Summary: Updated version of presentation to the IMHO mini-conference of Nov. 14, “Where Do We Go from Here? Global Revolutionary Perspectives on the Present Moment” – Editors
The short write-up is divided into three parts. The first part deals with a very brief overview of the Indian state since Mr. Modi came into force in 2014. The second part deals with the Kashmir problem. And, the final part critically examines Indian democracy. When we look at Indian politics, it is heavily dominated by the communal versus non-communal fault-line. Indeed, it is a critical issue. The non-communal approach believes that no single community or its culture is the basis of Indian nationalism. It believes that the Indian nation is a product of a more complex and socio-cultural existence. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, argued that the composite culture of India is one of its greatest strengths. This idea was, however, refuted by the Hindu nationalist parties and they pointed out that India is not a multicultural society but a majoritarian nation-state. They believe that the Hindu community’s cultural-religious identity and practices form the foundation of India’s nation-state. It was in the 1920s, V. D. Savarkar, the founding ideologue of the politically extreme Hindu right, codified the Hindu nationalist ideology in his famous work Hindutva: Who Is a Hindu? In his work, Savarkar argued that culturally India is a Hindu country and aims to transform it into Hindu rashtra (an ethnic Hindu nation state) (Palshikar, 2015 and Jaffrelot, 2019).
Expressing itself in cultural terms, Hindu nationalism is a political movement seeking to purify culture (Anand, 2011) and establish a Hindu polity. Therefore, Hindu nationalists view India as a Hindu rashtra not only because of majoritarianism but consider themselves as the true sons of the soil. They also imagine the Hindu community as consisting of all castes, sub-castes, and outcastes, along with Buddhists, Sikhs, and Jains. All these religions they call “indigenous.” Christians and Muslims, as religious minorities, are cast as the result of bloody foreign invasions or denationalizing influences and whose loyalty to India is suspect (Anand, 2011 and Jaffrelot, 2019). For Hindu right-wing groups, violence, religious conversion, and illegal infiltration are the three major tools deployed by Islam and Christianity to defeat Hindus and take over India. In addition, Christians and Muslims were always the primary enemies, although overtime socialism, Marxism, secularism have been added to the list (Anand, 2011). In the recent past, the tensions inherent in these competing visions have come to the forefront, especially since Mr. Narendra Modi’s regime came into power in 2014 (Jaffrelot, 2019).
When Mr. Narendra Modi entered into office in May 2014 after a spectacular victory for the BJP, he promised to bring India acche din (good days) by which he meant economic development, prosperity, more jobs, combating corruption and good governance. But his neo-liberal policies have led to drastic reductions in social development outlay with cuts in public expenditure on basic education and primary health care. Moreover, there are many controversial issues that either define the Hindutva agenda or seek to mobilize Hindus on a religious basis and palpably reduce non-Hindus to second-class citizens or secondary status. These issues consist of social campaigns with regressive anti-minority messages; attacks on places of worship; undermining the strength and autonomy of political institutions; concerted abusive attacks on critical academics, filmmakers, and progressive media; emboldening Hindu militant organizations; privileging of Hindu symbols and identities; bypassing democratic deliberation; routinely labelling dissenters and critics as anti-nationals; delegitimizing inter-faith marriages; encouraging political defections; and, censorship of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) (Palshikar, 2015 and Kaul, 2017). Hindu vigilante groups appear to be more barefaced, impertinent, sanguine, bullish, truculent, proud, and malevolent than ever before.
In November 2016, the Modi regime unexpectedly announced, overnight, it would invalidate and replace 500- and 1000-rupee bank notes (around 80 percent of the currency then in circulation) in an act of demonetization. Mr. Modi justified demonetization in terms of cracking down on the black economy, counterfeiting, and corruption. In his speech defending the policy, he also cited boosting revenues by limiting tax evasion, forcing money into banks, and encouraging the use of digital payment (Chhibber and Jassal, 2017: 87). This development, however, drastically affected the economy, caused distress to farmers and small traders, shaved off at least 2 percentage points of country’s annual GDP growth rate, as well as pushing up deposits and tax receipts. When social and economic disruption unfolded following the poorly planned policy initiative, Modi quickly labelled critics and dissenters of his policy as supporters of “black-marketeers” and accused them of acting against the interests of the nation (Kaul, 2017). Devendra Fadnavis, the BJP Chief Minister of Maharashtra, even declared that those who questioned of demonetization were “nothing but anti-nationals” (cited in Chacko, 2018: 18).
