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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 11, New Delhi February 29, 2020

That was the Decade that was!

Sunday 1 March 2020


by L.K. Sharma

February 2020 turned out to be the most ominous month for India. The national Capital burnt with communal violence as the police watched! The organised lawlessness killed and injured people, while the democratic rulers held a grand feast for the visiting American President, Donald Trump. The weird situation made a journalist recall the era in which Nero fiddled.

Trump adopted Narendra Modi as his soul-brother. He once called him the Father of the Nation, taking away Gandhi’s title. The world took note of the political twins featuring in a grand spectacle of a public reception for Trump in Modi’s home State. Thousands of Indians, convinced that a friend of Modi is a friend of India, cheered the two leaders. The message went out that Modi is a great leader since POTUS says so. Trump did a favour by keeping quiet on the raging religious violence in Delhi.

Only a few days before the organised collapse of law and order in Delhi, author Samanth Subramanian wrote a piece in The Guardian that carried the headline “How Hindu supremacists are tearing India apart”. He wrote that already India’s institutions—its courts, much of its media, its investigative agencies, its Election Commission—have been pressured to fall in line with Prime Minister Modi’s policies. The political Opposition is withered and infirm.

He said, “in its 72 years as a free country, India has never faced a more serious crisis.” He did not point to the more dangerous feature that the polarised nation has lost the will to resolve the crisis. It appeared to be sleep-walking but most Indians could be heard saying: “Crisis, what crisis.” A large section went further than just denying the crisis. It aggressively celebrated the turn of events guided by a populist Prime Minister and created by his devoted religious fanatics feeling empowered by the government!

Subramanian was prescient: “More is in the offing: the idea of Hindutva, in its fullest expression, will ultimately involve undoing the Constitution and unravelling the fabric of liberal democracy.” The feared ‘more’ followed within days when “Delhi’s night of horror” became a routine newspaper headline. The Telegraph saw the Gujarat model coming to Delhi. It alluded to the massive communal killings that had taken place in Gujarat when Modi was the State’s Chief Minister.

Economist and former Governor of Reserve Bank expressed his anguish by putting out the message: “I have heard stories about what India will be in 2020 since the last two decades. And here we are, in the year 2020, watching the national Capital of the ‘super power’, being shredded into pieces.”

Future historians will have to find when did the genie of communal hatred get out of the bottle. They will conclude that the 2014 parliamentary elections radically transformed India’s polity and society and sowed the seeds that destroyed the very idea of India.

The just-ended decade saw a democratic nation turning upon itself. The religious majority was made to lose its self-confidence and feel besieged. The Muslim minority was made to feel anxious and fearful. The “other” was conjured up as the enemy amid a poisoned discourse and mob violence.

The nation was in ferment while a populist leader was in full control with the consent of the people. Those opposed to his tactics and policies seemed helpless against the wave of cultural nationalism. Politically-motivated use of weapons of mass disinformation divided families and made cultural nationalism inspiring. The wounds of the traumatic partition were reopened in order to justify discrimination against Muslims and pave the way for a major round of sectarian killings at some future date. The threats of violence issued publicly by some BJP leaders give a clear indication as to what is in store.

India is used to occasional sectarian killings followed by long spells of social harmony. What it witnessed during the decade was continuing low-level violence and intense mental pollution created by messages of bigotry and hatred. The latter were spread by social media, cheap telephony and frequent election campaigns. Fake news and doctored videos dominated the vicious disinformation campaigns. The ruling party leaders took to denigrating some top leaders who fought for independence and founded the Republic. Even Gandhi was not spared as some praised his killer, Godse.

The noble faith of Hinduism was weaponised by political operators. This inclusive faith tradition was turned into an instrument for creating the other. As religious intolerance shot up, India lost its brand image as a model democracy and a secular and inclusive nation inhabited by largely tolerant people.

It was a decade when India was called Lynchistan following the killing of the Muslims suspected of carrying cows to slaughter houses or of eating beef. Vigilante groups were allowed to roam the streets, forcing innocent victims to say: Jai Shri Ram. This devotional greeting was turned into a war cry.

