It’s Time to Face The Hard Truth About Democracy in India

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Behind massive parliamentary elections hides a climate of fear and repression, especially against Muslims. Here’s what that means for the future of democracy in the world’s most populous country.

Irfan Ahmad

India is in the midst of another Parliamentary elections, and once again a superlative degree of comparison is in use. Media reports describe the vote as the “largest exercise in electoral democracy in history,” in which around 1 billion people will vote.

With 170 million members, the ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is the world’s biggest political party and the elections are “the largest human event anywhere on the planet.”

Along with an earlier narrative as the world’s largest democracy, India, especially Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has now dubbed the country “the mother of democracy.”

Understandably, this slogan is fashioned to parallel the Western one that Greece is the birthplace of democracy. However, political theorist John Keane already busted this Western myth, arguing that democracy appeared much earlier in what is now Syria, Iraq and Iran.

Democracy of fear

Do the superlatives – the largest democracy and mother of democracy – tell the truth about India? Not really. What actually exists on the ground is rampant fear, among political parties, media, activists, academics, civil society organisations and average citizens. Anyone who challenges the status quo can face consequences.

On the charges of corruption, scams or illegal foreign money transfers, the Central Bureau of Investigation and Enforcement Directorate, India’s financial crime agency, has raided houses of politicians or activists not (or no longer) explicitly committed to BJP’s Hindu supremacist ideology. Many opponents have been put in jail.

The fear is gravest among ordinary citizens, especially disempowered Muslims. Unlike Hindu activists, Muslims are targeted mainly on the ground of their faith. Last year, an armed Hindu railway police officer named Chetan Singh killed three Muslims in a Mumbai-bound moving train.

With his left boot placed on the blood-soaked body of killed Asgar Abbas Ali, Singh issued a stern threat: “We know your masters are in Pakistan. But if you want to live here, vote for Prime Minister Modi.”

According to Umaisa Begum, Ali’s wife, Singh killed her husband because his Muslim identity was visible by his beard and Islamic cap.

It is not only adults like Begum who are victims of police brutality. Even children are being targeted. In January, right in India’s capital, federally-run Delhi Development Authority (DDA) arbitrarily bulldozed a mosque built 600 years ago.

Adjacent to the mosque were a graveyard and a madrasa (seminary), where orphans received free education. The entire property belonged to the Delhi Waqf (endowment) Board, but was allegedly illegal and now stands flattened. When asked what he feared, 12-year old Zeeshan who studied in that madrasa and helplessly watched the destruction, said he observed “bulldozers and thousands of force (policemen).”

Later the Delhi High Court reprimanded the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), asking it to explain “the basis of demolishing the centuries-old mosque.”

Since 2014, throughout India – Delhi, Gujarat, Haryana, Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Uttar Pradesh – bulldozers have been deployed to destroy houses and religious places of Muslims resisting the Hindu supremacist agenda. This deployment of bulldozers is reminiscent of Israel’s violent ethnic policy vis-a-vis subjugated Palestinians.

Muslims as a threat is indeed the prime electoral game which nearly every far-right party is busy playing. While the roles of actors playing it change, sometimes dramatically, the game itself, like its script, does not.

This fear, which is in full swing across India, is alien to democracy. To French philosopher Montesquieu, fear was the foundation of despotism. However, India typifies despotism, disguised in elections and sanctified in the name of people, a phenomenon another French philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville described as “tyranny of the majority.”

Muslim ‘threat’

Often erasing the reality of fear facing people like Begum or Zeeshan, the power-happy media instead routinely portray Muslims as a threat to India. Modi himself has repeatedly done so in numerous speeches during the ongoing election campaign.

For instance, on April 21 2024, he described Muslims as “infiltrators” and “those who produce more babies.” Eight days later, he drew, as he did in 2001, an equation between Islam and terrorism.

Muslims as a threat is indeed the prime electoral game which nearly every far-right party is busy playing. While the roles of actors playing it change, sometimes dramatically, the game itself, like its script, does not. This game is largely like a circus.

