What are Political Trends in India 2019

Where is the world's largest democracy headed? India's political future threatens to turn bleak.

When Narendra Modi assumed his second term as Prime Minister of the 1.3 billion-strong country in May 2019 with the clear victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (“Indian People's Party” - BJP), prophesied international media such as the BBC, the Guardian and South China Morning Post a bleak future for India's Muslims. During his first term in office, observers warned against the so-called Hindutva policy of the BJP, which resulted in targeted discrimination against the Muslim population. But the party, which almost exclusively allows non-Muslim candidates to run for office, has always rejected such allegations.

Modi celebrates his election victory, May 2019; Source: economist.com

India is the country that calls itself the largest democracy in the world and, with its secular constitution, grants all religious communities the same rights. In the predominantly Hindu country, however, the approximately 200 million Muslims are increasingly at risk of being degraded to second-class citizens as a result of the politics of the current ruling party, the BJP. The citizenship law passed in December 2019, which provides for easier naturalization for non-Muslim refugees from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, is just one of many political maneuvers by the BJP in recent years that are directly or indirectly directed against Muslims. Renaming of city names, the Kashmir conflict or the public denunciation of Muslims show the Islamophobic side of Modi's politics. Accordingly, many people today fear that India will gradually but steadily be transformed into a Hindu state, as the ideological father of the Hindu nationalists, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, once imagined.

Obfuscation as an election campaign strategy

Corruption and the rule of a family dynasty have badly damaged the reputation of the Congress Party, which once led the independence movement with Gandhi and shaped the country for as long as no other party. She suffered a heavy defeat in the 2014 parliamentary elections. The majority of India's population longed for change and a strong leader who would lead the developing country into the league of great powers.

Narendra Modi presented himself as the strong man who promised to move India forward with its Hindu nationalist BJP. The landslide victory in 2014 and most recently in 2019, when the party won an absolute majority in parliament, were not even primarily the result of religious populism. The party's election campaign focused almost exclusively on Modi's economic successes as head of government of the state of Gujarats, in addition to the fight against the still rampant corruption. The saffron party (saffron is the color of Hinduism) presented itself as a neo-liberal reform party and initially disguised its Hindu nationalist ambitions in order to appeal to broad sections of the electorate.

Violence against Muslims

Thousands of people lost their homes or lives during the Gujarat riot; Source: livemint.com

Modi's role in the Gujarat riots In 2002, when Muslims were the target of a pogrom-like massacre, it had almost been forgotten: As the responsible head of government, he had allowed a raging mob to go on for days without intervention by the police. The result: mass rapes and 2000 people who lost their lives and thousands who lost their belongings. Only three days after the riots began, Modi had reported in public to comment on the events and put an end to the atrocities. His party in Gujarat used the agitation against Muslims; in the elections in the same year their share of the vote increased.

Since Modi came to power on the national stage in 2014, acts of violence against Muslims have increased markedly, as statistics show. In particular, the self-appointed made headlines Gau Rakshaks (“Cow Rescuers”), who ambushed Muslims because of the alleged slaughter of cows, which is banned in many states of India, harassed them and sometimes even beat them to death. The legal prosecution of such acts was slow, and local police officers were often involved as accomplices. In many cases, the perpetrators, most of whom had ties to nationalist organizations such as the RSS, are still at large. Here too, the opposition and well-known intellectuals criticized Modi's silence and inaction. As the events piled up and the pressure on Modi increased, he was ultimately forced to publicly condemn the acts.

But Modi would not be Modi if he did not continue to conceal the fact that Hindu nationalist groups in India deliberately attack and discriminate against Muslims. Instead of showing solidarity with the victims of such acts of violence, as he should have done in 2002, he allows local governments to create ministries that specifically look after the welfare of the cows. In some places, the cows, which Hindus consider sacred, are cared for more than their own citizens.

The transformation of cashmere

As the BJP cemented its power after the 2019 elections, there were all sorts of worrying events that show that Muslim citizens are increasingly distressed. The transformation and division of the state of Kashmir - the only one with a Muslim majority population - into two Union territories directly subordinate to the central government on the grounds of fighting terrorism in the region is one such example. The population here is suffering from the increased military presence, curfews, the still switched off Internet and a collapsed economy. Politicians and journalists have been placed under house arrest.

Indian forces in Kashmir enforce curfew, 2019; Source: ndtv.com

Many Muslim Kashmiris fear that more Hindus will now settle in the region and displace them, as the region is an integral part of the Hindu nationalist vision of a Hindu state. In fact, the number of searches from other states for real estate in Kashmir rose significantly on Google. The Kashmir region has been a constant source of conflict since the founding of the states of India and Pakistan, which the BJP has continued to heat up. While the people of Kashmir are restricted in their basic rights and hardly any information about the precarious situation is leaked to the outside world, Modi announced in October 2019 at a joint event with US President Donald Trump in Houston, Texas, in eight different languages, that everything is in his country be okay. An enthusiastic Indian diaspora cheered him on.

