The world’s largest secular democracy has just moved further away from its foundational ideals – exemplifying a worrisome global phenomenon.
India, like the United States, was established as a secular, democratic republic. The ascension to power five years ago of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist who was banned from the United States for almost a decade for allegedly presiding over an anti-minority pogrom in his home state, struck a severe blow at these principles. His re-election (with a bigger parliamentary majority this time) cripples these values even further.
Modi and President Donald Trump have much in common: They are both right-wing populists who have campaigned as outsiders against entrenched establishments. And both have exhibited strongman tendencies and an impatience with democratic processes and major institutions, including the media.
Other examples of this populist phenomenon are sweeping the planet. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte fit into this category, too. With Modi’s re-election, right-wing populists of various stripes are firmly in charge of many of the world’s largest democracies.
Modi joined the most prominent Hindu far-right group, the RSS, as it is commonly known by its Hindi acronym, when he was 8 years old. It was an ex-member of the RSS, Nathuram Godse, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi on Jan. 30, 1948, for supposedly being too indulgent toward Muslims. It is this sectarian vision that Modi offers his country, and which provides the basis for his organization’s political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP.
That vision has manifested itself disturbingly in two ways: Emboldened Hindu right fringe outfits have engaged in targeted assassinations of secular intellectuals. And there have been continual mob killings (including lynchings) of individuals suspected of trafficking in beef, a taboo for many Hindus.
“Between May 2015 and December 2018, at least 44 people – including 36 Muslims – were killed in such attacks,” states a recent Human Rights Watch report. “Police often stalled prosecutions of the attackers, while several BJP politicians publicly justified the attacks.”
Modi and his fellow party members controlling most of India’s states have made risible efforts to implement the Hindu nationalist ideology. Junk science that endeavors to trace modern scientific achievements to India’s ancient Hindu civilization (and extols the medicinal virtues of the cow) has pervaded Indian educational and scientific institutions. The federal and state governments have attempted to impose vegetarianism on the populace, in keeping with the beliefs of certain Hindus.
There has even been a ridiculous campaign to replace Muslim-sounding place names with Hindu monikers. And the state government of Uttar Pradesh (headed by a hardline Hindu monk) has left out the Taj Mahal from a tourism brochure, reportedly because it considers India’s most famous monument too Muslim, and hence not Indian enough.
The Modi government’s obsession with religion has spilled over into the international realm. It has proved unwelcoming to the heavily persecuted, mostly Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. And it has created an uproar by instituting a national registry of citizens in the border state of Assam to ostensibly catch noncitizens from neighboring Muslim-majority Bangladesh, a step that may end up disenfranchising millions.
“Under Modi, minorities of every stripe – from liberals and lower castes to Muslims and Christians – have come under assault,” states a recent Time magazine profile of the Indian prime minister.
The repeat triumph of the Modi-led ruling coalition (with roughly 350 parliamentary seats of the 542 total) will likely bring an escalation of that assault and an intensification of the global right-wing populist project – a troubling future for India and the world at large.
Amitabh Pal is writing a book about the global rise of right-wing populism, including in the United States and India.
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