REUTERSA woman holds a sign with a picture of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the day of his election campaign rally, in New Delhi, India, May 18, 2024 (REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis).

There are two political alliances in the fray: the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the ruling BJP, and the opposition Indian National Developmental Inclusive Alliance (INDIA), led by the Congress, a party in power since India’s independence in 1947.

Formed in 2023, the INDIA alliance’s architect is Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, a state in north India. However, Kumar himself later joined the ruling alliance. Just before this Machiavelli-like shift, Kumar had said: “I’d rather die than ever join them (the BJP).” Before this shift too, Kumar, a self-proclaimed socialist, had joined the right-wing Islamophobic BJP-led alliance.

Kumar’s back-and-forth move showing opponents become proponents and vice versa is one feature of India’s electoral politics. Consider others: The communist party of India, Marxist (CPIM), is a friend of the INDIA alliance, hence of the Congress, at a national level. But in the state of Kerala where it is in power, CPIM and Congress are electoral foes. Notably, in the 1990s, CPIM’s slogan was: BJP and Congress are thieves, they are cousins.

Arguably, the most sinister feature of Indian politics is the relentless projection of Muslims as the enemy, a constant in Indian politics, certainly since 9/11. In a recent election rally, Modi attacked Congress for its manifesto bearing “the imprint of the Muslim League.”

An important party in British India, the League opposed Hindu majoritarianism to protect Muslim rights. However, most Hindus view it as “communal” and responsible for Pakistan’s creation. In Indian politics, Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the League’s leader, is one of the most despised persons. So is Pakistan.

Reading between the lines, in linking Congress and the League, Modi’s actual target was Muslims, not Congress. The ultimate enemy are Muslims, with Congress simply bearing the former’s imprint. Rather than treat Modi’s speech as vitriolic, India’s mainstream media published it as “fact.”

The Congress counterattacked Modi, accusing instead his political ancestors of being “in love with” the Muslim League. Ravish Kumar, considered a liberal critic of BJP and conferred with the Ramon Magsaysay Award for “ethical journalism,” found it ethical to endorse Congress’ counterattack.

That in this shadow attack and counterattack the figure of Muslim as the ultimate enemy is enlivened by both Congress and BJP simply escaped him. Congress also chose not to say that Jinnah began his political career as a member of the Congress party and that Sarojini Naidu, a towering Congress leader, had described Jinnah as “an ambassador of Hindu-Muslim unity.”

AFPA laser show on the banks of Sarayu River in Ayodhya on January 21, 2024, on the eve of the consecration ceremony of a temple to Hindu deity Ram (AFP/Money Sharma).

In the same election rally, Modi also projected Congress as anti-Hindu because it didn’t attend the consecration ritual of Ram temple. But it is well-known that while in public Congress fooled Muslims into believing that Babri Masjid would be protected, unofficially it facilitated the building of Ram temple on the very site where Babri Masjid stood for centuries.

In 2019, Congress admitted that it supported building a temple for Ram, the Hindu god. This is a diplomatic way of endorsing destruction of the Babri Masjid as it was named after the Mughal king Babar. Whereas in reality there is largely a consensus between ruling and opposition parties about who the ultimate enemy is, in the electoral arena they are staged as opponents.

During the decade-long Modi’s rule, both these notions have violently worked in unison. For instance, anti-pluralism is evident in depicting Christians and Muslims as not belonging to “the real India “‘ and the simultaneous gory pursuit of building a Hindu state.

The root of this populism, however, is older than Modi’s rule. In the interwar period, most far-right Hindu politicians became proponents of democracy not because of its worth as justice, pluralism and liberty, but as a “convenient way to establish the domination of the majority community.” Do we recognise this populist danger in the worlds’ largest democracy?

The views expressed here are author’s personal and do not necessarily represent the stand of Clarion India

Courtesy: TRT World

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