At 75, Is India Still a Liberal Country?
Shikha Dalmia interviews distinguished Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan
What follows is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity.
Shikha Dalmia: Today is the 75th anniversary of my native country, India. That's when it obtained independence from British colonial rule. Thanks to Mahatma Gandhi's personal charisma and the power of his message of nonviolence, India managed to eject the British without firing a single shot. The aftermath of the departure of the British, however, was not so peaceful in India. Viceroy Mountbatten divided the country into two before leaving, giving the Muslim dominated areas to Pakistan—and the Hindu dominated ones to India. It was a hasty and messy redrawing of the map that triggered a mass movement of people: Hindus from Pakistan to India, and Muslims from India to Pakistan. It was the biggest and bloodiest transfer of populations that the world has ever seen in which close to two million people, Hindus and Muslims, were killed.
My own late father, an observant Hindu, who was barely 18 years old at that time, fled from Lahore to India after getting into trouble with the authorities for defending his family from Muslim harassment. His family later followed him and they eventually settled in New Delhi. My mother, barely eight years old, who lived on the Indian side of Punjab at that time, witnessed her Muslim neighbors massacred by Hindu militants one night.
Despite this history of violence between Hindus and Muslims, two years after Independence, India embraced one of the most forward-looking constitutions in the world, borrowing from the best models around, including America’s. Despite a majority Hindu population, India's founders declared India a liberal democracy, not a Hindu country. They laid out a vision of a tolerant, pluralistic nation that guaranteed free speech, freedom of the press, an independent judiciary—and equal protection under the law to all religions. It was not a perfect effort but it was a really very good start.
Where is India 75 years later? Has it been true to its founding vision? Or is that vision in trouble? What might the next 75 years bring?
To discuss these questions and more we have here with us Siddharth Varadarajan. Siddharth is a distinguished journalist who has been covering Indian politics for three decades. Besides India, he studied in the London School of Economics and in Columbia University. He was the editor of The Hindu before co-founding The Wire in 2015, one year after Narendra Modi was elected prime minister.
In seven short years, The Wire.In, a digital publication has built a worldwide reputation as an honest and fiercely independent publication that challenges the stale orthodoxies of legacy media and speaks truth to power.
It’s free, subsisting entirely on voluntary reader subscriptions. It has certainly become my go-to publication for news and views about India. Varadarajan himself is one of those rare breeds of commentators and public intellectuals who burns actual shoe leather doing field reporting before offering his views.
Welcome to The UnPopulist, Siddharth.
Siddharth Varadarajan: Thank you very much, Shikha.
Shikha: Let's begin our discussion not with 1947, but 1997 when CNN journalist, Fareed Zakaria, who was born actually in Mumbai, wrote an article titled The Rise of Illiberal Democracy. He pointed out in this piece that democracy and liberalism are not the same thing. He could detect a trend where democratically elected leaders were actually acting quite illiberally; he mentioned Philippines and the Palestinian authority, among others. These were not major players in the world at that time. 1997 was a curious time to be writing this article. India was in the heyday of its liberalization. There was all this chatter about China becoming a liberal democracy. Yet, he sounded the alarm.
Liberal regimes are ones that limit the power of the state. They hold it accountable through institutional checks, like courts, civil society, and the media. They also require the state to defend the rights of individuals and minorities from majoritarian tyranny, majoritarian attacks. Seventy-five years after independence, one could say that India is a democratic country: it holds elections, people vote, the votes are counted, and a winner is declared.
But do you think India is still a liberal country?
Siddharth: I think by constitutional design, Indian democracy is certainly meant to be a liberal democracy with very clear-cut checks and balances, restraints on the abuse of executive power, and protection for the fundamental rights of citizens, especially the right to life, liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of religion.
Certainly, this didn't drop from the skies. This was a product of the freedom struggle, which saw in the struggle against the British, not just the struggle of a country to rid itself of a foreign ruler or a foreign occupier—but a struggle to assert and realize rights that are essential to what it means to be human. The Indian constitution, you're quite right as you noted in your introduction, the constituent assembly and the drafters of the constitution looked at examples from around the world. Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, who is really the leading light as far as the drafting of the constitution is concerned, paid close attention to securing the rights of the individual citizen, and was fully aware of the dangers of abuse of authority.
He was prescient, in fact, in warning against the dangers of the cult of personality, something that India in 2022 confronts. But as far as the structure of democracy is concerned, I think he and everybody else that drafted India's constitution very much considered it to be the constitution of a liberal democracy.
