India witnessing the end of liberal democracy
Bharatiya Janata Party leader and MP Subramanian Swamy encapsulated this reality when he said in a recent interview with US media outlet Vice: “We know where the Muslim population is large there is always trouble.” He went further: “If Muslims become more than 30%, that country is in danger.” Finally, he said, “Not all people are equal, Muslims are not in an equal category to non-Muslims.”
Fundamental to a liberal democracy is the notion that all people are treated equally, and a basic tenet of liberalism is to protect the excluded.
The ideology of the ruling BJP party runs contrary to what we would consider the basic elements of a liberal society, and instead is bent on shoring up oppressive populism, the objective of which is homogeneity as opposed to heterogeneity.
The BJP’s agenda is one of social engineering based on is mantra “one nation, one people, one culture”. The one culture being referred to is Hindu nationalism, at the expense of the country’s 200 million Muslims, out of a population of 1.3 billion. There has been no official sanction or condemnation of Swamy’s statements by the ruling party, because many of its members share his sentiments.
Other key figures have been as divisive and discriminatory towards the Muslim minority. Lav Agarwal, the Joint Secretary of the Health Ministry, who gives daily updates on Covid-19, has said Muslims are responsible for spreading the virus. Similarly, Amit Malviya, who is the BJP’s chief propagandist, has used social media to refer to Muslims as “virus villains”, and “human bombs”.
Such dehumanisation of a group of people is reminiscent of what took place in Europe during World War II.
The prevalence of such commentary has had dire consequences for Muslims across the country who have faced unprecedented discrimination and public violence. Vigilantes and officials have taken the law into their own hands, with Muslim vendors being prevented from selling food and being beaten up in Uttar Pradesh. Muslims attempting to distribute food in the southern city of Bengaluru have been attacked with cricket bats.
A hospital in Gujarat treating Covid-19 victims, separated patients on the basis of their religion, and a cancer hospital refused to treat Muslims unless they had tested negative.
With such an avalanche of racist discrimination under way, it is hardly surprising that Rangoli Chandel, the sister of a popular Bollywood star and vocal defender of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration, called for the shooting of Muslims.
The wave of officially driven Hindu nationalism began in 2014 with the rise to power of the BJP, and discriminating against India’s Muslims has continued ever since. What has been equally noticeable is the deafening silence from the Muslim world in defence of their Muslim brothers and sisters, and the lack of official condemnation from world leaders.
It is only recently that the 57-nation Organisation of Islamic Co-operation criticised the growing Islamophobia in India at its recent meeting.
“We urge the Indian government to take urgent steps to stop the growing tide of Islamophobia in India and protect the rights of its persecuted Muslim minority as per its obligations under international Human Rights Law,” the OIC’s Independent Permanent Human Rights Commission said last Sunday.
Other than the OIC’s recent statement, individual governments have failed to condemn the rise of persecution against Indian Muslims, largely owing to their robust trade relationships with the Indian state.
But when official sanction is lacking, it is often intellectuals and the media who first raise their voices. In the United Arab Emirates, princess and businesswoman Hend al Qassimi has warned the Indian expats working in the country of dire consequences for those engaging in Islamophobia, particularly against Indian Muslims on social media.
A trend has emerged of right-wing Indian expatriots living in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait who have taken to social media to blame Muslims for spreading Covid-19, calling it “#Coronajihad.” This has angered their host nations, and many expats have been sacked from their posts.
Considering that Indian expats based in 53 Muslim countries remit $120 billion (R2.26 trillion) annually to India, $55bn of which comes from the Gulf, it is shocking that they have resorted to such discriminatory behaviour against fellow Muslims.
Indian Hindus in the Gulf earn tax-free dollars and their hosts are unlikely to continue to tolerate the proliferation of hate.
The Dubai police are examining tweets and punishing offenders, and Saudi scholars have suggested that a list be developed of all individuals who are spreading hate in the Gulf.
At the start of the coronavirus outbreak in India, the the BJP’s propaganda machine has capitalised on the fact that a Muslim gathering of 3000 people in Delhi at the end of last month had failed to observe social distancing, and contributed to the spread of Covid-19.
The government has maintained that a third of India’s confirmed Covid-19 cases can be traced to the gathering. Since then, members of the Tablighi Jamaat have been vilified, and mosques and seminaries targeted, fuelling the social media frenzy that Indian Muslims are responsible for the spread of the virus.
Right-wing Hindu nationalist TV channels have also spread the propaganda, further sowing divisions between Hindus and Muslims.
Sadly, the Indian judiciary has largely abdicated its responsibility in dealing robustly with cases of discrimination against Muslims over the past few years, and has appeared to become the long arm of the ruling BJP’s Hindu nationalist agenda.
It is elements in the judiciary who have been pushing for the controversial National Register of Citizens, which has resulted in 1.9 million mostly Muslims in Assam state becoming stateless as they lack the documentation to prove they are Indian nationals.
Similarly, influential members of the judiciary have supported the infamous Citizenship Amendment Act which has eased the path to citizenship for those other than Muslims who live in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
All the developments have served to create an environment that legalises discrimination against Indian Muslims, and fears are growing that technical surveillance meant to curb the spread of Covid-19 could mutate into something far more sinister in terms of surveilling Muslims in the country, and further curbing their civil and political rights.
Members of the Fourth Estate who have highlighted this emerging trend have been hit with trumped-up charges ranging from terrorism to spreading false information. Freedom of the press in India is coming under threat, which signals a dangerous slippery slope as the media has long been the guardians of a free and liberal society.
India’s ranking has dropped in the World Press Freedom Index for 2020, owing largely to police brutality and hate campaigns on social media by the Hindutva followers against journalists. The latest report of Reporters Without Borders attributes India’s lower press freedom ranking to the Modi government tightening its grip on the media, and pressuring it to “toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”.
Once the media comes under attack and can no longer freely report on the state of the nation, the signs of the death of liberal democracy are plain for all to see.
* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's Foreign Editor.