The author is a social activist from India – Ask any liberal, secular Indian about India today, and you will invariably get one common response, ‘Democracy is under threat’! Today the attention of the global community is focused on the revocation of Article 370 in August 2019 and the unprecedented clampdown, curfew and communications blackout in Kashmir. This issue is itself an indication of the health of democracy in India, which is indeed a matter of great concern. But is it really surprising, bearing in mind what we have been experiencing over the past six years of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule? The answer is clearly “No”.
The revocation of Kashmir’s special status – government diversion tactics and new opportunities for corporate business
The abrogation of Art. 370* has been an election promise of the ruling Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) for many years. And now, after returning to power in 2019 with an even bigger mandate than in 2014, they have ‘kept their promise’. Another BJP poll promise since 2014 has been ‘Minimum government and maximum governance’, but in reality just the opposite is happening and India is emerging as a surveillance state, where income gaps and inequality are broadening and voices of dissent being brutally curbed. Hindu fundamentalist groups (commonly referred to as Hindutva or Right-Wing groups) have created issues such as communal hatred, hyper-nationalism or so-called illegal immigrant issues with which they have to a large extent successfully diverted public attention from their major political and economic debacles.
The other very significant issue is how crony capitalism is gaining strength and influence under the present regime. Political analysts argue that once the clampdown in Kashmir ends the revocation of Art. 370 will mainly benefit a small group of corporates considered favorites of the ruling party, to which they regularly make generous donations. Soon after the abrogation of Art. 370 the government announced that development would be the key agenda in the Kashmir Valley and the ruling party’s favorite corporates were quick to express interest in investing there, in the knowledge that the state would more than likely provide land and other facilities almost free of cost. Until then, Art. 370 had protected Kashmir from land and resource grabbing as it prohibited the purchase of land by ‘Outsiders’ without the permission of the State’s legislative assembly.
Hindutva fanaticism and the silencing of dissent
The new narrative constructed by Hindutva groups equates government with the nation, and any criticism of government is treated as sedition. All those who dare to disagree with government policies are tagged as ‘anti-national’ and face attacks from Hindutva social media trolls. The emergence of these faithful followers of Hindutva politics is no coincidence as the Hindutva parties have systematically invested in propaganda through social media platforms, reportedly recruiting some 300 000 people, a new patriot brigade promoting an opposition free democracy, which is an oxymoron.
Every attempt has been made to silence the voice of dissent. There have even been allegations that the independence of autonomous democratic institutions such as the Election Commission of India or the Supreme Court is being compromised. Prominent civil society activists and human rights defenders have been arrested without bail for weeks. A number of journalists, social activists and scientists who relentlessly fought against the rise of fanaticism and the emergence of a fascist-like situation in India have been assassinated by so called Hindutva fringe extremist groups. All were silenced by different killers, but they were killed by the same ideology: Hindutva fanaticism.
Rise in Hindutva-instigated hate crimes
The ruling party’s strategy of long-term distraction requires a permanent villain; here islamophobia is cunningly used to dehumanize the minority Muslim population. The hatred stirred up has penetrated so deep that mob killings (lynching) has now become normality and the fact that such brutal killings are carried out with virtual impunity has emboldened local Hindutva brigades. Amnesty International India and Hate Crime Watch (HCW) have documented a clear rise in hate crimes, the main victims being Dalits, Muslims, women, Christians, Indigenous people and transgenders. HCW noted a surge in crimes based on religious identity between 2013 and 2018, the majority committed in BJP ruled states. Bystanders rarely attempt to stop the violent attacks and the police hardly ever arrived on time to intervene. In a bid to address these crimes, the Supreme Court directed all states to pass anti-lynching laws in 2018, but only three or four states have so far complied. Lynching started on the pretext of cow protection but now a person can be lynched just for being dressed like someone from a minority group or for refusing to chant Hindutva slogans.
Christians too are affected by Hindutva aggression. Churches are vandalized and many tribal families who converted to Christianity generations ago are now being forced to re-convert to Hinduism. This flagship Hindutva program, ‘Ghar Wapsi’ (Homecoming), systemically violates the human rights of thousands of indigenous people and helps to distract people’s attention from the large-scale plunder of the resources of indigenous communities. In the name of development their land and natural resources are taken away and awarded to mining companies; their environment is destroyed and indigenous communities are pushed further into poverty.