Smear campaigns and ferocious political battles became a new normal. Words lost their meanings and language was defiled. Intellectuals and free thinkers were chased by vigilante groups. So were women not appearing in the ‘right’ dress or the men not eating the ‘right food’.

The hurdles were finally cleared for building a Ram temple on the ruins of the Babri mosque that was demolished in full public view in the earlier decade. Faith came to dominate society. And the agitation for the construction of the Ram temple could be understood. But what does one say about a Godse temple and a Modi temple being established!

The decade gone by will be remembered for India taking a regressive path. There was a new obsession with cows, temples and statues. Most ridiculous unscientific statements were made by senior BJP leaders including Ministers. A BJP woman MP flaunted her power to curse. Pining for a modern physical infrastructure was coupled with the glorification of a medieval mindset.

The decade was marked by dire warnings against fascism. Hitler’s videos and images circulated on social media during this period and posters against fascism appeared on the streets. Fears were frequently expressed about the future of democracy in the largest democracy. India was seen going the way of Pakistan. The battle of ideas with Pakistan was lost while India constantly flaunted its military superio-rity. The leaders kept the bilateral relations surcharged with tension for displaying nationalism.

Questions were raised about the conduct of senior administrative officers, the police and the judiciary. Some businessmen started financing the ruling party heavily. An unnatural alliance took place between communalism and capitalism. Incidents of mob-lynching reported frequently.

When India marked the 71st anniversary of its Constitution on January 26, the customary Republic Day celebrations were overshadowed by uncustomary protests. Tens of thousands of Indians took to the streets to ask the Modi Government to stop destroying the essence of the Constitution. Songs of protest sung on the streets. Dissenters and agitators were abused.

Just weeks earlier, the government passed a citizenship law that reeks of religious discrimination against Muslims and is seen by many as unconstitutional. It lit the spark of protests. Many of those who watched the anti-democratic turn in India silently for some years found their voice on the eve of the Republic Day. They tore up the veil of fear and demonstrated in over a 100 towns and cities. Human chains running into miles were formed and sit-ins were held. Protesters recited the Preamble of the Constitution and a copy was sent to Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the advice to read it when he “finds time from dividing the nation”.

There are widespread fears that the government is planning to follow the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act by implementing a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The scheme, which would require individuals to provide proof of their citizenship, could turn many citizens into foreigners by demanding documents that a very large number of Indians will never be able to produce. Millions do not know the year they were born, let alone that of their parents. The NRC would give extraordinary powers to petty government officials and disproportionately affect the poor, minorities, internal migrants, and the Dalits. Many of them may be consigned to the detention centres.

The student community, housewives and activists belonging to all castes and creeds are leading the movement to safeguard the Constitution after the Opposition parties lost the battle in Parliament, where Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP holds a majority. They face attacks not only from far-Right groups, but also the police.

The pattern continues at the beginning of the new decade. Students at the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University, targeted by the government for being a centre of dissent, were attacked by a masked mob armed with sticks and rods. Police were accused of standing by. The scenes of brutality were shared widely on WhatsApp and led to nationwide condem-nation, intensifying the protest movement. Of course, since the attackers belonged to the ruling party’s student wing, they were spared by the police. Assured of political support, the police got away with acts of unprecedented violence against students. In the Jamia Millia University, they invaded the library, beating up and dragging out students. It was recalled that the police never entered a university library even during British rule.

In order to control dissent and free thinking at JNU, the Modi Government has taken unprecedented administrative measures including the appointment of a cooperative Vice-Chancellor. Party activists have been running a systematic campaign to malign the university.

Modi’s Muscular Hinduism


The decade witnessed seminars and protest meetings to safeguard the idea of India. However, unease in the nation continued to grow. The irresistible rise of Narendra Modi popularised and strengthened majoritarianism, promoting the BJP’s long-pending Hindu nation project.

Modi first erupted on the national scene by winning an overwhelming victory in the 2014 general election. He had cultivated a reputation for being a dynamic, populist and strong leader in his home State of Gujarat. In 2002, not long after he took office, over 1200 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in riots. Chief Minister Modi was blamed for failing to intervene, but that failure only raised his political stock among Hindus nationalists.

