On the world stage, Islamophobia came to prominence after the United States of America declared the War on Terror in 2001. In spite of the popular perception that this was where Islamophobia in fact started, the facts would say otherwise. Before the United States and, consequently, most of the Western world, India had already started its war on Muslims, arguably since its conception as a state post-Partition. The editorial in the Economist, “Intolerant India” makes an apt judgement about the democratic backsliding in India as a result of their attitudes towards the Muslim minority in the country, which I agree with and will attempt to strengthen.
“Intolerant India” refers to the country in question as an inspiration for being the largest democracy in the world. However, a distinction made by Robert Dahl might be useful to make in this instance, the distinction between a democracy and a liberal democracy. In practice, a democracy is easy enough to maintain, simply a majoritarian state where the power of the government is derived from the people. A liberal democracy, where the majority’s decision is honored only insofar as it is consonant with the human rights of all, is much harder to maintain, exhibiting the inherent tension within democracies that many political theorists acknowledge as a source of their fragility. India is certainly a democracy (Muslims are, indeed, a minority in the country), but their status as a liberal democracy is on the table for dispute.
There are two lenses through which one might view any events of democratic backsliding, or the deterioration of a liberal democracy: one of which concerns backsliding originating from the public, and the other of which involves it originating from those on top. The first is that from Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book “How Democracies Die,” which can be understood as there being too much democracy, where the preferences of the public are not tempered by the guardrails and norms of institutions such as political parties. Taking both of these theories and their entailments into account, one could generally say that in Western, “developed” democracies, the elite theory might be more apt, whereas the former could apply better to less mature democracies. I would argue that the theory from Levitsky and Ziblatt is the right lens to apply to what is happening in India. Consider the effects of the incendiary language from BJP officials elected into office. They include several of the events that the Economist editorial cites, which are carried out by the people, such as the Gujarat massacre. Mob violence, even when invited by the words of elected officials, needs to be consonant with what the people already believe or can be easily convinced of, not to mention who it is that puts the elected officials into power in a democracy.
Levitsky and Ziblatt put a heavy emphasis on norms being the criterion by which democracy must operate, another idea echoed with different nomenclature by many political theorists. A healthy, liberal democracy must have every interlocutor operating on the same democratic bargain, as Carl Schmitter might call it, or in the case of rhetoric, with an “economy of moral disagreement,” from Amy Gutman. Consider, though, the Citizenship Amendment, Act 47 of 2019, the focus of the Economist editorial. In essence, the purpose of the Citizenship Amendment is to redefine the norms that were already tenuous: the norms that prevented flushing Muslims out of India altogether. This democratic bargain is being flouted, insofar as there is an intolerance of opposition, characterized in the populist appeals of the current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who was also the leader in Gujarat in 2002. The Prime Minister of India has long since been spearheading the BJP’s movement against Muslims, and for not just this reason, he ticks off all the boxes set by Jan-Werner Müller in his book “What is Populism?” Modi’s Islamophobic policy and disregard for maintaining the Socratic bargain, in conjunction with the willingness of the public to elect and follow such officials, are what lead to the erosion of liberties for targeted subsets of the Indian population.
In “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter, he talks about the rise of the right-wing due to perceived threats to “Americanism” and a cultural threat to the country, stemming from diversity. In India, this epic war over what it means to be Indian is taking on a very literal sense, as the passing of the Citizenship Amendment is a legal redefinition of who can be Indian. The provisions of the amendment require that suspected non-citizens have paperwork to back up their presence in the country, meaning that those without paperwork are simply, in the eyes of the government, not Indian, disregarding how many generations of their ancestry have been in the country.
The epic nature of this battle to redefine what it means to be Indian has very real consequences. As the Economist editorial mentions, the Indian government has already begun building camps for those caught as unauthorized residents. The American Political Development tradition of political theory also studies the continual redefinition of who gets included in society, a redefinition that has been, de facto, taking place in India for years. With the rise of the right-wing BJP, this narrowing of the definition of an Indian is making the transition into a de jure disenfranchisement along religious lines, regardless of the secular nature of the Indian Constitution. Such a shift in how acceptable reducing the rights of Muslims in India is can be path dependent. In the same way that ultra-right-wing parties shift the center of politics towards the right, the Citizenship Amendment shifts the social and legal norms of acceptable levels of Islamophobia, making further erosions even more likely as time goes on. India’s status as a democracy is alive and well. Their status as a liberal democracy died on December 12th, 2019.