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Indian democracy: What to do about a global good
In atonement of what was done to our sisters in Manipur
Even as Narendra Modi was cashing in for domestic electoral purposes on his foreign ministry brokered and defence ministry incentivized invite by France for a visit as Bastille Day chief guest, at a nearby French town, Strasbourg, European Union legislators passed a resolution on India and the situation in Manipur.
The resolution, inter-alia, had it that European parliamentarians, “strongly condemn(s) the intensifying and systematic attacks, discrimination, and persecution against groups targeted due to their religion, caste, ethnicity and public opinion;” and, “(U)rge(s) Indian authorities to end discriminatory policies and practices against minorities including indigenous people...”
Expectedly, India’s foreign ministry in a Pavlovian fashion dismissed the “so-called Urgency Resolution”, adding, “(S)uch interference in India’s internal affairs is unacceptable, and reflects a colonial mindset;” going further to ask that supra-national assembly to focus on internal matters of Europe instead.
The Indian reaction was predictable. What is concerning is the resonance of the nationalist sentiment even among Liberals.
The liberal-conservative consensus
Once in response to Pakistani needling on twitter, a prominent liberal voice had tersely replied, “Our domestic politics and debate are our business and no one else's. Please focus on your own matters."
More recently, she went on to argue, "Yes, India’s democracy has to be strengthened and repaired. But this must be done by Indians—and Indians alone. Let us have the argument. Let us make the noise."
This is of a piece with what India’s leading wolf-warrior, Dr. S Jaishankar, believes in. To him, letting out the word on the slide in India’s democracy, “is concerning.” With Rahul Gandhi in his sights, he said, “when they take India’s problem out in the world and then invite people from outside to come and interfere… If you say that India has problems and great concerns then the world must do something about it, this has big implications and that is not good for the country.”
For Jaishankar, there is no problem - least of all one to be taken to the international arena - evident from his quip, “Elections happen in our country and parties win or lose. Had there been no democracy, then why would elections be taking place, and giving different outcomes?”
In effect, both Liberals and conservatives have it that even if India has the problem of an increasing deficit in Democracy, then it is not one that requires external support but is to be sorted out within.
Even Mr. Gandhi – who attracted Jaishankar’s ire with his remarks on a recent visit to the United Kingdom and United States when basking in wake of the Bharat Jodo Yatra – is similarly inclined. He was merely dilating on the state of India’s democracy – which he felt was a global good - while taking care not to ask for intervention for its rescue. He assumes Indian democracy will hold its own and repair itself.
All he tacitly asks is India’s well-wishers abroad not go overboard in feting Modi, given Modi’s known propensity to magnify foreign interest as approbation of himself and his regime, selling it to the voter as acknowledgement of the Vishwa Guru status of Modi’s New India. This inflation of Modi’s already-outsized image by opinion abroad does little for shortfalls in Democracy, debilitated by the absence of an Opposition.
The rabbit is out of the hat
Modi began his maneuvering for Election 2024 early with a host of activities to keep in the public eye through the year. These comprise summits in New Delhi, including one that was postponed by a year to accommodate Modi’s electoral schedule; tours abroad with innovative hosting fixtures by the host State, no doubt at the soto-voce suggestion of Jaishankar’s pointsmen in national capitals visited; and inaugurations, as that of the new parliament building and the impending one of the temple at Ayodhya. (For sure, the two foreigners who touched Modi’s feet on foreign shores were prompted by Hindutva folks in the diaspora.)
Meanwhile, the regime has the leading Opposition light running from judicial pillar to post trying to figure his way back into parliament. Rahul Gandhi was expelled for no fathomable reason in a defamation case dating to the last elections, laying bare a feature of politics-judiciary nexus in the Gujarat Model. This, even as defamation of communities – such as the chief minister in Assam against Miya Assamese - is par for the course.
While last time round, Modi pulled the Pulwama-Balakot episode out of his hat to go on to win the national elections, this time the rabbit is the Uniform Civil Code (UCC). Designed as prelude to cultural genocide of Muslims, it is intended to garner the electoral verdict for the Muslim-baiting and bashing ruling party.
If enacted before the hustings, it takes advantage of the current parliamentary majority, allowing Modi to go to the electorate claiming another promise fulfilled. Others objecting – such as tribal communities - could be brought on board with exception clauses in the bill. If the action itself is deferred, polarization resulting might be good enough.
The Hindutva hope perhaps is that it would energise another anti-Citizen’s Amendment Act (CAA)-like agitation on part of Muslims, thereby enabling another opportunity for Hindutva to show Muslims their place. They imagine the captive voter base finds this appealing. The loss of Karnataka makes little difference since Hindutva retained its vote share there.
Only Muslims appear to have wizened up. If a viral video from Karnataka is any indicator – in which a bus conductor being berated by a woman for wearing a skull cap holds his calm and has the transport authority clarify the uniform code – Muslims plan to lie low and allow the political spectrum to respond to the ruling party’s electoral gimmick.
