If the strength of a liberal democracy is judged by the space it offers for critique and dissent; or by the protection it offers to all its citizens, irrespective of caste, creed or gender, then Indian democracy is on a perilous path.
Whether it was in the case of a young Kerala girl’s right to choose her partner, or that of ensuring a film that depicts a Muslim invader’s infatuation with a Rajput Queen in the 12th century is screened; whether it was over the arrest of activists who speak for the poorest of India’s poor, or students who question the State within the safety of a university campus; whether it was to speak out against social sanction given to the impunity with which cow protection squads lynch cattle traders — almost always Muslim, or Dalits who remove cow carcasses from our sight; or whether to contain the State’s attempts to deny citizens the right to individual privacy — the last five years has seen a stream of ordinary Indians demand that their democratic, constitutional rights are protected from an increasingly authoritarian government and a complicit state machinery.
Some will argue that this is nothing new. Religious, caste, class and gender divisions go back well before the Modi government existed. In fact, when more avowedly secular governments ran India — they will argue, rightly so — that laws dealing with sedition and defamation have been rampantly abused by successive regimes, irrespective of political leaning. And that while the state might have used different means, it has always tried to snoop on its citizens in the name of security.
So what sets these five years apart? Perhaps it is the arrival of an authoritarian leader who fashions himself both as kindred underling and as a demagogic messiah to the public, and uses a fractured polity to his advantage. Perhaps it is the spread of social media — that gives hate and division the ‘oxygen of amplification’ [i] and allows rumour and propaganda to spread without editorial controls that once filtered the flow of potentially inflammatory information. Or perhaps it is simply the fact that the very meaning of liberal democracy has been reshaped into becoming synonymous with public sanction for majoritarian politics. After all, if democracy represents the will of the majority, these are their elected representatives. The answer is complex, and lies in a careful calculation of the use of state power, the manipulation of public sentiment, the rhetoric of populist politics and the influence of the media.
A democratic system is the sum of many parts. In its most basic form, democracy requires the equality of all citizens and broadly inclusive citizenship. [ii] While it functions on the fundamental principle of representative politics, the fine balance between majoritarianism and liberal democratic governance is held in place by constitutional principle — the rule of law, the protection of human rights; guaranteed individual freedoms — of expression, assembly, and religious practice; and freedom from discrimination. Yet, the last five years have documented an accelerated assault on these freedoms against minorities, opposition politicians, the remaining independent media and a host of liberal citizens who rail against the language of hate and division. Space for civil debate in the public sphere has yielded to coarse, abusive discourse daily on both social and mainstream media, particularly news television. Political majoritarianism, argues historian Mukul Kesavan, [iii] is another name for a ‘supremacist project’ that defines ethnic or religious majorities as a nation’s rightful owners. All others — whether they are political parties that either depend on the support of minorities, or make them invisible in order to compete on somewhat similar grounds — are merely poor seconds. The Modi NDA’s unwillingness to engage with those who critique its policies, strategies or tactics has become a leitmotif of the last five years. Vitriolic responses deflect attention from questions, and instead target those who ask. All too often, the highest court in the land has been pressed upon to intervene to ensure both constitution principle and the rule of law it are upheld.
William Galston [iv] makes a compelling argument about an internal challenge to liberal democracies — that of populist political leaders seeking to separate the ideas of democracy and liberalism from each other by fueling narratives of marginalisation and persecution amongst a mass, majority citizenry who then conflate democratic norms with the ‘spread of a cultural liberalism at odds with custom and religion’ of the majority. This conflation is used to explain their exclusion from prosperity at the cost of other interest groups.
But India too is a sum of many parts. It is a 1.4 billion strong population, with over 60 percent between the ages of 15 to 59 — a working population also known as India’s demographic dividend.[v] They are expected to take the nation to dizzying economic heights. While this may be a long term projection over a five decade period well into 2060, for now the bulk of this population — literate, but not necessarily educated, struggling to find jobs in a tough economy — are the backbone of majoritarian politics that thrives on Hindu revivalism in the face of a ‘liberal’ onslaught. In 2014, Modi’s language of development and prosperity — ‘acche din’ — offered them a promise of a future and a reason to vote him into power. But promises remain unfulfilled, and questions evoke bristly, hostile responses from the government. So much so, that hitherto valued, reliable data collected by the NSSO indicating a 45 year low in job creation [vi] for India in early 2019 was rejected outright. When jobs are tough to come by, and the economy is in shambles, when farmers are in distress and gaps between rich and poor, rural and urban don’t close, what better way to divert the electorate’s attention from real issues than getting it to rally on the basis of identity, provoke a sense of persecution and identify a target at which to aim simmering anger.
Hate and polarisation need an enemy. While several caste and religious groups receive government quotas in jobs and higher education, the ones handed to 180 million odd Indian Muslims have become the focus of politically expedient Hindu leaders mobilising against the state’s ‘neglect’ of its especially upper caste Hindu majority population. The BJP has offered a quota on the basis of class/income to counter this, even though it opens up reservations to the more socially privileged. Hate and polarisation need fuel — dutifully provided by politicians who harness anger and resentment with populist rhetoric, confirm existing biases against minorities and reinforce perceptions that they — particularly the Muslims — are ‘pampered’. [vii] Hate and polarisation need an army of ready supporters. India’s demographic dividend is at their disposal. Hate and polarisation need a vehicle. Unfiltered social media, optimised by rabble rousing politicians to spread propaganda and opinion packaged as news — is repeatedly called out by fact checkers.