Alongside this, right-wing Hindu nationalists have tried to discipline minorities with the consent of the state apparatus using a kind of cultural policing that had earlier been restricted to BJP-ruled states, particularly in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. It has, however, also spread beyond BJP-ruling states (Jaffrelot, 2019). Such Hindu vigilantism has manifested itself in a range of ways to challenge the very idea of India and its principles, including democracy and secularism. The right-wing Hindu nationalist groups have targeted Muslims, accusing them of seducing and marrying young Hindu women to convert them, a phenomenon labeled as love jihad. Paliwal, a Hindutva ideologue, argued that a key plan of Muslims is to “allure, attract and abduct young Hindu girls for marriage to the Muslims” (cited in Anand, 2011: 49). Indeed, “the notion of Muslim men preying upon Hindu girls is common sense in Hindutva thinking” (Anand, 2011: 64). This was followed by the ghar wapsi (literal meaning “returning back home”), which intended to re-convert Christians and Muslims to the Hindu faith as a reaction to Muslim and Christian proselytism. The other symbolic issue is cow protection; it has long been a major concern for Hindu right-wing forces, on the basis that cows are sacred animal in their culture. It is considered a useful mechanism to organize activists, and a new movement was established called Gau Raksha Dal (Jaffrelot, 2019). However, it is an indirect way to stigmatize Muslims, as Muslims eat beef and thousands of them are workers in the meat industry. It also has severe implications both for religion-based policy and cultural diversity. There have been continued killings and beatings over the controversial topic of “beef ban.”
Other developments included: First, in the past eight years, a systematic attempt has been made to change the textbooks in order to revise historiography in line with a Hindutva view of history. Second, anxiety and fear increased surveillance through the use of a biometric unique-identity verification system, “Aadhar.” It threatens the privacy of people. Also, it is dubbed “the world’s biggest mass surveillance project.” Third, recently the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 was enacted; it is discriminatory and intended to target and marginalize Muslims. For the first time in India, religion is a basis for granting citizenship. The act seeks to grant citizen rights to religious minorities of the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan based on religion, which violates secular and pluralistic principles including Article 14 (deals with right to equality) and Article 15 (deals with non-discrimination) of the Indian Constitution. People of all ages, religions and castes greeted the act with demonstrations and protests across India. The act’s brazenness has galvanized the people in opposition. Despite official bans on public gatherings to quell dissident voices, demonstrators took to the streets at many places. Police responded brutally and inhumanely against protesters, including brutal crackdowns in three of India’s leading universities: Jamia Millia University, Aligarh Muslim University, and Jawaharlal Nehru University.
On 15 December 2019, immediately after the vicious crackdown on Jamia Millia University, a small group of women started protest at the Shaheen Bagh, a predominantly Muslim locality in Southeast Delhi. It became the epicenter of peaceful protests against the highly controversial citizenship act. And it inspired scores of similar protests in other states. At least 78 people have been killed in demonstrations triggered by the new Citizenship Act across India, a large number of them in northeast Delhi during violence in the month of February (Miglani, 2020). On 24 March 2020, Delhi police dismantled the longest-running (101-day-old) Shaheen Bagh protest.
In short, the Modi government has been terrible for farmers, minorities, dissenters, activists, rationalists, environmentalists, progressive universities, socially and economically discriminated against groups such as Dalits and women, and other oppressed tribes and castes, to name a few. Today the unemployment rate is very high; the banking system is fragile and weak and acutely undercapitalized with poor credit disbursements; severe agrarian crises and miseries have caused farmer suicides, and the economy continues to suffer painful effects of neo-liberal policies (Ribenboim, 2019 and Kaul, 2017).
Besides these developments, Modi marched to Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and unveiled his propaganda.
The Kashmir Problem
“Sadly, alarmingly, endlessly, there is trouble in paradise. The Vale of Kashmir, once exalted for the lotus blooms in its lakes and the yellow tapestry of its mustard fields, has become a valley of despair — a place haunted by senseless murder and hideous torture, wherever the famously sweet winds blow” — Barry Bearak
Throughout the most part of Kashmir history, people have suffered despotism, oppression, dehumanization and misrule. They have been ruthlessly and repressively ruled by the Shahmiris, Checks, Afghans, Mughals, Sikhs, and Dogras before the two new entities (India and Pakistan) arrived in 1947, leaving them in abject penury (Bazaz, 2007). Thus, history depicts that Kashmir “remained colonized and its natives disempowered” (Ahmad 2013: xiv). Kashmir emerged as a contentious region between India and Pakistan, the two dominant major powers in South Asia, shortly after their respective emergence as sovereign states in 1947 following the end of British rule. Kashmir is one of the most intractable international conflicts today; it has led to three major wars, and endemic insecurity and instability not only in India-Pakistan region but in entire South Asia (Wani, 2020). Indeed, Kashmir is the most densely militarized zone in the world. Since 1947, what India and Pakistan have done in Kashmir is deplorable and unforgivable. Tens of thousands of people have been killed; thousands have been disappeared in this conflict. Both nation-states’ acquisition of nuclear weapons has made the problem even more dangerous. It repetitively sparked crises that have threatened to ignite nuclear war in the region. Both states also insist “that control over Kashmir is very critical to the defense of their respective states, as well as salience to the fulfillment of national identities” (Cohen 2013, 125).