Your question, is India a liberal country today? I think the answer would have to be no, because the manner in which the fundamental rights of citizens have been encroached upon, the ease with which the government is able to ride roughshod over fundamental, basic human rights is testimony to the fact that Indian liberalism, constitutional liberalism is wearing thin.
In fact, one could say that in some ways, these institutions, which are supposed to be a guard or a check against the abuse of executive authority, have today become the facilitators for that abuse. This is why, today, as we celebrate the 75th anniversary of India's independence from the British, it is with a heavy heart that one has to recognize that many of the fundamental rights and freedoms that Indians fought for and which found an expression in the constitution are today not being honored, are today being violated.
Shikha: You mentioned that the institutions that were supposed to defend the rights of Indians and be a check on state power are actually doing the opposite. They are facilitating the suppression of these rights. Can you elaborate on that?
Siddharth: Sure. If I were to just look at the recent past, the Supreme Court has been loath to consider or to hold hearings on petitions that have challenged the Modi government's policies in Kashmir— policies that have led to altering the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir as existed in 1947 and certainly in 1950 when the constitution was drafted, was finalized. [Editor’s Note: Jammu and Kashmir, a state that is nestled in the Himalayas and shares a border with Pakistan, was granted governing autonomy in the Indian constitution, partly to assuage concerns of its majority Muslim population that viewed New Delhi with suspicion. Ten other states enjoy similar autonomy. But three years ago, Prime Minister Modi scrapped Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, removed its duly elected government, and put it under direct federal rule.)
The change in policy that Mr. Modi brought about in August 2019 led to the mass arrest of people, political persons, and political leaders, even past chief ministers. But the Supreme Court did not bother to hear their cases with any alacrity. The manner in which Jammu and Kashmir has been stripped of its constitutional status remains unheard by the Supreme Court in fact three years later.
There are cases of journalists who have been languishing in jail for upwards of a year, nearly two years, and the courts do nothing to provide them bail. When human rights activists have approached the Supreme Court to demand an independent inquiry [into the government’s atrocities] the court went even further and essentially has demanded that these petitioners, who approach the court in the hope of justice, should themselves be prosecuted for abuse of power, seeking to target officials who are otherwise innocent, and so on and so forth.
We've seen in the last couple of months instances where state governments have responded to protests by citizens by demolishing the homes of protesters without any kind of trial, without any kind of due process.
When urgent remedies are needed, when people are incarcerated, when their homes are being demolished, when freedom of speech is being violated, experience tells us that getting the courts to take a stand in favor of fundamental rights is a difficult task.
There has been a shift in the role of the judiciary, particularly the upper echelon, the higher judiciary. I think India always had a problem with lower level courts being beholden to the executive. But the higher courts would take a stand in defense of freedom, and that's not happening now in the way in which it used to in the past.
Crumbling Institutional Bulwarks
Shikha: What I am completely stunned by is the speed with which India has started turning its back on its liberal traditions. It's a 75-year-old liberal democracy, the most populous liberal democracy, and it was proud of it. Till Narendra Modi got elected, Indians were proud of the fact that they were different from Pakistan, say, which didn't guarantee the freedom of religion to minority religions. But in India, we all stood a little bit taller because our country stuck up for the rights of everybody.
Given this backdrop, I could never have imagined that somebody like Narendra Modi—who when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, presided over one of the worst episodes of anti-Muslim violence—could actually become the prime minister of the country. Since he got elected, I have noticed that there is this slow radicalization, or actually it's not so slow, of the average Hindu.
Was this inevitable that India would come to this juncture that average Hindus— Indians—would not care about their liberal traditions? Was it inevitable that Indians were going to turn their back on liberal democracy because it never really got enshrined in their hearts? Or was it just happenstance that a charismatic populist leader came along and he ignited the Hindu nationalist imagination and now here we are.
Could India have gone either way? Or were there structural forces pushing India in this direction?
Siddharth: Before I answer your question directly, I'd like to convey to your listeners the full extent of where exactly we stand right now in India. There was an incident in the first week of August in Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, where a school, which held multi-faith prayers as part of its morning assembly—and they've been doing this for years—suddenly began to receive complaints from a handful of parents about why their children had been reciting Muslim prayers.