Those who call out disinformation are trolled and harassed relentlessly — whether they are outspoken journalists, retired bureaucrats or civil society voices. The attacks are amplified by a loyal network of followers mobilised into demolishing whatever is left of the once absolute trust between the ordinary citizen and mainstream media that once mediated between state and society. Legal notices and defamation cases filed by the government or politicians follow the few who continue to try and do the job they signed up for holding power to account. To counter charges that they try to muzzle or intimidate the independent press, interviews are given to ‘friendly’ journalists who either genuinely toe the government’s line or are entirely dependent on government advertising for their survival. Cherian George makes the case that the main objective of hate speech is met when the support base is widened, a divisive narrative is created, and people are mobilised around a political agenda. [viii] The media, meanwhile, are caught in reporting incidents when they happen, or else inadvertently serving as a vehicle for politicians who use hate speech as a tool for identity politics. In the process, the media often lose sight of the manufactured quality of hate spin, especially where the line between hate speech and free speech are blurred. Divisive politicians use the media to foment prejudice, create confusion and celebrate ignorance.
The repeated signaling against Muslims and their ‘inability to assimilate’ with the majority either in India or elsewhere in the world is communicated in several ways. Legitimate conversations around Pakistan sponsored terrorism against India, especially in the wake of the Pulwama attack, turn insidiously to question the patriotism of Indian Muslims. Bakery franchises bearing the name of a Pakistani city from where its original Sindhi owners came from during Partition were vandalised in Bangalore, [ix] forcing the outlet to cover its signage. The rising incidence of lynching and “public disorder” over cow slaughter, the drumming up of support to — rightly — abolish Triple Talaq, yet ignoring patriarchy and violence that similarly oppress Hindu women within a marriage, the backlash against inter-faith marriages, the anti-conversion attacks on Christians, the labelling of those speaking out for communal harmony as “terrorist sympathisers,” the overarching, jingoistic rhetoric over the plight of Rohingya refugees fleeing Myanmar, and the complete rejection of any conversations around human rights violations against civilian populations in the conflict-ridden Kashmir valley are all examples of this.
As the election campaign heated up, the proposed Citizenship Amendment Bill seeking to give asylum to all persecuted religious groups — with the exclusion of Muslims, or the repeated references by BJP President Amit Shah to all Bangladeshi immigrants as termites preying on India, [x] and the alarmingly high pitched call for a boycott of all Kashmiri Muslims — articulated by a sitting governor [xi] — all of these became a part of this creation, of the enemy within. It took the Prime Minister over a week to speak out — time during which hate was allowed to fester and spread. [xii]Silence as sanction has been a hallmark of this administration. Silence sends a message down the line that it is okay to be bigoted, question the Constitution and spread discord. The language of hate has been normalised, even rationalised. After all, who came up with the term love jihad? Today, most people will readily offer its purported definition. ‘Anti-Romeo’ squads, an election promise in the name of women’s safety harass unwed couples, especially if they are of different religions or castes. Elections have seen the wedge deepen — in Uttar Pradesh — it was how Hindu shamshan ghats (cremation grounds) should also exist in every village and town, just the way Muslim Kabristans (cemeteries) do, [xiii] or that the people should have electricity on Diwali too, not just during Ramzan. Nothing superficially problematic with either statement, except that they both pit Hindu against Muslim in the name of equality.
Asking whether Indian democracy is at risk might sound incongruous as 900 million voters participate in the biggest democratic exercise, but it is a question that warrants contemplation, especially as several BJP leaders publicly seek to undermine the Constitution’s secular underpinnings. The Modi government, with 31 percent of the total vote share and 282 seats in Parliament in 2014 epitomises the conflict within India’s ‘first past the post’ democratic system. A conflict that poses several questions — What about the other 70 percent, who combine together to constitute the greater majority of Indians? Without a representative democracy, can such a government genuinely claim to be truly representative? If representational parity is the only way to protect liberal democracy from populist politicians stoking majoritarian sentiment without a true majority, is it too late to now demand changing the rules of the electoral game?
India’s courts have thus far proven to be the only resilient caretakers of this representation. Through recent judgements on the right to privacy, the right to worship, the right to love freely, the highest judiciary has expanded our notions of rights and upheld the primacy of the rule of law. But India is at a precarious juncture. Our democratic structures might be strong, but can the same be said for our democratic values? That perhaps is the single biggest question we as citizens must ask and answer as we await the results of Elections 2019.
[i] Phillips, Whitney; The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists, Antagonists and Manipulators; Datasociety.net. 22 May 2018.
[iii] Kesavan, Mukul; False citizens: What does a nation do with a minority that it cannot purge?; The Telegraph, 28 April 2019.
[v] Singh, Devender; India’s demographic dividend will play out over a longer span; LiveMint, 11 January 2019.
[vi] Jha, Somesh; Unemployment rate at 4 decade high at 6.1% in 2017-18: NSSO Survey; Business Standard, 6 February 2019.
[vii] Pai, Sudha & Kumar, Sajjan; Everyday Communalism; Oxford University Press, 2018.
[viii] George, Cherian; Hate Spin; MIT Press. 2016.
[ix] Bhat, Prajwal; Karachi Bakery in Bengaluru forced to cover name board after mob demands change in name; The News Minute; 23 February 2019.
[x] Dey, Sankalital; Amit Shah’s ‘termite’ jibe: Human Rights Watch draws Nazi Germany, Rwanda parallel; ThePrint.in; 26 September 2018.
[xi] Bhattacharjee, Purbasha; Kashmiris are Also Indians: Meghalaya Reminds Governor Tathagata Roy After Boycott Call; News18; 20 February 2019.
[xii] Lakshmi, Rama; The Modi playbook: Delay in PM condemning attacks on Kashmiris is part of a pattern; ThePrint.in, 24 February 2019.
[xiii] Editorial, PM Modi’s graveyard remark in Fatehpur is unfortunate; Indian Express, 21 February 2017.