India is seeing its worst political and social turmoil because of the Saffron party.
Shreya Gupta, Writer
Since independence, India has managed to stay on the democratic path in a way unprecedented among states freed from colonialism during the last century. But, there is no doubt that the BJP and its supporting organisations have very effectively captured control in India – far beyond merely holding a majority in the Lok Sabha and thus being able to pass laws. Forces part of the Sangh Parivar are able to coordinate their activities and exert their influence at the local, state and national levels – something which can result in what had been called a perfect storm, the tragic events in Gujarat in 2002 being a significant example.
The government is playing the politics of revenge and retaliation with the help of official agencies as well as state-empowered vigilante groups. The latter intimidate people on the streets and social media. They have silenced high-profile figures – from business leaders to sports personalities – critical of the government, out of fear of reprisals. A few daring human rights activists have paid a heavy price for their dissent.
In order to control dissent and free-thinking at Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Modi government has taken unprecedented administrative measures including the appointment of a cooperative vice-chancellor. Party activists have also been running a systematic campaign to malign the university. Assured of political support, the police have got away with acts of unprecedented violence against students. In Delhi’s Jamia Millia University, they invaded the library, dragging out students. The police never entered a university library even during British rule.
The Modi government has also sought to quash political dissent through the use of anti-terrorism laws, most notably the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which allows the state to designate individuals as terrorists on extremely flimsy grounds. One of the most prominent such cases stemmed from a riot that took place in January 2018 at an annual gathering of Dalits—members of India’s so-called lowest caste—in the village of Bhima Koregaon to commemorate a military victory against upper-caste rulers more than 200 years ago. Several left-wing intellectuals and activists were detained under the UAPA last February on the grounds that they were guilty of “promoting enmity between groups” and involved in abetting terrorism. They included, among others, Varavara Rao; Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade union leader; and Gautam Navlakha, a human rights activist and a long-standing critic of state coercion in India. It was hardly a group of people likely to be involved in terrorism. Worse still, local police claimed that they had unearthed a plot to assassinate Modi. The authors at V-Dem depict India’s decline in the area of democracy as serious. V-Dem’s findings are in line with charges made by PEN International regarding freedom of the press, as well as with reports from Amnesty International concerning violence against minorities.
As far as the claim that the school curriculum has been politicised is concerned, the riposte is that it was so even before the BJP came to power. The retraction of NGOs’ licenses, finally, has been defended on the grounds that the organisations in question had not been adhering to proper standards of accounting.
Horizontally, government institutions have been captured and brought under control. The sacking of Raghuram Rajan as governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), and more recent efforts by the central government to control the RBI, indicate that the Modi government is trying to reduce the separation of powers and to establish a more centralised system of control. The same applies vertically, allowing the BJP to synchronise its actions more effectively than ever before.
The anti-democratic actions of the government sullied India’s international reputation. It was no longer seen as a model democracy. India lost its soft power as foreign media published enough material to damage India’s brand image. The battle of ideas with Pakistan was lost. These developments affected the image of Prime Minister Modi in powerful countries that had earlier overlooked the stigma of communal violence in Gujarat under his chief-ministership.
Even relations with India’s friendliest neighbour, Bangladesh, have turned sour over Modi’s citizenship bill. The controversial new law will cause more difficulties for Hindus in neighbouring countries by providing fodder for extremist propaganda against Hindu minorities. But that does not seem to concern the Modi government.
The systematic abuse of police and judicial powers that is now underway—with the apparent blessing of the Modi government—amounts to a new and major challenge to India’s commitment to impartial justice. It is a dangerous trend that, if unchecked, could upend Indian democracy.