The media, education and women’s role under threat
In a declining democracy the media, the fourth pillar, has an important role to play in India. The renowned Indian journalist Mr. Ravish Kumar summed the situation up well:
“The state today has established full control over the media and the corporations. The implication of this control over the media and in turn your information flow is that it limits and narrows the scope of your citizenship. In other words, the media controls diversity of the news stories, and specifies what interpretation of news events are acceptable. The media is now a part of the surveillance state. It isn’t the fourth estate anymore, but the first estate…Information helps build nations. Fake news, propaganda and false history on the other hand help create mob”.
Education is also facing severe attacks. History is replaced by Hindutva myths in social media and even in school textbooks. Superstitions are celebrated as traditions. Eminent historians such as Romila Thapar, economists like Amartya Sen, authors and activists like Arundhuti Roy are attacked for their rich and unbiased contributions in their respective fields. Scientific, fact-based approaches among the people are being systematically discouraged, as fanatics do not like empowered citizens who may ask questions to the government regarding the accountability of the state. In the New India women’s role is defined in classic Nazi style: their reproductive role is portrayed as a virtue, reference is even made to “pure genes”. Crime against women has skyrocketed and the recent Thomas Reuters Foundation survey showed that India tops a global ranking of most dangerous countries for women.
The killing of democracy by means of democratic institutions and structures
Taking advantage of its large majority in the lower house of the Indian parliament and a comfortable position in the upper house, the present government has passed and amended many acts that have serious impacts on citizens’ democratic freedoms. The amendments to the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the National Investigation Agency have the potential for use against civil and human rights activists, dissenters, political opponents and members of the minority communities. The state now has wide reaching authority to jail people without charge, even before a crime has been committed, and to declare individuals terrorists without a trial. Civil society organisations are also very critical of new legislation on the collection of biometric data and the watering down of progressive acts such as the Right to Information Act. Changes to the Forest Rights Act restricting the rights of forest dwellers to have access to forestland and the Land Acquisition Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act reveal the government’s clear intention to further privatize agriculture, promote natural resource grabs and deny access to information to the people.
Particular concern has been expressed by the UNHRC about the National Register for Citizens introduced by the BJP government, which has led to some 1.9 million people, mostly Muslims, in Assam being stripped of their citizenship. Many have been taken to detention camps, uncannily reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. So far the Indian government has ignored the UN criticism. Further legislation presently being debated would enable “illegal immigrants of faiths other than Muslims or Christians” to be granted Indian citizenship. This would mainly target poor minorities. Amendments to the constitution would be needed, but with a large majority in parliament this would be feasible.
The proposed One Nation One Election initiative now underway is a further threat to pluralism and India as a federal, secular democracy. It would impose a system of one simultaneous election throughout the country allegedly for reasons of efficiency, but it is feared that it could be followed by one party, one leader, one culture, one corporate enterprise, one media and one language.
An attempt to impose Hindi as the national language of India is ongoing, despite the fact that India has no national language but rather 22 officially recognized languages.
Amidst all these negativity, one can wonder what is the future of India? Lack of strong opposition parties with alternative narratives, weak left parties and scattered and shattered people’s movements fail to put forward any serious resistance to this decline of democracy. Minority voices are systematically made irrelevant in politics, the economy and in sociocultural spaces. Despite the government’s social, political and economic failings, its successful “distraction agenda” has convinced many people to vote for attaining religious supremacy as promised to the majority Hindu community by the ruling party.
At this point the future looks grim. But given India’s strong-rooted democracy, the journey towards establishing an authoritarian state will not be smooth and certainly not without protest. We need empowered citizens and not cheerleaders of political parties. People need to be aware of their rights and responsibilities as citizens so as to reclaim the democratic space that is being taken away from us. As embedded mainstream media will not serve this cause, we need citizen’s media as an alternative. The constitution of India provides a wonderful tool to fight against the violation of rights and to uphold democracy, so it is high time to uphold the constitution. It is also high time to protect and promote democratic values and practices in our private and public spaces, in a peaceful way, despite challenges and repression.
Global opinion building is equally important. The truth about today’s India must be made known not only at the UN but wherever people value peace and democracy. We are aware that many countries are going through situations similar to that of India. This gives us a unique opportunity to develop international people’s solidarity against authoritarianism, imperialism and the violation of human rights worldwide. In solidarity lies our common future.
*Article 370 of the Indian constitution guaranteed special rights to the Muslim majority state of Kashmir, including the right to its own constitution and autonomy to make laws on most matters. Its revocation would lead to Indians outside of the state gaining the legal right to own property there.