Mob violence and mass rioting engulfed New Delhi earlier this year, with images of defenseless Indian Muslims beaten in the streets; their faces bloodied, their businesses and homes turned to ash. Arson, larceny, and stone-pelting go unpunished while a complicit police force stands idly by. What is causing such carnage? Right-wing populism has gripped India under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the presiding Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). With his fiery nationalistic rhetoric, Modi threatens the very secular nature of the subcontinent. Passage of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act just last year has furthered the march of institutional discrimination against non-Hindu minorities, threatening the physical and political safety of the world’s second largest Muslim population. A perennial world power, India has arrived at a significant political crossroads in its short existence as a nation. Will civil society bring balance to intense polarization or will the globe’s most populous democracy slip further towards autocracy?
On December 11, 2019, the Indian parliament voted into law the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), altering the former 64-year-old Indian Citizenship law, previously prohibiting the naturalization of illegal immigrants. The CAA, pushed through both houses of the Indian legislature by Modi’s BJP, was met with widespread outcry and condemnation. The bill offers a path to citizenship for asylum seekers from Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; the caveat being that they belong to one of six explicitly stated religious groups: Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian. Blatantly missing from these groups are Muslims. The deliberate exclusion of people on the basis of faith flies in the face of Indian constitutional protections against religious discrimination and assurances of “equal protection under the law”. In the following weeks, peaceful protests amassed across the country, notably the Shaheen Bagh Protest in Delhi, led primarily by Muslim women. Spurred on by violent rhetoric from BJP members, government supporters took to the streets in February 2020. The clash between Hindu nationalists and protestors saw innocent Muslims beaten, even killed in broad daylight, with as many as 53 mortally wounded and hundreds more injured. Violence shifted from protest sites to predominantly Islamic boroughs, where entire blocks were set ablaze and families terrorized. Where were public authorities to end this chaos? Likely compromised themselves. The Delhi police have been widely accused of contempt. Human rights watchdog organisation Amnesty International charges that police forces were both “complicit and an active participant” in the riots that ensued. The Delhi police, it should be noted, are accountable to the Union Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), headed by the president of the BJP, Amit Shah. Prime Minister Modi, all the while, failed to dispel such toxic rhetoric and was reluctant to condemn these atrocities. Instead, he issued a mass internet and text messaging blackout to quell protests and disrupt civil organisation on social media platforms. The government is no stranger to implementing internet shutdowns, with an ongoing outage in Kashmir lasting nearly half a year.
Secular tension is not new in India. The Bharatiya Janata Party, however, is. Founded in 1980, the party has only recently gained popular support under the stewardship of Modi. In fact, 2014 marked the first time in the nation’s history that a party other than the Indian National Congress (INC) formed the ruling majority in parliament. To understand the BJP’s rapid ascension to power, one must first understand who the party is at its core; its conservative nature and origins in Hindu nationalism, as well as how it has been reshaped by one charismatic Narendra Modi. The BJP’s predecessor, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), was founded nearly 100 years ago as a right-wing, paramilitary volunteer organization. RSS is committed to pillars of Hindutva, a long standing political ideology revolving around the reestablishment of India as a “Hindu nation”. Subscribers to Hindutva are firmly committed to making India’s national identity synonymous with Hindu identity. Notable RSS members include Prime Minister Modi as well as Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, Nathurem Godse. While Gandhi’s INC fought to tame tensions between Muslims and Hindus, the RSS mission statement denounces the country’s “endless appeasement of the Muslim population.” India was established as a secular state at its founding, contrary to Pakistan. The RSS-influenced BJP seeks to change that.
The exclusion of Muslims from the Citizenship Amendment Act is certainly the most overt discriminatory action undertaken by the Modi regime. However, both the prime minister and BJP have a history of undermining democracy through their attacks on minority political rights and sovereignty. In 1992, the BJP organized a rally with the purpose of constructing a Hindu temple in the place of a 16th century mosque. When demonstrations turned violent, 150,000 “religious volunteers” demolished the Babri Masjid, resulting in subsequent communal infighting that saw the loss of 2,000 lives. In November 2019, India’s supreme court overturned ownership of the land and the very next summer Modi, himself, was present for the Rama Temple groundbreaking ceremony. In 2002, while serving as Chief Minister for the state of Gujarat, Modi drew harsh criticism for failure to quell anti-muslim riots, with many observers alleging that he, himself, initiated and condoned such violence. As hundreds of Indians were assaulted, raped, and murdered, Modi and the Gujarat police force stood down. In response to his complicity and supposed role in these attacks, the U.S. State Department levied an individual ban on Narendra Modi’s travel. In more recent events, nearly 2 million residents of the multi-ethnic state of Assam were stripped of their citizenship in 2018. The National Registry of Citizens (NRC) excluded Bengali-speaking east Indians in the midst of a controversial initiative to crackdown on undocumented immigrants from Bangladesh. International critics, however, feel this was a targeted attempt to remove thousands of legal Muslim residents. In the following general election in 2019, mass allegations of voter disenfranchisement cast a shadow on the efficacy of the Indian electoral process. As many as 40 million Muslims and 30 million Dalits (formerly referred to as “untouchables”) saw their names deleted from voting lists across the country. Through the use of “Form 7”, an electronic form posted on the electoral commission’s website, an individual may allege that a voter does not belong to that voting precinct and request their removal. The forms are not authenticated and anyone can fill them out, making them weapons of suppression for parties like the BJP. The international community has taken note of the Modi regime’s encroachment on democracy. Freedom House, a widely respected non-government metric that tracks democracy, political freedoms, and human rights across the world, currently rates India 71/100 (With 100 being most free), down from 77/100 just two years earlier. Why then, have international organizations like the United Nations and global powers like the United States not taken harsher stances on the BJP and their persecution of minorities? India is a major world economic power, erecting sanctions could disrupt global trade relationships. The ethno-nationalistic policies and rhetoric brought on by Modi’s BJP is also part of a wider global right-wing populist movement. President Donald Trump recently paid an official visit to the nation, touting a cozy relationship with the prime minister and describing him as a “great person who works for his people.” Similar words have been used to describe Russian President Vladimir Putin. Crucial years lay ahead for the world’s largest democracy. The BJP has an overwhelming presence from the municipal to national level. If backsliding is to be halted, a moderate civil society must arise from within to oppose the unchecked advance of Hindu nationalism and protect India’s democratic institutions.