In 2022, India sits as the world’s most populous country of around 1.38 billion people, making it the largest democracy in the world. The Indian government is modeled after the Westminster model, a form of parliamentary democracy first formed by the British. This makes it an electoral democracy. India gained its independence in 1947 after a 90 year struggle to obtain sovereignty from British rule, where the transition from a colony to a democracy occurred.
With the re-election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and recent political events, India’s status as a democracy has been brought into question. Freedom House, an organization that seeks to promote and protect democracy, has a catalog of democratic states around the world, giving each a score out of 100 every year. The score breaks down both civil and political liberties. Since 2017, India’s freedom score has decreased steadily, from its high of 77 to the current score of 66. Respectively, democratic backsliding has become a greater cause for concern – and it has been mostly state-led. India’s democratic erosion is based largely on the religious divides as religion has been the most significant factor of the creation of the state. The end of British colonization in the Indian subcontinent broke the region apart into smaller countries, populations moving based on the majority religions of the regions.
The election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014 and his subsequent re-election in 2019 have been cited as significant events that contributed to democratic backsliding in the country. The Modi administration has been responsible for the surge of Hindu-nationalism in the country, and simultaneously the increasing discrimination throughout India. Religious discrimination in India predates colonization and to ancient India, when the caste system was the prominent form of classification in society. Following the end of colonization, caste and religious identity were never taken into consideration in the creation of the country’s constitution. Despite the constitution explicitly stating that India is a secular Republic, by default, caste and other forms of religious discrimination against minorities were reinforced institutionally. With the current ruling political party, the BJP, being centered around Hindu nationalism, the future of India’s secular democracy is brought into question.
Discriminatory legalism, the act of intentional discrimination against a group of people in return for political power, has been effectively utilized by the Modi administration. Since the Prime Minister’s election, India has seen a surge in religious hate crimes. Data shows that of all the hate crimes committed between 2009 and 2019, 90% were committed after the BJP took power, with perpetrators being mostly Hindu, and victims being mostly Muslim. However, much of the data has also been underreported in years prior. Further analysis shows that previous government officials were underreporting crimes that were directly linked to religious minorities, such as lynching, one of the many attacks that has increased since 2014, when Modi first took office. Underreporting of these crimes means that there is also a lack of justice for the victims of these crimes. Tabrez Ansari – a 24 year-old victim of a religiously motivated hate crime – was beaten for hours at the hands of Hindu nationalists. Despite the critical injuries Ansari sustained, his family claimed that they were threatened by police for seeking help for his injuries. Ansari’s story is one of many about police failure to protect religious minorities. In 2020, a video of police officers beating Muslim men while forcing them to sing India’s national anthem went viral, sparking protests across the country. In the violence that ensued, 52 individuals were killed, a majority being Muslim. The lack of accountability for the violence perpetrated by officers of the judicial system is a larger reflection of the failures and utilization of the entire government in protecting and promoting violence against religious minorities, whether it is through islamaphobic rhetoric, violence perpetrated by Hindu mobs associated with the BJP, or lack of action against Hindu extremists. By default, religious minorities are forced into an unequal standing against the religious majority, standing juxtaposed to the democratic and secular institutions written into the state’s constitution.
Along with discriminatory legalism, the Modi administration has also previously passed concrete policy in attempts to disenfranchise populations of India mostly based on their religious identities. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was signed into law in 2019. The CAA granted immediate citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians who were being persecuted in majority-Muslim countries in South Asia. The law is particular in its exclusion of Muslisms, another juxtaposition to the secular constitution. Further, the bill gave way to disenfranchise thousands of Muslims across India who did not have the paperwork to prove their citizenship. This could also lead to their deportations in an attempt to further remove Muslims from Indian society. The disenfranchisement, however, means the representation aspect of democracy would not be accurate nor just for Muslims. As of 2019, 13% of the Indian population is Muslim, but they are disproportionately represented in elections along with other religious minorities.
Although India has been used as an example of the extent to which democracy is able to function, it does not mean it works without flaws, and it does not mean that democracy is not fickle. As seen now, with a new renaissance for Hindu nationalism under the aegis of the Modi Administration, democracy has the ability to be skewed for political agendas and the devolution of minority populations.