While there is liberal-conservative divergence on levels of cultural assimilation being in the national interest, gender justice moves Liberals. Liberals might band-wagon with Hindutva on this latest gimmick, to be rid of patriarchy. This might force the hand of political parties to go in for soft Hindutva yet again.
For Hindutva, rescuing Muslim women from the masculine and aggressive Sunni Muslim male is at its ideological core; never mind that it cannot protect women wrestlers from predators within its ranks. As for saving Muslim women, the likes of examples as Kausar Bi and Bilkis Banu are legion. Ask also after what Kuki women now believe.
A perfect storm coming up?
Just as Modi pulled UCC out of his hat, the Opposition has taken a leaf out of Modi’s book of acronyms and come up with INDIA. It has beaten the Hindutva troll brigade with its catchy tag line, Jeetega Bharat. It must finesse this promising start by taking a stand against foisting of a UCC.
The closer the opposition gets to unity and promises a Karnataka at the national scale, the greater the likelihood of Hindutva to go rogue. Being named INDIA won’t deter Amit Shah from breaking it up. The passage of the Article 370 dilution bill in both houses is instructive that it would be a sore test of unity. The Opposition, if not led up the garden path by Liberals, may yet stay the course.
If UCC fails to go through as did Article 370, and in the mean time the Supreme Court shoots down the Article 370 Constitutional caper of the Modi-Shah duo, the voter might see the Emperor without clothes on.
Hindutva may be gripped by convulsions, presented with a fait accompli of an end to its honeymoon period. While the threat of genocide – made every now and then by assorted saffronite busybodies at ‘religious’ gatherings - is held as a Democles sword, cultural genocide – a soft kill - will not quite raise heckles. With the former holding Muslims down, the latter can be unrolled.
Though genocide is hyperbole, lesser cousins - crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing – may be invited to the pre-election party, or just might gate-crash it in over-enthusiasm.
Mischaracterising one-sided mass political violence as a ‘communal riot’ prevents these from being treated as atrocity crimes. Self-defence by the victimized minority is used to self-serving effect, the term ‘riot’ well-chosen to give it a two-sided frame. The assault by the police on students in Jamia Millia Islamia and the North East Delhi mini-pogrom are cases to point.
The threat has in any case to be held out as part of the Hindutva strategy to, both, get the UCC through without an anti-CAA like backlash and, if needed, to generate conditions for polarisation.
Though the institutionalized riot system is in abeyance, ubiquity of lynch mobs show micro-terrorism is available in double-quick time. Annual religious gatherings and yatras show the mobilizing power of Hindutva. It would not take much to vector WhatsApp groups so formed onto Muslim localities.
Indeed, procession routes are so planned that rather than spirituality, the very aim is to impose the majority’s will and instill terror. An opportunity to pray for the spiritually-inclined few provides an opportunity to prey for the many. The ongoing experience in Manipur provides more grist to the Hindutva planning mill, this time including deployment of women for more than merely the hitherto rhetoric by so-called sadhvis.
The localized instance in Manipur against the Zo-Kuki communities is internal strategic signaling of sorts. Hindutva’s finger prints are all over the continuing episode, visible in the operation of the Gujarat Model from 2002. Not only has ethnic segregation resulted, it is being rationalized in terms of national security.
Jaishankar indulged in a bit of diversionary tactics supposedly addressing the cross-border spill-over of Myanmar’s internal conflict. He conveyed the false impression that the external aspect of the civil war flare-up in Manipur was the more consequential factor in the flare-up, in line with the parochial state government’s version that influx of illegal immigration and drugs from Myanmar is at the root of the conflict.
Just as the apprehensions over changes to Article 370 proved overblown, Ajit Doval can be entrusted with management of a violent push back. The trailer to this end has already been screened in the crack-down on anti-CAA agitation.
Below-the-threshold violent extremism
Just as the Liberals have studied the Nazi period in Germany and ineffectually point to similarities, Hindutva - that self-confessedly draws inspiration from the period – has also studied the period deeply. It is unlikely to repeat Hitler’s mistakes – be it premature expansionism without or atrocity crimes internally that compel international accountability.
Hindutva can unleash violent extremism at the lower rungs of the proverbial ladder of atrocity crimes – making it debatable if external scrutiny of Indian intent and conduct is legitimate or otherwise. India’s information and media policy is such – as seen in restricted spaces for free media and internet shut downs – it is difficult to explicitly discern the thresholds of violent extremism crossed.
Thus, internally, there is an easy clubbing of Liberals and conservatives in a defence of India. Both are persuaded that external concern with India’s distancing from democratic values and conduct is inapt, even if they disagree between themselves on whether and to what extent there is such a distancing.
Externally, Narendra Modi’s evincing surprise on being questioned when at the White House on India’s record towards its minorities, shows up the strategy. The foreign ministry’s thrust to project India as the fount of democracy is to keep such concerns at bay. Its position is that a democratically endorsed mandate is being implemented by Narendra Modi, its recipient.
