Op-Ed: We Must Fight Authoritarianism in India

Arushee Agarwal and Rohan Palacios | Class of 2020 and 2021

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014 at the head of a resurgent right-wing Hindu nationalist movement in India. For over a century, the Hindu nationalist or “Hindutva” movement has been a political force representing Hindus who want to define India as a nation of and for Hindus. The Hindutva movement opposes the values of secularism and pluralism that India’s founders enshrined in the constitution. The founders of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest Hindu nationalist organization, compared their mission to that of European contemporaries like Hitler and Mussolini. Prime Minister Modi is an RSS member who belongs to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which evolved from multiple efforts by the RSS to enter Indian politics. Since the mid-1980s, the BJP has become one of the most successful political parties in India by positioning themselves as warriors for the interests of India’s Hindu majority.

Where the BJP goes, sectarianism follows. Since ascending to power, Modi and his political allies have continued inflaming religious tensions in India to deadly effect. A study from NDTV, one of India’s largest television stations, reported that “the use of hateful and divisive language by high-ranking politicians has increased almost 500% in the past four years.” Modi’s appointees at the highest level of government model this trend. Home Minister and RSS veteran Amit Shah refers to illegal immigrants from Muslim-majority Bangladesh as “infiltrators” and “termites” while pledging that the BJP government will “throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” Another vocal appointee, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, is a Hindu priest with a well-documented history of aggravating religious tensions. He once claimed that “If one Hindu girl marries a Muslim man, then we will take 100 Muslim girls in return… If they kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”

The government matches chauvinistic rhetoric with reckless action. One front of the government’s Hindutva crusade is Kashmir. The BJP’s recent decisions to impose a communications blackout, detain political leaders, and arbitrarily imprison and torture thousands of young Kashmiris provoked international condemnation. Another recent event is the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in conjunction with the creation of a National Register of Citizens (NRC). The CAA nominally allows those fleeing religious persecution in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh to obtain Indian citizenship, yet excludes Muslims from the right to gain citizenship. It also does not apply to refugees from neighboring countries known for persecuting Muslims, like Myanmar, where tens of thousands of Rohingya Muslims have fled genocide. This manner of distinction based on religion has been critiqued as anti-secular and therefore, unconstitutional. The U.N. and Amnesty International have also made public statements condemning the discriminatory nature of the CAA.

Although CAA disadvantages Muslim refugees, the NRC is a bigger threat to the Muslim community of India. The NRC is an exercise being undertaken to document all citizens of the country, despite lacking transparent guidelines on what constitutes valid proof of citizenship. Since the majority of the lower socio-economic classes in India have few or no legal documents, this exercise could leave millions stateless. Detention centers for alleged illegal immigrants have already been built and are in use in various parts of the country. The CAA, however, gives a path for those among the stateless who are non-Muslim to become Indian citizens, appeasing the BJP’s Hindu supporters, and making clear who is welcome in Modi’s India.

Those who believe in India’s national identity as a democratic, secular republic have taken to the streets and social media to protest the CAA and NRC. In states where the BJP is in power, like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, and Karnataka, protests have been met with police violence, detention without legal or medical aid and increased police surveillance. Some universities are monitoring students’ social media in an attempt to quell student protests, while others like JMI and JNU have been attacked by the RSS’s student organization and the police, with tear gas, bullets and lathis (batons) during peaceful protests.

Despite this violent backlash, people across the country continue to mobilize en masse, championing their cause with the non-violent resistance that freed India from colonial rule. An ongoing sit-in led by women at Shaheen Bagh in South Delhi has garnered international recognition. University students across India have braved police brutality and violent harassment from BJP supporters to express their outrage. The Indian diaspora is beginning to mobilize. In January demonstrations outside Indian embassies in Geneva, Berlin and London attracted hundreds of people. These protests are a ray of hope for the future of India and the world.

The BJP is poised to create a massive statelessness crisis on the basis of religion, despite India being one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. In the US, events like Howdy Modi have shown the strength of the pro-Modi and BJP-supporting population among the Indian-American diaspora. However, the recent protests against the CAA across 30 US cities show that there are still many who vehemently oppose the CAA and NRC, and see that the Modi government’s latest moves are paving the way to genocide. Given that the Indian diaspora has contributed to the funding of Hindutva in India through the RSS for years, recognizing the power of the diaspora to effect change in India is crucial. With the world’s largest democracy now part of a global rise in authoritarianism and Islamophobia, it has never been more important to unite and take action against religious violence and ethnic cleansing.

Sign up for the email edition

Stay up to date with everything happening as Washington University returns to campus.

Subscribe