A Resilient Democracy? The State of Modi’s India
Featured image by Sora Shimazaki (Courtesy of Pexels)
By Kalyani Devaki Menon
On June 27, 2022, India signed the “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement” along with twelve other nations who attended the G7 Summit that month. Among other things, the statement pledged to protect freedom of expression and ensure “a free and independent media landscape,” to safeguard “the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors,” and to protect “freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief.” The statement says that the signatories, “remain steadfast in our commitment to defending peace, human rights, the rule of law, human security and gender equality,” and “hail all courageous defenders of democratic systems that stand against oppression and violence.” For those tracking the slide towards authoritarianism in the country, the irony of India signing this statement was clear. Indeed, since 2014 when the Hindu supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at its helm, and especially since 2019 when it was re-elected for a second term, the country has become noticeably less democratic. And increasingly, the very institutions meant to uphold democracy are conscripted to undermine it.
Belying the statement signed at the G7 Summit, journalists, civil rights activists, scholars, students, and other critics of India’s ruling party have been arrested and jailed in overwhelming numbers. Moreover, the powers of the state residing in such institutions as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), created to prevent money laundering or violations of foreign exchange rules among other things, have been used against critics and opposition members with increasing frequency. As an editorial in the Deccan Herald notes, between 2014 and 2022 there has been “a 27-fold increase in the number of raids carried out by the ED” in comparison with raids conducted by the previous government. While the charade of India as the “world’s largest democracy” was certainly upheld by the G7 and other world leaders, shrinking democratic freedoms in the country are being noted by some. The Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Index published by the University of Gottenberg in Sweden notes that India has had the most dramatic slide of any country in the last decade, which has earned it the label of “electoral autocracy.” Meanwhile, the United States Freedom House Report of 2022 considers India a “partly free nation,” saying that although “India has a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population,” while the “harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly.” Reporters Without Borders has noted that India has fallen to the 150th position on the World Press Freedom Index of 2022 that ranks 180 countries. While the Indian government is quick to denounce these indices as prejudiced against the country, the news coming out of India on a daily basis clearly troubles the government’s claims.
"Moreover, the powers of the state residing in such institutions as the Enforcement Directorate (ED), created to prevent money laundering or violations of foreign exchange rules among other things, have been used against critics and opposition members with increasing frequency."
The story of Siddique Kappan is a case in point. A Muslim journalist from the south Indian state of Kerala where the BJP has never managed to gain much traction, Kappan was based in Delhi, India’s capital city, when he travelled to a village called Hathras in Uttar Pradesh (UP), a north Indian state that is a BJP stronghold. He was intending to investigate the alleged gang-rape and murder of a young Dalit woman by upper-caste Hindu men in Hathras. He was arrested before he ever got to the village, before he ever investigated the story, and before he wrote anything about it. A journalist’s job is to report the news. Kappan never had the opportunity to do so. A First Information Report filed by the UP police in October 2020 indicates that Kappan was charged under several sections of the Indian Penal Code (including sedition (Section 124A), promoting enmity (Section 153A), and outraging religious feeling (Section 295A)), the draconian anti-terrorism Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), and the Information Technologies Act. In February 2021 more charges were brought against Kappan by the Enforcement Directorate. Despite the litany of charges against him, it is unclear what crime Kappan has committed.
Writing in Malayalam for readers of the Kerala news portal Azhimukham, Kappan often described the plight of Muslims in Modi’s India. Equating the reporting of atrocities with incitement, the police report accuses Kappan of writing stories that “incite Muslims,” of furthering the agenda of the Popular Front of India, and of sympathizing with Maoists and Communists. As Samar Harlankar, journalist and editor of Article 14, notes, “Nothing in these accusations is, remotely or otherwise, a crime. Writing on a subject is called a beat or an interest…. Sympathising with someone or an organization – whether banned or not … is not a crime.” Denied bail by the lower courts, Kappan was finally granted it in the Hathras case by the Supreme Court of India on September 9, 2022, with new Chief Justice of India, U.U. Lalit saying, “Every person has the right to free expression. He is trying to show that victim needs justice and raise a common voice. Is that a crime in the eyes of the law?” While these words renewed the hope of some that India’s highest court might finally begin to redress the wrongs of Modi’s India, Kappan remains in jail pending hearings on charges by the Enforcement Directorate.
"In a country where upper-caste Hindus are the normative national subject and upper-caste Hindu norms are increasingly hegemonic, Indian Muslims have differential citizenship."
