India's stealth war on liberal democracy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is presiding over a quiet descent into lawlessness

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi and protesters
(Image credit: Illustrated | TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images, CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty Images)

When my dear friend Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who doggedly championed the cause of India's increasingly persecuted Muslim and dalit (lower caste) minorities, was shot at point blank range in her driveway last year, it seemed that Indians had finally woken up to the fact that their 70-year-old liberal democracy was in trouble. They marched in the streets, organized protests, held candlelight vigils, and demanded an end to the lawlessness that had claimed Gauri's life — as well as the lives of too many others.

But instead of heeding these calls and going after the sinister radical Hindu outfits that are widely suspected to be behind the killings, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party — BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) — is encouraging local authorities to themselves descend into lawlessness. This week, the state of Maharashtra, which is in BJP hands, orchestrated simultaneous raids in several cities, ransacking the homes and offices of multiple human rights activists — lawyers, writers, journalists, and academics — arresting five. The supposed rap against these people is that they are (a) urban Naxalites or Maoists who instigated violence at a dalit event in January and (b) were involved in an alleged plot to assassinate Modi.

The first claim is manifestly false and the second patently ridiculous. The obvious reason for the crackdown is that having woefully failed to deliver on his promise of turning India into an economic powerhouse, Modi is deliberately trying to scare the public and silence his critics in the run-up to next year's elections.

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Naxalites are radical communists with a pretty nasty record of using violence to redress caste and other oppression. But "Naxalite" is also an all-purpose bogeyman label politicians use against anyone they deem "dangerous." The BJP for months has been systematically inflating the Naxal threat. Naxalites have historically operated in rural areas (where caste oppression is a fact of life) and tribal districts (where the government has been grabbing land from indigenous people living for centuries in the forest and handing it without adequate compensation to mining and other corporate interests). However, the media lately has been running stories that the Naxals are infiltrating cities in an effort to destabilize the country, hence the coinage "urban Naxalite." One particularly breathless newscast warned viewers that Naxals might be their neighbors or colleagues! This is India's equivalent of the red scare.

Maharashtra police claim that dalit leaders, in bed with these Naxals, orchestrated the violence during the January event. The reality is the exact opposite. The event, which celebrates dalit pride, has been held every year in Bhima Koregaon, a town near Mumbai, since 1927. It has always riled the local upper castes because it commemorates the victory of the 1818 British East India Company against the provincial Brahmin king. The dalits, who saw the Brahmins as more oppressive than the British, fought side by side with the East India Company to defeat the king. The British, as a token of their gratitude, included the names of the dead dalit soldiers on an obelisk that has become a shrine for dalits.

But this year, thanks to the toxic nationalism that has grown under Modi, right-wing Hindu outfits declared the event anti-national and demanded that it be scrapped. When the dalit leaders refused, Hindu hotheads delivered fiery speeches, triggering riots. Maharashtra's BJP government is now trying to blame the violence on the dalits themselves, never mind how much that strains credulity. Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of the smart and serious The Wire, put it well by asking why dalits would disrupt their own event that they've been holding virtually violence-free for close to a century.

That, however, didn't stop local authorities from arresting in June five dalit activists allegedly responsible for the violence. Now they are claiming that documents recovered from their laptops implicate the five arrested this week as Naxal sympathizers masquerading as benign human rights activists. One of them, they claim, was even involved in the alleged assassination plot against Modi.

This is absurd and outrageous.

Consider Sudha Bharadwaj, 54, one of the five arrested: She is the daughter of two MIT engineers and herself a math graduate from India's most prestigious institute. Much like Gauri, she has devoted her entire life to fighting for the rights of tribals, dalits and low-wage workers. At a young age, she renounced her creature comforts and started living in a veritable slum with other day laborers. She adopted her daughter from a tribal family and sent her to the same schools as the neighborhood families because she believes that if you don't live the life of the people you are fighting for, you can never fully understand their travails. She obtained a law degree so that she could better represent her fellow slum dwellers and others seeking redress from corrupt bureaucrats and rapacious business interests. Her unwavering devotion to India's worst off has made her an almost Mother Teresa-like figure in local circles.

To say that her arrest is ominous is an understatement. If she can be targeted as a Maoist, then literally every journalist, activist, and lawyer who represents India's persecuted and oppressed could be framed. "Nobody will be safe in an environment like this," her lawyers told the court. "We'll be next."

Modi's defenders claim that the arrests have nothing to do with him given that the Maharashtra government coordinated them. But Salil Tripathi, a veteran Indian journalist and the chair of PEN International, which tracks threats to journalistic and artistic freedom around the world, notes that it is highly improbable that Maharashtra could have taken such a major step, requiring the cooperation of police authorities in other states, without alerting and getting approval from the center.

Indian laws already give the government sweeping powers to go after anyone it wishes. But by cracking down against Bharadwaj, Modi is signaling that he will no longer be restrained by basic social norms when exercising his awesome powers. It is a calculated attempt to silence criticism and dissent.

Many commentators are comparing what's transpiring now in India to the 1975 "Emergency." This was the darkest chapter in India's liberal democracy, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and gave herself dictatorial powers to conduct mass arrests of political opponents, dissidents, and human rights activists. Modi's abuses might not have reached that scale yet, but they are arguably far more insidious. Gandhi at least had the decency to make an official declaration and alert the public to what she was doing. Modi, on the other hand, is acting by stealth to avoid a public uproar.

Worse, even as he is branding dissenters and critics as radical leftists and throwing them behind bars on manufactured grounds, he has done zilch to clamp down on the violent Hindu outfit whose members are among those arrested for Gauri's murder. Nor has he done anything to rein in Hindu vigilantes lynching Muslims merely suspected of consuming beef. In fact, a prominent Harvard-educated minister in his party garlanded and feted convicted lynchers.

The fear with Modi when he was elected four years ago was that he was an authoritarian Hindu nationalist who would focus less on liberalizing India's economy and more on promoting an illiberal religious fanaticism. After all, he cut his political teeth in the militant wing of the BJP, and as the chief minister of his home state, he had presided over one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in the nation's history.

The crackdown on Bharadwaj and her fellow activists and the free rein he's handed to violent Hindu fundamentalists show that these fears were far from baseless.

Unless Indians step up and send him a message in the next election, the best days of their liberal democracy might well be behind them.

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