What Indians should be saying to the U.S. on June 21

Is this the Indian century?

June 19, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 11:46 am IST

‘India will only inaugurate an ‘Indian century’ if its great traditions of pluralism and respect for diversity can be recovered’

‘India will only inaugurate an ‘Indian century’ if its great traditions of pluralism and respect for diversity can be recovered’ | Photo Credit: AFP

When this April India surpassed China as the world’s most populous nation, commentators were quick to declare this the “Indian Century”, a plaudit primarily reflecting the so-called “demographic dividend”. By 2030, the ratio of India’s working-age population to its total population will reach 70%, the highest of any large economy in the world. This is a workforce of extraordinary magnitude — fully one quarter of the globe’s — and a consumer class of equally extraordinary potential.

A powerhouse of the world

There have been other Indian centuries, however — prior to the colonial depredations suffered before regaining independence in 1947. For a millennium before the arrival of the British, India, along with China, was a powerhouse; by the 1600s it is estimated to have possessed up to a quarter of the world’s production capacity. The imperial capital in Delhi was the destination of ambassadors, from the court of King James I to that of the Ayutthaya emperor of today’s Thailand; of poets and painters and musicians from across central and west Asia, and of craftsmen from as far afield as Italy, who brought with them the pietra dura artistry that adorns the Taj Mahal.

That century was only the last of many marked by breathtaking achievements. How even to begin an inventory? The invention of zero, making possible algebra and calculus and eventually the computer; the perfection of linguistics, matched by the West only in the 20th century; a language landscape vastly unlike Rome’s or China’s, which saw writers in dozens of languages producing works of transcendent beauty; weavers who clothed the world as far as Africa and beyond; metallurgists who made corrosion-resistant iron 2,000 years ago. And farmers who sent new cereals and cumin, cardamom, and other cultivars into the world — who also demonstrated how to live in harmony with animals hunted to extinction everywhere else.

Colonialism eroded most of the traditions that made India great, but after four decades of the most creative mobilisation for freedom in history, the country began in 1947 to reclaim its patrimony. Although the democratic constitution of independent India may have been written by an Indian who had studied at Columbia University, B.R. Ambedkar, the republican practices and federalism inherent in it have much deeper roots in the country; and while independent India’s self-description, “unity in diversity,” may have become a mere slogan today, it was exemplified throughout the long historical record of India’s pluralism.

The remarkable achievements of India’s distant and more recent past, above all, its singular achievement of learning to live with religious and cultural differences, are now at risk, under the government of Narendra Modi. From the moment he became Prime Minister in 2014 (after a youth spent in the ranks of a paramilitary organisation avowing Hindu nationalism, and then a long stint as Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat, where he was accused — and is still suspected by many despite his acquittal by courts — in the mass killing of Muslim citizens in 2002, Mr. Modi initiated a practice of intrusive state power and majoritarian nationalism that is unlike anything India has ever seen, while destroying much of what made India great.

A systematic campaign

Last year, watchdog groups (including Genocide Watch, echoed by a Georgetown University study) issued warnings about the organised oppression of India’s Muslims (14% of the population, nearly 200 million). It cited, in particular, the 2019 revocation of the special autonomous status of Kashmir, ending seven decades of protection; the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens, together aimed at expelling Muslim refugees from Bangladesh but also reducing to second-class citizenship, millions of Indian Muslims, who lacked documents that many Indians lack; and anti-conversion laws, which the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom has found to be inconsistent with human rights.

And this is to say nothing of daily arrests and detention of Muslims on no lawful grounds, and repeated beatings and lynchings of Muslim shopkeepers and tradesmen. In a word, Mr. Modi’s government persecutes Muslims both by the construction of laws and governmental practices that violate human rights, while maintaining silence over the atrocities committed against them by the lethal energies its own religious nationalism has unleashed.

Under Mr. Modi, the government has pursued a systematic campaign to destroy civil society, outlawing non-governmental organisations (NGOs), undermining universities, think tanks, and research centres, and harassing the independent press.

Last winter in its documentary, ‘India: the Modi Question’, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) reviewed a British government document from 2002 that found Mr. Modi “directly responsible” for the slaughter of Muslims during the Gujarat riots, and that the violence had “all the hallmarks of genocide”. Two months later, the Mumbai and New Delhi offices of the BBC were raided by the Central Board of Direct Taxes, citing “irregularities and discrepancies” in the broadcaster’s taxes.

Comparable tactics have been used against environmental groups, including Oxfam India, Environics Trust, and the Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE), whose director, the lawyer Ritwick Dutta, has been persecuted by the Central Bureau of Investigation), as well as against the Centre for Policy Research (CPR), India’s leading public policy think tank. In each case, their foreign contribution licence was cancelled, effectively ending their capacity to function.

There has been a concentrated attack to undermine the intellectual and administrative autonomy of the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the most distinguished institution of higher education in the country, and research institutes such as the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences Calcutta, long admired for their intellectual freedom, have suddenly had their budgets slashed by the central government.

The independent press has virtually been silenced . “Press Freedom Violations in India” (a report from the International Press Institute) identified 83 violations between April and September, 2022. “Over the past eight years, the Modi government and BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] supporters have attempted to silence independent media through attacks and repressive laws…. At least 18 journalists faced physical attacks and violence during this monitoring period, with cases involving both state and non-state actors.”

The Adani saga

Some of these abuses and assaults have targeted legitimate opposition to the activities of one company: Adani Enterprises, whose director is a Modi intimate.

This global conglomerate, headquartered in India, has been much in the news. In November, The New York Times reported that the company’s president, Gautam Adani, was named the richest man in Asia. Soon thereafter a New York financial research firm demonstrated that he had been running “the largest con in corporate history”. What should also have been making news are Mr. Adani’s coal mines, and his close ties to Mr. Modi.

NGOs have been investigating Mr. Adani’s staggering environmental destruction — including the devastation of some of the most biodiverse regions of the world, in eastern India and the wholesale elimination of villages and indigenous lifeways — in his pursuit of some of the world’s dirtiest coal. Yet, it is Mr. Adani’s critics whom the government has punished, as The Washington Post has reported, not the con that he perpetrated, nor the Prime Minister, who has strenuously helped him secure the lucrative coal deals.

The religious persecution, the attacks on NGOs, independent research centres, and the press are bad enough. The furthering of environmental chaos, of potentially global proportions but particularly catastrophic for India itself — Mr. Adani has been named by Oxfam as the third most culpable carbon billionaire in the world — shows the true scope of the problem.

As Chief Minister, Mr. Modi was denied a visa to the United States in 2005 because of his perceived involvement in the Gujarat pogrom. This week he arrives on a state visit to the United States, despite the fact that his human rights and civil liberties record since being elected Prime Minister in 2014 is in many ways worse. The plain fact is that this record has been totally ignored by Presidents Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joe Biden. If, as the White House has said, the Indian leader will be visiting in order to “strengthen our two countries’ shared commitment to a free, open, prosperous, and secure Indo-Pacific”, America’s leaders must start talking seriously about what freedom and openness now mean in India. India will only inaugurate an ‘Indian century’ if its great traditions of pluralism and respect for diversity can be recovered.

Akeel Bilgrami is Sidney Morgenbesser Professor of Philosophy, Professor, Committee on Global Thought, at Columbia University. Sheldon Pollock is Arvind Raghunathan Professor Emeritus of South Asian Studies, at Columbia University

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