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Erosion of values: When a democracy jettisons freedom

It is difficult to believe that just over a decade ago, Nehru’s dream seemed alive — more than a billion people lived in relative harmony, cheek by jowl atop a palimpsest of fallen empires. It is a tragedy that India’s rise comes as that dream fades

Erosion of values: When a democracy jettisons freedom
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By Lydia Polgreen

NEW YORK: When I moved to New Delhi in 2009 to work as a foreign correspondent, there was already a decade’s worth of magazine covers heralding the inevitable, just-around-the-corner but not-quite-yet-here rise of India to the top table of the global order and its role as a democratic counterweight to China. The messy problems of multi-ethnic democracy, a tangled bureaucracy shot through with corruption, the great difficulty of dragging hundreds of millions of people out of poverty — these would all be overcome through ingenuity, technology and India’s relentless spirit of progress. The cyclical nature of these magazine covers brought to mind the famous quip about Brazil: India was the country of the future and always would be.

But now it appears that the time has finally arrived: India is indeed the nation of the moment. It is a critical player in just about every major issue facing the planet. Its economy is now bigger than that of the country that colonised it, making it the fifth largest in the world. It is expected to outrank China in population this year, if it hasn’t already. The Ukraine crisis has shown how desperately great powers around the world want to count on it as an ally. There will be no successful solution to climate change without India. It holds the presidency of the Group of 20, and its summit in Delhi later this year promises to be a major moment on the global stage for Prime Minister Modi. Apple reportedly plans to make up to a quarter of its iPhones in India, a huge endorsement of the country’s growing technology manufacturing prowess. India was the toast of the Davos World Economic Forum this year; the writer Fareed Zakaria declared that it “might be the most optimistic country in the world right now.”

So it is perhaps unsurprising that a new British documentary that chronicles one of the most violent chapters of India’s post-independence history, a chapter in which Modi plays a central role, has been welcomed by India’s government like a skunk at a garden party.

Even though the documentary could not easily be watched in India, the government cracked down hard. It used emergency powers to ask that Twitter and YouTube block links to bootlegged clips, and the platforms quickly complied. When groups of students tried to screen illicit copies on campuses, the police roughed up and detained them. On one campus in New Delhi, administrators shut off the electricity to prevent a screening.

The documentary tells the story — now familiar to anyone who follows Indian politics — of how riots broke out in Gujarat in February 2002 after dozens of Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a train. The cause of the fire was disputed, but Muslims were blamed by some people, prompting spasms of violence targeting them. More than 1,000 people died and an estimated 1,50,000 lost their homes. An overwhelming majority of the victims were Muslims. Modi, a lifelong member of pro-Hindu hard-right organizations, was chief minister of Gujarat at the time. His role in the riots has been investigated and debated endlessly and in many ways remains unsettled; the documentary includes the conclusion of a British government investigation that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” in which the violence took place.

In the eyes of the Modi government, the questions about the riots have been settled. There have been several inquiries, and courts right up to India’s highest have found that Modi committed no crimes related to the riot. Of course, there are many kinds of culpability. Modi may not have committed any crimes, but it is hard to describe the events as anything but a pogrom: One group was allowed to rampage and kill for days, largely unrestrained by the authorities. Law enforcement fell under Modi’s purview. Criminal responsibility aside, it is a record of which any leader capable of shame should be ashamed.

Under Modi’s government, violence against Muslims in India has risen and is often unpunished. Modi’s government has enacted laws and policies that target Muslims, including changes to citizenship rules that disadvantage Muslims and revocation of the special status of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region contested by India and Pakistan. But it would be a mistake to think only Muslims are under threat in India. The government has systematically cracked down on all manner of free speech and dissent, increasing its emergency powers to block information it wants to keep from the Indian people and making it easier to hold dissidents under murky antiterrorism laws.

An Indian journalist friend of mine, one of many who have left the country in despair over the past few years, put it this way: “It isn’t just an attack on Muslims. It is an attack on all Indians because it deprives us of ideas, thoughts, dreams and a rich life of the mind.”

Essentially none of the big global powers — except China — have any reason to stymie India’s rise. If anything, they need a more powerful and prominent India to meet their own geopolitical goals, the United States perhaps most of all. Asked about the controversy, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters that he wasn’t familiar with the documentary but was “very familiar with the shared values that connect the United States and India as two thriving, vibrant democracies.”

Jawaharlal Nehru shepherded an Indian Constitution that enshrined the values of secularism and democracy, and India’s highest court has held that while the Constitution can be amended, its fundamental character cannot be altered. Last month, India’s vice president declared that he disagreed, sending shock waves through the political system and calling into question one of the bedrocks of Indian society: democracy guided by an immutable Constitution. One of the most cherished goals of the Hindu nationalist movement has been the elimination of secularism in the Constitution, something it sees as a foreign, Western concept. If Parliament can change the Constitution in any way it wishes, India could very well slide further into autocratic majoritarian rule.

It seems likely that a further emboldened Modi, bolstered by a third-term victory and the wind of history at his back, will seek to make fundamental changes to the structure of the Constitution and declare India a Hindu nation. This would drive a stake through the heart of the extraordinary and utterly original nation promised in Nehru’s majestic speech, changing its soul in profound ways.

It is difficult to believe that when I arrived in India more than a decade ago, Nehru’s dream seemed alive — more than a billion people living in relative harmony, cheek by jowl atop a palimpsest of fallen empires. It is a tragedy that India’s rise comes as that dream fades and is replaced by a new India that is less free, less tolerant, more willing to jettison the furniture of democracy to build a temple of national greatness around a single faith. The whole of humanity will be poorer for it.

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