVP official among those who had hit him. In a statement, the ABVP blamed the attacks on “leftist goons,” but on television members admitted that the masked, armed men and women on campus were part of the ABVP. Still, the Delhi police pressed no charges. “The police gave the goons cover, gave them free rein on campus,” Yadav said. A JNU professor went further, claiming that: “The police are complicit.”

This is fascism — and the history of the RSS goes back directly to its admiration for Mussolini’s fascist movement in the 1920s. Paramilitary violence is a horrific step forward in the decline of democracy.

The attack on intellectuals and the attack on the independence of the judiciary come together in the increasingly aggressive efforts made by the BJP and Modi to silence their critics. Consider for example the legal assault on Anand Teltumbde (link). “Teltumbde, an advocate for India’s most disadvantaged communities, including Dalits, once called ‘untouchables,’ has been swept up in a broad crackdown against lawyers, activists and dissent in general.” And he has been treated in a very prejudicial manner by the courts in India: “Teltumbde’s unfair treatment by our judiciary underscores the loss of independence by India’s institutions. The refusal by the Supreme Court to grant him bail came soon before a former chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, joined Parliament after being nominated by Modi government…. It’s clear India’s Supreme Court has been politicized and has become pliant toward the current administration. Recently, Justice Arun Mishra, who has also ruled in favor of Modi, hailed the prime minister as a versatile genius, an internationally acclaimed visionary who thought globally and acted locally” (link).

A third dimension of the decline of democracy under Hindu nationalist rule is the effort to redefine citizenship to disadvantage Muslim immigrants. The Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) passed in 2019 was plainly designed for the purpose of reducing the rights of citizenship of immigrant Muslims in comparison to other religious minorities:

Now there will be an exception for members of six religious minority communities — Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian — if they can prove that they are from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh. They will only have to live or work in India for six years to be eligible for citizenship by naturalisation, the process by which a non-citizen acquires the citizenship or nationality of that country. (link)

The Citizenship Amendment Bill has provoked extensive protest because of its plain purpose of placing burdens and disadvantages on Muslim residents of India. It should be recalled that Prime Minister Modi was partially responsible for anti-Muslim violence in 2002 in Gujarat while he was Chief Minister of Gujarat (link), and was denied a visa by the US State Department on the basis of evidence in support of this finding (link). Narendra Modi is now the apparently unshakeable chief executive of India’s democracy of 1.4 billion people.

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