India's aspiration for a greater role on the global stage is incongruous with its present behaviour

How long India can ignore the world and how long the world can ignore what's happening in India is a question likely to be answered soon. But we still retain ability to influence our fate in many ways

India's aspiration for a greater role on the global stage is incongruous with its present behaviour

Aakar Patel

The question ‘how free are we?’ has two answers. Surveying the past few years, it is not easy to escape the sense that we are not quite free. Since 2014, but more since 2019, India has accelerated down the path it took under the BJP. New and innovative means of torturing its minorities have been found, and applied with impunity by the State and the mobs it has empowered.

A fierce Hindu nationalism, aimed internally at India’s own citizens, became more unhinged and more vengeful. The trauma and distress of minority Indians, palpable on social media, was shocking to those not aware of the gravity of developments.

Just as appalling was the apathy of the majority to their pain; many Hindus, in fact, expressed their satisfaction, if not pleasure, at the persecution. Social media exposed Indians quite thoroughly, in a way that may not have been noticeable in previous decades.

Another development of note was the Indian State’s devolution of considerable authority to Hindu mobs. In the national capital region (NCR), the State had designated open spaces for Friday prayers. This was for the hundreds of thousands of migrants working in the NCR who do not have access to a local mosque. After mobs disrupted their prayer week after week, the government of Haryana withdrew permission in December 2021.

More recently, in four cities of Gujarat— Ahmedabad, Baroda, Bhavnagar, Junagadh— BJP-controlled civic bodies forced vendors of meat and eggs, mostly Muslim of course, off the street. This was done without any written order and the State was complicit or looked away while the vendors were brutalised.

Karnataka passed a law forbidding college students, including adults, from wearing a hijab. The mob quickly took over, heckling young women, and soon even teachers and professors were forced to remove the garment, many asked to disrobe before entering the premises they worked in. The courts sided against individual liberty and minority rights.

In March 2022, Karnataka saw calls for a ban on Muslim traders selling goods near temples and in temple fairs. In April 2022, cities began banning the sale of meat for the Hindu festival of Navratri.

Also in April, in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and then Delhi, bulldozers ran over the homes and businesses of Muslims. The vandalism by the State continued in the face of a ‘status quo’ order from the Supreme Court, which was ignored for an hour and a half.

The violence against Muslims came amid mobs parading outside their mosques and using abusive language. Many so-called dharam sansads (parliaments of religion)— they were nothing of the sort—gave open calls for genocide against Muslims. The State did not act firmly against them and the judiciary looked away. Those who called out the hate-mongering and abuse were themselves jailed, as was fact-checker Mohammed Zubair.

Starting in 2018, seven BJP states— Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Haryana and Gujarat—criminalised inter-faith marriage. Vigilantism on the issue of ‘love jihad’, a phantom that Parliament has been told does not exist, was widespread and normalised.

Documented attacks against Christians rose from 127 in 2014 to 142 the next year, then 226, then 248, 292 in 2018, 328 in 2019, 279 in the pandemic year of 2020 and 486 in 2021. A People’s Union for Civil Liberties report on attacks against Christians in Karnataka found that the police colluded with the mobs in the violence on churches and homes, forcing many places of worship to stop Sunday mass.

The vigilante assaults on propagation of religion (ironically both a criminal offence and a fundamental right in India) continued, here also enabled by an enthusiastic State.

The world noticed. India was a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ three years running—2020, 2021 and 2022—for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom. This bipartisan and independent part of the US federal government recommended sanctions against Indian officials and state agencies in 2022, though these have not yet come.

How long India can ignore the world and how long the world can ignore what is happening in India is a question likely to be answered soon.

India continues to aspire to a greater role on the global stage, an aspiration incongruous with its present behaviour. In time, modernity will yank nations reluctant to leave their medieval mindsets towards civilisation; those unwilling will be dragged into modernity, of this there is no doubt.

Even internally, there is still hope in India. While the 2021-22 period was one of our worst in terms of the erosion of pluralist values, it was also the year in which another great civil rights battle was fought and won by protesters ranged against the State. The farmers of India forced the government to not only take back laws passed without consultation but also demanded—and received—an apology from the prime minister.

Our future is not preordained and our fate has not yet been written. We retain the ability to influence it in many ways. Political opposition to Hindutva may be weak, but it exists. In many states it has electorally prevailed over bigotry.

The judiciary is reluctant to deter the State on majoritarian matters (and indeed it can even be seen as complicit) but it is technically and constitutionally independent.

The media has voluntarily done the work of the State more enthusiastically and more effectively than official propaganda, and yet is free. Civil society is under sustained assault, but it still offers spirited resistance. The Constitution is intact.

(The author is a political commentator and civil rights activist. Views are personal)

(This article was first published in the National Herald newspaper on Sunday.)

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Published: 14 Aug 2022, 8:00 AM