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Judiciary and legislature on the wrong track

In November of the same year, the Indian Supreme Court opened a second time the infamous case of the 1992 mosque in Ayodhya, on the grounds of which the Hindu god Ram was allegedly born. The first sentence announced that the land on which the ruins of the mosque, which was destroyed by Hindu nationalists now stand, would be divided up between Muslims and Hindus, thus settling the dispute. The eagerly awaited reassessment of the case brought the Hindu nationalists final victory in this decades-long and extremely controversial dispute. The court ordered the construction of a temple where the mosque once stood and the simultaneous allotment of new land for the construction of a mosque. Many critical voices complained that the court ruling would legitimize the destruction and thus prove the perpetrators and not the victims in the right. There were hardly any noteworthy protests by Muslims, the fear of repression was too great.

The recently passed Citizenship Act (CAA), which excludes refugees of Muslim faith, confirms that Modi and his BJP are targeting Muslims with their Hindutva ideology. With Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, only states with a majority Muslim population are listed. It is suggested that persecution of minorities only exists in these countries. At the same time, other neighboring countries in which religious minorities are persecuted, such as the Tamils ​​from Sri Lanka, Tibetans from China or the Rohingya from Myanmar, are left out.In addition, there is the fact that Muslim minorities are not protected from persecution in Muslim countries either. Much of the law seems arbitrary.

Protests and repression

Modi and his party comrades argue that persecuted people must be offered a home and that Muslims in India are not affected by the law. But this is more than just apparent charity. With the new citizenship law, the Hindu nationalists come a little closer to their vision of a Hindu state: India is stylized as the home of the Hindus, the right to citizenship is linked to religion and indirectly suggests that Muslims have their home in countries like Pakistan.

Protesters against the Naturalization Act (CAA) hold portraits of B.R. Ambedkar, who is considered the father of the secular constitution of India. Source: outlookindia.com

Protests against the law have spread across India. Above all at the universities, there is a strong commitment and great solidarity with Muslim fellow citizens. And the mostly peaceful demonstrations, during which millions of people are calling for the law to be withdrawn and taking to the streets for the secular constitution, can be seen as an awakening of civil society. These are the first nationwide rallies on this scale during Modi's reign. He and his party comrades either responded with harsh words, calling the peaceful demonstrators as leftist goons, terrorists or anti-nationals defamed, or with severe repression by the police. So far, over 20 people, mostly Muslims, have lost their lives, all in states ruled by the BJP. Violence does not stop at universities either. Thugs attacked protesters from the renowned Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. Despite many injuries and the public confession of a Hindu nationalist group, the police did not arrest any of the perpetrators, but instead reported some students for trespassing.

The fronts are noticeably hardening, which is also noticeable in the political discourse. The heightened rhetoric on the part of the BJP has led to a heightened “us versus them” mentality, with political opponents often threatened with physical violence. While she often accuses the demonstrators of speaking the “language of Pakistan” and of being terrorists, high-ranking politicians openly chant with their supporters to shoot “traitors”. Only recently, a young man actually shot a crowd of demonstrating students. The political discourse in India seems more and more brutal and threatening. The BJP knows how to influence this in its favor by putting critical media and journalists under pressure or by deliberately sharing false information via social networks. The world's largest democracy has been in the bottom third of the World Press Freedom Index for years.

Restoration efforts

If the European fascists once served as a model for the Hindu nationalists, today the BJP is a model for western right-wing populists in their dealings with Muslims. The BJP can be seen as part of a global movement whose politics is shaped by Islamophobia and nationalism. Yet an apparently threatening Islamization is seldom evoked among the Hindu nationalists; rather, their politics are portrayed as the reversal of a historical trauma. In fact, India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. Their culture and history have shaped the country just as much as Hinduism or the British colonial era. The historical narrative of the conquest and rule of the Indian subcontinent by the Muslims and the ensuing subjugation of the Hindus during the Mughal period had a decisive influence on Hindutva politics. The motif of the restoration of a glorious, ancient Hindu culture appears again and again in the rhetoric of the Hindu nationalists. To do this, the symbols of the Muslim past must first disappear. Significant for this are the renaming of cities, streets or public places, the names of which refer back to the Mughal period. The destruction of the Ayodhya mosque is also to be understood as such an act of repression and restoration.

Where is the world's largest democracy headed? The BJP can continue to rule with a parliamentary majority until 2024 and there currently seems to be many indications that the longer India will be transformed into a Hindu state. Since the partition of British India in 1947, the question of who belongs to India and who does not have been discussed as controversially as it is today. With the planned implementation of a National Citizens Register (NRC), another project is pending, which puts the question of membership to the test and puts Muslim citizens under pressure. Society seems politically more divided than ever before, socially and just as geographically. In times when the rule of law cannot be relied on, violence against minorities increases and dissent as anti-national and anti-hindu is stamped, only civil society can stand up for the preservation of a liberal, pluralistic and secular India and stand against a creeping saffronization of India.