Modi was fielded by the BJP as the potential Prime Minister when the parliamentary elections came. The key element of the party’s electoral strategy was the consolidation of the Hindu votes by creating and denigrating the “other”. His promise of an economic miracle impressed even those voters who were not swayed by sectarianism. They voted for Modi despite their dislike for his party’s divisive politics, religious polarisation and bigotry. The promise of

Hindutva+Economic Nirvana

seduced a large number of voters, giving the BJP a thumping majority!

After Modi demonstrated the success of his election-winning formula, the BJP rallied behind him, letting him effectively assume the role of President in a parliamentary democracy. He side-lined most senior leaders to ward off any challenge from within the party. It boosted his self-confidence so much that he started taking more and more decisions to “transform” India in accordance with his vision.

The establishment of a Hindu nation was the dream of Modi’s ideological forefathers. It remained a dream all these decades because the idea of a secular, inclusive India found overwhelming support among the people. However, Modi’s statements as well as decisions since 2014 heartened the Hindu nationalists.

Indians are no strangers to sectarian bias and religious animosity, but such feelings were kept under control by wise and mature political leaders, an administrative machinery that shunned discrimination, and a judiciary that was generally free and fair. The arrival of a populist leader changed that all. Supported by the hard-line Right-wing Hindu nationalist group RSS, Modi exploited the fault-lines of religion and caste, making religious polarisation and marginalisation of Muslims the new normal.

The Modi Government disregarded the Constitution to capture power in the States where the ruling party fell short of a majority in elections. The electoral strategy relied on hatred and bigotry, mob violence and smear-campaigns, faux religiosity and ultra-nationalism, fake news and social media trolling buried civil discourse.

Voters were attracted to a strong leader selling the dream of an aggressive India and muscular Hinduism. Those looking for a messiah were mightily impressed by a leader who boasted of his chest size, talked of India’s glorious Hindu past and promised to make the nation great again. The BJP activists stoked antipathy towards Pakistan, the external enemy, and “anti-national” Indians, the enemy within.

The government plays the politics of revenge and retaliation with the help of the official agencies as well as state-empowered vigilante groups. The latter intimidate people on the streets and through social media. They have silenced high-profile figures—from business leaders to sports personalities and film stars—critical of the government, out of fear of reprisals. A few daring human rights activists have paid a heavy price for their dissent.

Displays of power gained primacy and acquired a stranglehold on the national psyche. Political competition became aggressive and public discourse abusive. Modi’s supporters, called devotees, are ever ready to take offense at any criticism of their leader. In the eyes of many Indians, Modi could do no wrong. If the people suffered, as they did due to demonetisation, they were told that it was just a small sacrifice for the nation.

So, ordinary aggrieved citizens generally thought it wise to grin and bear it lest they are branded “anti-national” and assaulted. They recognised that a large section of the populace, swayed by Modi’s populism and Hindu nationalism, has begun to suspect secularism.

The Republic of Fear

Until a few weeks ago, anger towards the government was suppressed despite economic decline, police atrocities, curtailment of civil liberties and freedom of expression, media capture, religious polarisation and violence by state-supported vigilante groups. When the Muslim-majority State of Kashmir was robbed of its semi-independent status last year, the prolonged lockdown of the territory, communi-cation blockade and arrest of political leaders ensured that no protests could take place in what civil liberty activists described as a large open-air jail.

Independent institutions have started crumbling under relentless government pressure. Prominent Opposition figures have been seduced or blackmailed, through the use of official investigative agencies rattling their closets for skeletons. Even when the Opposition has scored victories against the Prime Minister’s party it was not because there was public revulsion against mob lynching, atrocities against a minority or suppression of dissent. This has encouraged the BJP to further intensify its Hindu nationalist campaign.