Alongside, India placates liberal democracies with presenting itself as a strategic bulwark against China. Strategic convergence is designed to evoke self-interest in India’s democratic interlocutors with strategic imperatives trumping ideological considerations. Besides, economic incentives and trade keep any criticism muted.
To the extent there are critical voices – such as that of Barack Obama when Modi was visiting the United States – these are perfunctory, allowing the West a clean conscience and Hindutva trolls a target to take down.
Selectivity of evinced external interest in India’s domestic affairs makes India’s Liberals wary of external keenness on India’s democratic travails. The benign Western gaze is tactical, to have a stick to beat India with so that it comes to heel against China tamely.
They also fear that the interest expressed shall prove ineffective, if not counter-productive. Hindutva will be inclined to dig-in and cover itself with a nationalist blanket. It will use external criticism to further marginalize the minorities as external proxies. While Muslims have long been painted as Pakistan’s fifth column, Christians risk being taken as the West’s lackeys.
Liberals have also bitten off the nationalist apple. They are not content with just being patriotic. They have to beat the self-anointed nationalists in their own game, wresting nationalism – that has got a bad press with Hindutva’s doings – from Hindutva hands. Not for them are the reservations on nationalism of a Tagore but the nationalism of Netaji Bose.
Even their most fiery proponent has to first reaffirm her nationalist credentials before she alights into Modi; witness, “India is bigger than him (Modi). It will see him off. The question is: When? And at what cost?”
Liberals are chary of being taken as woke. Liberal intellectual hubris has run its course. It got identified with elites, alighted on by the troll brigade, eagerly looking for a handle to substitute the Lutyen’s elite with plebian pretenders.
Alongside, liberal internationalism acquired a bad name. Between the Clintons and Barack Obama, it took the agenda of neo-cons further. While the latter stopped with Afghanistan and Iraq, Democrats took down Libya, Syria, Yemen and, now, Sudan. Consequently, the rank hypocrisy in Obama recently taking potshots on India was lost on no one.
The regime has taken care to book through false cases those who have the guts to defend them, be they leftists, media, social media influencers and human rights defenders. Some are left free to be active.
The regime can point to them to show how is it be that they were so voluble when they say India is an electoral autocracy. Besides, the internal dividend is to point to their output for trolls to work up its constituency.
International attention deters
However, from the Manipur events – including the latest one of mass rape of two (presumably Christian) women – it is clear that the state is a laboratory. The vehemence in inaction on part of the Union government suggests a message is for Western interlocutors who pointed to Indian democracy being flushed down the drain: “Mind your own business for we won’t mend our ways at your say-so.”
The internal message is that the Manipur can go national, quite in the footsteps of the Gujarat Model in all other spheres of national life. Already, the pieces are in place in the Gangetic belt. The potential victims – Muslims - already lined up.
Under the circumstance, it can only take a minority voice to shout out loud, “It’s unconscionable that the international community remains silent in the face of what is going on.”
Liberals may be embarrassed by international attention, believing that India neither needs nor deserves this at a stage it is overthrowing the colonial legacy and striding the global stage. However, since the portents are not bright, the asymmetry in power that the victims of majoritarians – aligned with the State - are up against needs reaching out to every helping hand.
The retreat of liberalism has put the globalised world into question. It cannot be that globalization is restricted only to trade and supply chains.
The alliance in plain sight between India’s Liberals and Hindutva in preserving India’s reputation abroad cannot be allowed to obscure the Muslim condition, set to worsen in quick time. Hindutva must be held accountable for bringing India to disrepute.
Political parties must discard soft Hindutva, sign of their subservience to a Right Wing ordained political culture. They must stake out their space, beginning with opposing UCC, over which they appear to be hemming and hawing just as the Pied Piper expects them to. Since a third of the electorate is already in Hindutva’s pocket, and presumably a third of liberal persuasion, bid for but a fifth to put majoritarianism back in the bottle.
Liberals must stake out the liberal space in direct contrast to the majoritarian one. To be sure, Hindutva has a 100 year head start and a captive political party. Offensive defence – turning-in awards, writing letters to the prime minister, being mealy mouthed on Hindutva’s domestic security outrages, whataboutery over foreigner interest - has failed. While the UCC is desirable, the niyat behind it being what it is, any lobbying on its behalf must be pended to a later date.
Liberals are on the threshold of failing India’s minority. They cannot ask that the minority sacrifice its cultural markers for them to take up cudgels on its behalf.
Minorities cannot wait till Liberals get around to understanding New India. In any case when the regime comes after Liberals – some are kept going so as to keep up the veneer of democracy – the minority will have to fall back on its own resources.
Ideally, the Liberals are the first line of defence; failing which, a minority is on its own. It cannot have the liberal-conservative combine stifle its outreach to external parties with an interest in human rights and the way the world ought to be and isn’t.
Indian democracy is a global good - even if Rahul Gandhi said so. Its good health cannot be left to Hindutva ministration anymore.