The farmers protests have captured international attention, but this is only the tip of the ice-berg on India’s slide into authoritarianism.

‘WE, THE PEOPLE OF INDIA, having solemnly resolved to constitute India into a SOVEREIGN SOCIALIST SECULAR DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC’ is stated in bold, capital letters as the preamble to the Indian constitution. Justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity shortly following as unconditional rights of its citizens.

India’s rich and complex history has made it a mosaic of different languages,cultures, religions and ethnicities, so when constituting the Republic in 1947, following the end of British Colonial Rule, democracy and secularism became rights of an exalted status, Former Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s said that India must be a place where: “layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer has completely hidden or erased what has been written previously,”, signifying the essence of India can be found in these two values.

However, Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is chipping away at these core principles of secularism and democracy and India is spiralling into authoritarianism.

‘India’s first Nuremberg Law’

Modi’s presence in high political office has raised concerns over the safety of Indian secularism since his ascension to Prime Minister 2014. By nature, the ideology of ‘Hindutva’ and Hindu Nationalism that lies at the core of Modi’s politics is the opposite of secularism, and the implementation of policy that discriminates between religious groups shows that these are not just opinions, but a philosophy that is driving legislation.

What is ‘Hindutva’? ‘Hindutva’ is essential to the modern concept of Hindu Nationalism, finding its roots in the writing of Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, Hindutva is not to be synonymous with the Hindu religion, it focuses on ‘Hindu-ness’ relating to territorial origin. In Savarkar’s writing, a common nation, race and culture represent Indian-ness, crucially, religions that have historical associations with colonialism, Islam and Christianity, are not included in this.  Anthropologist Angana P. Chatterji describes it as the transformation of Hindu from a religion into an ethnicity, conflating being Hindu, with being Indian.

This idea is instilled into the BJP and its sister organisation Rashtriya Swayamesevak Sangh (RSS), a powerful paramilitary group with millions of members throughout India. The principle that some people have a greater claim than others to being Indian has found its way into the most powerful offices in the country, and judging by Modi’s consecutive election wins, it has stuck with a public base.

Modi’s 2019 election campaign could been named ‘Make India Great Again’, as he led a fiercely ‘Pro-India’ nationalistic campaign which centred on anti-immigration. Particularly focussing on Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh coming to India illegally and causing mass unemployment, matching the inflammatory rhetoric of a Trump’s MAGA campaign, Home Secretary Amit Shah referred  to these immigrants as ‘termites’ in India, cleaving out the powerful ‘Us versus Them’ distinction that is classic in nationalist politics.

The tribalist distinction has evidently taken root, as hate crime against Muslims in India has soared since Modi throughout Modi’s administration. Lynchings, murders, and assaults show a desperately alarming trend of hate crimes committed against Indian Muslims, whilst Modi and the BJP are consistent in their apathy or vindication.

December 2019, Modi introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) granting immigrants from three neighbouring countries asylum from religious persecution. On the one condition: that they are not Muslim, sparking widespread protest against the new blatantly discriminatory law.

Whilst Modi continues to frame this act as a ‘narrow use of the law’ that is being blown out of proportion by political adversaries, this law has also been framed as India’s first ‘Nuremberg Law’, as religious discrimination in India has made the leap from rhetorical to enforceable.

The road to authoritarianism

Increased government control over India’s population is not a novel phenomenon, it is now easier to draw comparisons between India and the surveillance state of China than other liberal democracies.

In a severe and shocking move in 2019, the Indian PM oversaw the removal of Jammu and Kashmir’s special semi-autonomous status. Historically, these regions had their own constitution, flags, and administrative authority, all of which were nullified by what was described as a flagrant assault on identity and self-determination.

Prime Minister Modi.

Condemnation for India’s slide into dogmatic authoritarianism have been few and far between among Western democracies so far.

The fact that both of these regions have a majority Muslim population also with high numbers of Buddhists and other religious minorities questions whether this move is not only authoritarian but distinctually repressive, as Delhi’s power now extends wholly over these now municipalities.

Underpinned by the insidious censorship of India’s media, journalists and news outlets that have been critical of Modi’s government have been subject to censorship and even taken off air mid broadcast. Journalists and comedians have been jailed, assaulted or revocation of their citizenship, with high profile cases such as the murder of out-spoken BJP critique Gauri Lankesh.

Following the murder, opposition party leader Rahul Gandhi stated that anyone who spoke out against the BJP and RSS in India ended up beaten or dead, that the killing of free thinkers in india is a danger to democratic freedom. It should be noted that the RSS have always denied active involvement in the murder.

The farmers’ protests have most recently captured international attention, and have shone a spotlight on Modi’s autocratic politics, as thousands of farmers have camped on the outskirts of Delhi protesting new legislation that deregulates the farming economy, putting farmers at the mercy of private corporations. Violent clashes have broken out between farmers and Indian police as Modi refuses to back down over these new policies.

Symbolising Modi’s disregard for the reality of India’s severe inequality, Indian farmers constitute 60% of the Indian workforce but account for only 13.5% GDP. Suicides have become rampant within farming communities however Modi’s unyielding position shows he is willing to subjugate the masses, not merely his political opponents.

Reflections in global politics

Condemnation for India’s slide into dogmatic authoritarianism have been few and far between among Western democracies so far, with the most stringent critique coming from outspoken celebrities on social media rather than members of political office.

The UK, US, or the EU have remained silent on the matter, despite emotional images from the farmers protest breaking into mainstream media. Ironically, the EU and India joined forces to condemn ‘terrorism in all of its forms’ in November 2020, whilst concurrently, millions of farmers protested for their right to survive on the outskirts of Delhi. It elucidates the hypocrisy of Western powers righteously critiquing ‘hostile’ regimes, such as Russia or China, for oppressive politics but when it is an allied power making the same moves, there is silence. Suggesting that strategic partnerships take precedent over democratic rights.

For a brief period in 2005, Modi was banned from obtaining a US Visa for failing to act during anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat, although this tougher stance lasted only fleetingly. Obama maintained a good relationship with the Indian PM, and In 2019, the same year of Jammu and Kashmir, Trump welcomed Modi with fanfare and grandeur in a ‘Howdy Modi’ rally in Texas, a sign of the strong partnership between the two countries.

How Biden will approach Modi is an intriguing question. Considering that the new administration’s domestic agenda hinges on preserving democracy and unity, what would pandering to a despot like Modi reveal about the depth of Biden’s commitment to democracy?

Perhaps international politics is becoming desensitized to Modi’s type of nationalistic authroitarianism, as ‘strong man politics’ continues to dominate in global affairs. Putin in Russia, Xi Jinping in China, Bolsonaro in Brazil, and the unyielding support for Trump in the US shows the desire for ‘strong man’ leaders that typically offer nationalistic, identity based politics, with aggressive rhetoric and a realist outlook. Political leaders being autocratic is no longer shocking, as we watch the US capitol riots, China’s Uighur genocide, or Putin’s assassination attempt on his main political opponent.

Whatever the excuse is for the silence of others, the knowledge that Modi is trampling on the exalted principles of India should not be understated. ‘Without which’, states Indian journalist Rohan Hande, ‘the whole place falls apart’.

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