In Modi’s India it is particularly dangerous for a Muslim journalist to critique the ruling party or to write about issues that reveal the grip of Hindu supremacy and violence. In a country where upper-caste Hindus are the normative national subject and upper-caste Hindu norms are increasingly hegemonic, Indian Muslims have differential citizenship. This is why Siddique Kappan was jailed for a story he may have written about Dalits, another community that has experienced the violent assertion of upper-caste Hindu supremacy. Hindu supremacy, differential citizenship, and violence are the logical outcome of Hindu nationalism, the ideology that India is a Hindu nation, one that must come to fruition, even through violence. This ideology predates the BJP, but has been critical to the work of the larger group of organizations of which it is a member – the Sangh Parivar (Sangh Family) associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The all-male RSS has worked painstakingly since the 1920s to make India a Hindu nation, establishing multiple organizations to lead different aspects of this project. While the RSS usually presents itself as a movement rooted in Indian (read: Hindu) ideas, it is also evident that leaders of the RSS have historically drawn inspiration from European fascists. Among other things, the second leader of the RSS, M.S. Golwalkar wrote, “To keep up the purity of the Race and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic Races – the Jews. Race pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has shown how well nigh impossible it is for Races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.” With these ideological roots, it is no surprise that a Muslim journalist who challenges the status quo is being harshly silenced in Modi’s India.
That the institutions of the state – the police, the judiciary, and the law – have been used to silence Kappan is also not surprising. As Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt argue, “The tragic paradox of the electoral route to authoritarianism is that democracy’s assassins use the very institutions of democracy – gradually, subtly, and even legally – to kill it.” And here it is critical to note that it is not just Modi’s supporters who have enabled this erosion of India’s democracy, but also the many nations who have resolved to embrace India as a “resilient democracy” in the face of ample evidence to the contrary. After all, Kappan’s story is just one among so many troubling and well-publicized news reports about the arrests and harassment of journalists, civil rights activists, academics, students, members of the opposition, and other critics of the ruling party. The arrests of Umar Khalid, a civil rights activist who has been in jail since September 2020, and Fahad Shah, editor of The Kashmir Walla who has been arrested multiple times since February 2022, and the tragic death in custody of the ailing Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, illustrate how Indian authorities routinely violate the principles the government pledged to uphold in the “Resilient Democracies Statement,” namely “freedom of expression and opinion” and “freedom of thought, conscience, religion, or belief.” Indeed, the state of Modi’s India is an increasingly authoritarian one that has actively trampled over the democratic norms that underpin the Indian Constitution, even as it has been aided and abetted by the short-term geopolitical calculations of other nations that turn a blind eye to its excesses.
1- Dalit, the term used by groups once deemed “untouchable” by the Hindu caste system to identify themselves, means the “oppressed.”
2 - Though not banned at the time of Kappan’s arrest, the government banned the Popular Front of India for five years under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act on September 27, 2022.
3 - Chetan Bhatt. 2001. Hindu Nationalism: Origins, Ideologies, and Modern Myths. Oxford and New York: Berg, p. 133. Also see M.S. Golwalkar. 1944. We, Or Our Nationhood Defined. Nagpur, India: Bharat Publications.
4 - Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt. 2018. How Democracies Die. New York: Broadway Books, p. 8.
Article 14. 2022. A Decade of Darkness: The Story of Sedition in India. https://sedition.article-14.com/
The Polis Project. 2021. Mapping Patterns of Violence Against Journalists in India (May 2019-August 2021). See https://www.thepolisproject.com/research/mapping-patterns-of-violence-against-journalists-in-india-2019-2021/ and https://www.thepolisproject.com/research/patterns-of-violence-against-journalists-in-india/
South Asia Scholar Activist Collective. Hindutva Harassment Field Manual. https://www.hindutvaharassmentfieldmanual.org/
Chatterji, Angana, Thomas Blom Hansen, and Chris Jaffrelot. 2019. Majoritarian State: How Hindu Nationalism is Changing India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.
Hansen, Thomas Blom and Srirupa Roy, Editors. 2022. Saffron Republic: Hindu Nationalism and State Power in India. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Kalyani Devaki Menon is a Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at DePaul University. Her research focuses on religious politics in contemporary India. She is the author of Everyday Nationalism: Women of the Hindu Right in India (University of Pennsylvania Press 2010) and Making Place for Muslims in Contemporary India (Cornell University Press 2022).
Cite this article as: Menon, Kalyani Devaki. October 2022. 'A Resilient Democracy? The State of Modi's India. Today's Totalitarianism. https://todaystotalitarianism.com/resilient-democracy