Prime Minister Narendra Modi has loudly reiterated India’s embrace of democracy internationally, hailed its ‘diversity’ when abroad and is seeking India’s relevance as an ally of the West on ‘democratic values’. Therefore, it is imperative to measure the distance between today’s India and democratic values.
The central edifice of a democracy, or what makes it a revolutionary idea, is equality, or that it accords an equal status to all its people. But the E-word is in rapid remission. A commitment to all being equal as a desired ideal — even if not fully realised in reality — accorded India its sheen and power in the past. India now, from being a truly remarkable case of composite nationalism, appears happy to huddle in that corner of the room which many of its neighbours occupy.
Faith as differentiator
The promise of the far-sighted Indian Constitution was of equal rights to all. If any benefit was accorded to smaller groups, religious or linguistic minorities or Dalits, it was in order to achieve substantive equality. This cut across all markers of identity — colour, race, language, faith, caste, region or food. But faith seems to have increasingly emerged as a visible differentiator between citizens. It must be recognised that laws — and not just the spirit — are in the process of being rewritten in India.
First and foremost, the basis of citizenship under the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 , allowing for non-Muslims from three countries to fast-track their citizenship, was the most serious push to introduce religion into citizenship.
Second in terms of marital choices, laws in the country in States where the national ruling party holds sway have drawn harsh attention on inter-faith couples . Imaginary fears of a ‘love-jihad’, the basis for new legislations have meant that inter-faith marriages are seen as crimes unless proven otherwise. The Gujarat law criminalising inter-faith marriages has been called out by the Gujarat High Court , but the ordinance introduced in Uttar Pradesh (Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Ordinance, 2020), which is now a law, till July, saw 63 FIRs filed against it, and 80 people arrested among 162 people who were booked, the majority being Muslim. A similar law in Madhya Pradesh has a similar trajectory, and a differential impact on Muslims, emphasising the rapid unspooling of the E-word. In terms of personal law, only Muslim men divorcing their wives through the triple talaq, now outlawed by the Supreme Court, is deemed a criminal act ; not so for men of other faiths.
Third, food has been criminalised. Stringent laws on cattle end up penalising those who have a certain diet, namely beef. The mood in the country created and abetted by people close to the powers that be, has led to lynchings. IndiaSpend has recorded bovine-related hate violence since 2010 and concluded that 98% of these attacks occurred post-May 2014, after the Bharatiya Janata Party assumed office. State governments and the Union government have mostly ignored the Supreme Court’s directions in 2018 to set up fast track courts, advice to take steps to stop hate messages on social media, or compensation to victims, or bringing in an anti-mob lynching law.
Fourth, consider the Gujarat Prohibition of Transfer of Immovable Property and Provision for Protection of Tenants from Eviction from Premises in Disturbed Areas Act , popularly known as the Disturbed Areas Act, which circumscribes where one can reside. Brought in an atmosphere where there was communal rioting and forced displacement, to ostensibly protect communities from distress sales, the twist accorded to it over the years firmly makes the forced separation of communities evident. Vijay Rupani, till recently the Chief Minister of Gujarat, said in an interview on July 27, 2019; “A Hindu selling property to a Muslim is not okay. A Muslim selling property to a Hindu is also not okay.” He added, “We have set this rule in areas where there have been riots to tell them (Muslims) that they must buy property in their own areas.”
That the environment in even the informal sector where minorities sought refuge in vocations to battle the prejudices of the formal sector is now curdling, is clear from recent studies on the subject. The linkages between those wielding extraordinary power in high offices with those making vicious noise on social media, and with the violent mobs on the ground trying to shut down Muslim businesses — or attack vegetable sellers or bangle sellers to prevent them to operate — are becoming more explicit by the day. It is old hat to say that several purveyors of hate are “proud to be followed by the Prime Minister” on social media. But even that is just the tip of the iceberg.
Those in power actively support and reward those who head mobs, raise slogans or demonstrate hate enough to shut down cities and regular life. Ministers garland them and the anti-minority hate spewed by them is a CV building exercise for better political prospects within the ruling party. The Member of Parliament representing Bhopal, Pragya Thakur, a public defender of the Mahatma’s assassin , is only one of the many who exemplify the career path available to those who sharply denounce amity or calls for harmony.
Scholars like Thomas Blom Hansen and Paul Brass have unhesitatingly pointed to the role of violence that has historically been acceptable in Indian society and politics. The stark difference between now and a few decades ago is a difference in top leaders being silent at important moments when mob violence is reported prominently. Dissenters are sought to be marked out “by their clothes” as the Prime Minister said infamously in December 2019 about those protesting the discriminatory citizenship laws. Far from discouraging those indulging in hate speech, they are given a place in the party hierarchy.
The line was drawn simply but sharply by no less a person than Sardar Patel on September 11, 1948 when the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) was banned after the Mahatma’s assassination. Patel wrote to the RSS chief M.S. Golwalkar, that he had no problem with the Sangh indulging in activities organising or benefiting Hindus, but had a problem with actions that were aimed at solely spreading anti-Muslim hate — “All their speeches were full of communal poison. It was not necessary to spread poison in order to enthuse the Hindus and organize for their protection.”
There was clearly a sentiment in Indian society and politics that wanted a country in the mirror image of Pakistan, as one for a Hindu majority. This view did not want to better the lives of Hindus. This was about claiming that those adhering to one religion have exclusive entitlement to Indianhood. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, an organisation very much in the family of the ruling party, rubbishes the idea of the mosaic that India is, when its secretary-general, Milind Parande said on September 7, 2021, that “the very idea of Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb (term used to denote the coming together fusion of Hindu and Muslim cultures in the country), is irrelevant. What exists is one culture, and the rest can simply merge into it. The Hindu cause must be prime.” Statements like these to denigrate the idea of India as a shared palette are never denounced by those in power. In fact, increasingly, there is little to distinguish these from statements of those in power and wielding authority representing the Indian state. The seriousness of what is afoot must be acknowledged.
Scholars like Christophe Jaffrelot have pointed out that there will not be a seamless transition to an “ethnic democracy”. There is no smooth path towards a ‘Category two’ or diminished citizenship status for large numbers of people who deviate from a prescribed cultural path. The Indian nation is one formed on the promise of shared and participatory kinship, which recognised Indian nationalism as being distinct from the faith you practised at home. Prioritising any one identity will have disastrous consequences and history provides enough evidence of this. Rwanda, South Africa or Germany are reminders that the E-word is as much a pragmatic consideration as it is a normative ideal.
India was proud of its hallowed constitutional precepts. More so as it was in a region which has seen a precipitous slide; Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and Myanmar prioritised one ethnicity/religion and defined belonging and nationhood in the narrowest sense possible. But differences between them and India are fast fading and not merely due to hotheads or mobs on the street. The formal ruling establishment, with its silences, utterances and formalising of new laws and norms, is indistinguishable with the ideas guiding mobs. The mobs read together with actions of the Union government and that of State governments mark a sharp turn away from the democracy India claims it is. That must jolt us into recognising the distance we have already travelled down the wrong path. That may be the first step to try to wrest the descent into the darkness of an apartheid state.
Seema Chishti is a journalist. The views expressed are personal