Modi’s mastery over dog-whistle politics remains unsurpassed. When politicians become performers, mendacity becomes irrelevant. What matters is how well you deliver the lines. The Prime Minister energises his core constituency with well-crafted wink-wink statements. At a rally he demanded that equal land must be reserved for Hindu crematoriums as Muslim cemeteries, leaving open the implication that Hindus have been discriminated against. He talked of recognising protesters by their apparel to suggest they belong to a single religious group. He loves to flaunt a variety of headgears but declined to wear a skull-cap offered as a mark of respect at a public function organised by a minority community. But, of course, he cannot be charged with inciting communal passions, a task that is left to senior BJP functionaries who make statements threatening violence.

The past five years will be known for the most bellicose political manoeuvrings and toxic poll campaigns. Power has been used to crush dissent in a most ruthless way, with the state agencies becoming willing accomplices. Freedom of expression came to be discussed in a few seminars that were not disturbed by vigilante groups who order people what to eat and women what to wear. According to many, India is the Republic of Unreason or the Republic of Fear.

Political operators hijacked Hinduism. India saw rising intolerance, social poisoning and attacks on intellectuals, dissenters, critics, independent journalists and the ruling party’s opponents. A sustained campaign against secularism succeeded in making a very large number of voters see Narendra Modi as the “Emperor of Hindu Hearts”. Fake religiosity and faux nationalism went hand-in-hand. Every comment by a Muslim extremist was used to alert against a rising “Hindu phobia”.

These years saw a concerted attempt to change the very idea of India enshrined in the Constitution, an idea that drove India’s freedom fighters to achieve independence. A populist leader aided by a trained army of volunteers and cyber-bullies turned “secular” into a term of abuse, replacing in mass consciousness civic nationalism with religious nationalism. Questions were raised about the fairness and competence of the law and order machinery, and the objectivity of sections of the judiciary.

The government’s anti-democratic actions sullied India’s international reputation. It was no longer seen as a model democracy. India lost its soft power as foreign media published enough material to damage India’s brand image. These developments affected the image of Prime Minister Modi in powerful countries that had earlier overlooked the stigma of communal violence in Gujarat under his chief-ministership.

Even relations with India’s friendliest neighbour, Bangladesh, have turned sour over Modi’s citizenship bill. The controversial new law will cause more difficulties for Hindus in neigh-bouring countries by providing fodder for extremist propaganda against Hindu minorities. But that does not seem to concern the Modi Government. Modi has assured himself a prominent place in India’s political history. Books will appear on India’s Modi years.

India’s Annus Horribilis

Falling economic growth and rising unemployment added to other problems. Hatred, intolerance, bigotry, and violence have diminished democracy and disturbed social harmony. Modi and other BJP leaders have reopened the wounds inflicted by the partition of India on religious lines.

A visitor will see India inhabited by two major tribes, nationalists and traitors. The former are those who support the ruling Hindu nationalist party. The latter, as any BJP activist will tell you, include critics of the government, intellectuals, Left-liberals, dissidents, protesters demanding change, agitating university students and those belonging to a minority community. At an election rally, a call to shoot the latter group was heard repeatedly. Many of those participating in non-violent protests have been subjected to harassment by the police, while mob violence against critics of the government is overlooked.

In an editorial titled ‘Unfree in India’, The Telegraph commented that the year 2019 was the proverbial annus horribilis for democracy in India. This prominent daily noted that India declined 10 places in the annual Democracy Index rankings, the country’s poorest score since the inception of the report in 2006.

Will a polarised nation be able to fight the genie of sectarian hatred let out of the bottle? Will the supreme leader and his ideologically fired storm-troopers curtail civil liberties further and destroy democracy? In order to crush the growing dissent, will they promote muscular Hindutva more aggressively? Or will the protesting students and housewives force the government to take a modest corrective action to just temporarily stop the situation from worsening? It is hard to tell. But one thing is sure. The decade that ended on a dismal note will be called transformative by future historians. These eventful years wrote the story of India’s dangerous decade.

(Its abridged version appeared in Open Democracy)

The author is a senior journalist and writer who worked in India and abroad (notably Britain) in several major newspapers. Now retired, he is a freelancer.

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