It is, however, pertinent to mention here that since Modi came to power, the violence exacerbated in the valley. Over the last few years, hundreds of people, particularly teenagers, have been killed and blinded by pellet-firing shotguns (the security establishment’s new weapon) to control the public. Until Covid-19 reached Kashmir, the valley was locked down for seven long months after the Indian government abrogated article 370 and 35A on 5 August 2019 and brought Jammu and Kashmir directly under the federal rule for the first time since 1947 (Wani, 2020). Its legislature has been disempowered. The move was unconstitutional, authoritarian and illegal. Moreover, the decision was taken without the consent of the people and they have been disenfranchised. Kashmiri people have been incarcerated at their homes and thousands including mainstream leaders have been arrested. The move was greeted with protests. It was claimed that Modi’s real intention is to inundate the region with Hindu settlers. In short, uncertainty prevails here. Barring the two districts (Ganderbal in Kashmir division and Udhampur in Jammu division), internet service remains very slow (2G).
The above two sections raise a very serious and important question about Indian democracy.
Is Indian Democracy Dead?
Democracy, properly understood, is the context in which citizens freely engage in the process of broad-based discourse, debate, deliberation, and enhance the critical assessment without any fear, restraint, or unease. People enjoy greater freedom and human development in well-functioning democracies than citizens of non-democracies. They also experience less deprivation, violence, suppression, dehumanization, and domination. Therefore, it is a robust and a vibrant mechanism that provides more pluralism and more tolerance. It is not like what Thomas Hobbes opined: that democracy fosters destabilizing dissension among the subjects. It entails freedom and tends to encourage people to think rationally because it makes a difference whether people do so or not. It also rescues ordinary people from both the tyranny and mayhem and promotes human welfare, fairness, public deliberation, individual freedom, security and social equality. We should also bear that freedom depends on more than rights, but without rights, there is no freedom (Wani, 2017). While dealing with democracy, a few questions arise in my mind: Is Indian democracy dead? If not, does it provide genuine autonomous choice to its citizens and institutions? And do people enjoy political thinking?
Democracy appears so innocuous in India. In his famous Tryst with Destiny speech at midnight of August 14-15, 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister, had brilliantly posed: “What shall be our endeavor?” He elegantly answered: “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman” (cited in Wani, 2017). These objectives remain as aspiring as they have been elusive. Whatever may have been the vision of the founding fathers of this nation, its democracy hasn’t lived up to their expectations.
Democratic values and norms have had been attacked under all the regimes. The first blow came when Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency in 1975; it was followed by the anti-Sikh riots in 1984, the demolition of Babri Masjid in December 1992, and anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 abrogation of Article 70 and 35 A in Jammu and Kashmir in 2019. Thus, these developments undermine the citizens’ allegiance to the very idea of democracy.
In addition, what we are experiencing today is the abating of the values of self-expression. These have had a significant impact on the democratic institutions because these values are inherently pertinent to the political and civil rights that constitutes democracy. In the existing system, it seems more fragile, volatile, and blemished because of serious internal cleavages and more sensitive and divisive issues. It gave birth to forces of authoritarian and antidemocratic nature, and moral backlashes against the individual choices and autonomy. As a result, Indian democracy seems unworkable and lies in tatters. The censorship that the present regime is executing seriously kills the foundational values of the republic (Wani, 2017).
Moreover, the Modi government sought to crush criticism and dissent through the use of coercive powers and anti-terrorist laws, particularly the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) to control the public, instead of engaging in a constructive dialogue with them. The act allows the state to designate individuals as terrorists without following the due process of a First Information Report, charge sheet, trial and conviction. Under this draconian law, many progressive intellectuals, students, and activists have been detained. Even the judiciary refused to grant bail to several key detainees. And the Indian democracy is suffering from a varying combination of corruption, poor security, lack of transparency, death of free speech, and intractable conflicts. The competition is collapsing. The democratic principles are putrid with the communal agendas (Ibid).
In short, life is pretty grim in the world’s so-called largest democracy. The mythical version of democracy becomes clearer and plainer. When we speak of the defense of democracy, we need to acknowledge that it has often become mere self-deception and pretense. It has been increasingly reduced to the question of where power resides and how it is exercised. It becomes more or less synonymous with “the rule of the mob,” which leads to the demise of individual freedoms and rights (Ibid). I don’t subscribe to the idea that restoration of liberal democracy will solve the problems of corruption, communalism, economic crisis, or popular discontent as manifested in the neo-liberal surge. Nor it can do anything to attenuate, even eliminate, its structural violence and destructive consequences. But it is still worth fighting for, to give us space in which to carry out these other struggles.
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