India’s friends can’t ignore its slide from democracy
13 Mar 2020|

In four days of madness from 23 to 26 February, rioters ran unchecked and destroyed entire neighbourhoods of northeast Delhi in the deadliest outbreak of violence since the anti-Sikh pogrom of 1984. By 6 March, the toll was 53 dead and more than 200 injured. Although both Hindus and Muslims committed acts of violence, the primary perpetrators were Hindus and more than 70% of victims were Muslims. I was visiting India and watched Delhi go up in flames with mounting disbelief, horror and anger.

Commentators have likened the riots variously to Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany in November 1938, in which rampaging mobs killed more than 90 Jews and burned and ransacked their homes, businesses and synagogues with the open incitement of Nazi leaders; Delhi in 1984 when 2,000–3,000 Sikhs were butchered; and Gujarat in 2002 when up to 2,000 were killed in anti-Muslim riots.

In Delhi, some police officers studiously averted their gaze from the criminality before their eyes and some abetted the violence. Leaders of the governing Bharatiya Janata Party who openly incited mobs to shoot the ‘traitors’ are yet to be arrested and charged. Neither Prime Minister Narendra Modi nor any minister visited the riot-hit areas. Home Minister Amit Shah was at best guilty of a grave dereliction of duty, and at worst he was the political mastermind behind the pogrom. On the fourth day of violence, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, himself a former top cop, finally went on a well-publicised tour of the smouldering neighbourhoods, but it was too little and too late to reassure terrified Muslims.

Modi’s first term was punctuated by hate speech and acts targeted at Muslims. The anti-Muslim agenda is being put into action through the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which passed in December, and the proposed national register of citizens and the national population register, which between them will enable authorities to declare that, in a document-poor country, millions of Muslims who can’t prove their Indian citizenship must be held in detention centres. The end goal is to marginalise them, denude India of Muslims and transform it into a Hindu Rashtra, or nation for Hindus.

I argued earlier that these measures are wrong in principle, infeasible in practice and anti-national in consequences. The Delhi riots are powerful proof of all three pathologies. The riots were manifestly state-sponsored. In the increasingly toxic political atmosphere under the Modi government, dissent is sedition and a dissenting Muslim is a traitor. Former Home Minister P. Chidambaram suspects that polarisation along religious lines is a deliberate strategy by Modi to consolidate the Hindu vote.

Modi’s Hindu nationalist supporters, known popularly as bhakts (worshippers), assert openly that having partitioned the country on religious lines, all Muslims should have left for Pakistan; that Muslims have several other countries to go to; and that Hindus, too, deserve a national homeland.

The core elements of the Hindu Rashtra project include Hindu primacy, where Hindus are more equal than others; alignment of laws and rules with Hindu sentiments and practices; religious diktats with respect to diet, dress and decorum; and an end to what is seen as pandering to minority fundamentalism, so that minorities know their place.

Modi and his army of bhakts have fallen into a fatal trap. Development, growth and the emergence of a large and prosperous middle class will provide the essential underpinnings to promote Indian culture and Hindu philosophy globally, much as a rising China has bankrolled the Chinese Communist Party’s network of Confucius Institutes. Conversely, Hindu–Muslim riots in the nation’s capital are a business risk and a disincentive to foreign investors. Economic stagnation will undercut India’s material capacity for cultural diplomacy, while religious fundamentalism will inflict substantial reputational harm. A return to persistent mass poverty under protectionist barriers and statist economic regulations will regenerate contempt for the ‘Hindu rate of growth’.

The riots were at their worst during US President Donald Trump’s high-profile first visit to India. Trump’s speech in the capacious Motera Stadium in Ahmedabad on 24 February pointedly praised India’s history of democracy, tolerance, diversity and pluralism. Yet later he merely said it was up to India to handle the anti-CAA agitation. But his potential (if increasingly unlikely) Democratic opponent Bernie Sanders has been sharply critical of India’s growing intolerance and illiberalism, as has Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman elected to the House of Representatives. So has the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Muslim countries including Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia, Iran and Turkey, as well as the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, have denounced the CAA agenda. India has also attracted criticism from MPs of all parties in the UK Parliament. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has requested it be made a friend of the court when the CAA’s constitutionality is adjudicated by India’s Supreme Court.

India’s official response, that this is a purely internal matter, won’t wash. With the steady universalisation of human rights norms and international humanitarian law over the past 100 years, and the growth of UN-centred monitoring machinery, the use of state violence either internally against citizens or internationally against other countries is subject to international normative benchmarks. The tiresome mantra of ‘internal matter’ is a self-indicting refrain deployed only by unsavoury regimes.

In 1938 other countries ignored the warning signs that preceded the full horror of the Holocaust. It would be a mistake, for reasons of values and prudential politics, to stay silent on the abhorrent trajectory set for India by the Modi government. The much-touted shared political values of democracy, freedoms, civil liberties and the rule of law are all under threat. Moreover, a stalled economy will mean India is no longer an attractive market and trade partner, and persistent mass poverty will also degrade its military potential as a geopolitical counterweight to China.

The irreversible alienation of disaffected Indian Muslims will destroy India as the geographical firewall against the spread of Islamist extremism eastwards. With 180 million Muslims, India itself could become the epicentre of Islamist extremists who export terrorism and the refugees who flee it to the Asia–Pacific.

Friendly democracies have little to lose in the medium term by criticising growing Hindu violence and much to lose in the long term by staying quiet. This is why they must make concerted representations to Modi to urgently correct his, and India’s, course.