This protest by a handful of parents quickly snowballed into some kind of social media controversy and a police complaint was filed. The school, of course, explained that kids were taught and recited prayers of all religions. But since some parents were objecting, they had decided to stop doing this. Instead, everybody would just sing the national anthem! Still, the police went ahead and registered a criminal case against the school and its directors, accusing them of attacking or insulting a religion. It's not clear which religion they were insulting in multi-faith prayers. But they were accused of engaging in the act of religious conversion. What blew my mind was that the police, the FIR, the First Information Report, which is the document that police prepares when a criminal case investigation begins, actually used the phrase “education jihad.” This was the allegation leveled against the school!
You think, God, all of us grew up in schools in India where you took it for granted that one day you may have a Sikh prayer, or a Hindu prayer, or you might learn about Islam. This was something that enriched one's cultural and social sense. Today, this has become subject of not just a controversy, which is bad enough! Or parents complaining, which is horrible! But a police case!
How does the country go from proclaiming to the world that “we believe in the equality of all religions”— that's still, by the way, the official claim— “equality of all religions have equal place India” and so on… How do you go from there to filing a criminal case against a school which includes a Muslim prayer as part of its morning assembly multi-faith prayers? You have this criminal case filed, and so the question that you asked is that, was this inevitable?
Well, I think you have to go back to the election of Mr. Modi in 2014 when I think what was offered to the electorate was classic bait and switch. The fact is that Indians were frustrated by levels of corruption, which were—were believed to be—very high during [the nearly unbroken 67 years of] Congress rule. They were fed up with the dynastic element of Congress politics. Mr. Modi tapped into this sense of restlessness, particularly of younger Indians who wanted faster economic growth, who wanted a more level playing field, who believed that more needed to be done and faster.
Of course, you had Indian big business, which also emerged as a major supporter of Mr. Modi at this time, using the media to sell the idea that Modi had been a great Chief Minister in Gujarat. In fact, he hadn't been so great. Gujarat was always a well-developed, well-ruled state. Yet, this idea was sold to the electorate that there is something called the “Gujarat Model,” which Mr. Modi has perfected, and which, if implemented at the Pan India level, would lead to great prosperity for the masses. I think that's what people voted for. Mr. Modi was clever enough in 2014 not to
foreground his Hindu chauvinist agenda.
But there has been over the last three or four years an acceleration of divisive, inflammatory politics, prompted by the fact that the nearer the next elections come, the more apparent and obvious it will be that Mr. Modi has simply not delivered on any of his economic promises. So voters may not be likely or willing as they were in 2019 to give him a third term. To ensure that Indians and Hindus in particular line up behind Mr. Modi, he and his party have made very effective use of religious politics and religious polarization.
Today, if you asked me was this preordained? I would say no. Are Indians predisposed towards this kind of communal hatred? I would say no, because this is belied by 3,000 years of history where India, for all its problems, has been a plural, tolerant, multicultural society. But the things that we see now, the things that are spoken, the issues that the police will file cases on— all of this is happening for the first time.
And it is happening on a scale that makes it very clear that there is design behind this. This is not just the whim of fancy of some crazy police officer or some individual politician. There is a method in the madness and it is divide and to polarize society to such an extent that in the next elections, all people will think about is “what a great Hindu leader Mr. Modi is.” How Hindus are under siege and only Mr. Modi can protect Hindus from all the threats that they face. And hopefully, at least this is what the BJP believes, they would forget the fact that as Hindus, they are unemployed on a never before scale.
Promising Economic Growth Delivering Hindu Nationalism
Shikha: Yes. It's actually been quite remarkable. I remember when he first got elected and came to the United States, his message to the NRI [Non Resident Indian] community over here was that “I am going to deliver an India that you can be proud of.” He knew what that meant for NRIs. They live in America, in this prosperous country, they're extremely wealthy over here, they're the wealthiest minority, and they go back to India and the roads are bad, basic facilities are missing, poverty is rampant.
The same cult of personality to which Indians in India had fallen, Indians in the United States also fell to it—because he was promising this growth agenda, a development agenda. There was all this talk about an aspirational India. The question at that time was whether India would grow 7% or 10%. Now, the question in India is, what kind of contraceptives Muslims are using? The change in the conversation has been really, really remarkable, and it's been really fast. Ten years is not that long a time.
The question still is that he pulled this bait and switch. Why did Indians not hold him accountable? He got re-elected with a bigger margin after not having delivered—after pulling a stunt like demonetization where he outlawed 80% or 90% of the currency overnight, which cost a couple of points of GDP. India’s still not recovered from that snafu. And yet, there is no sentiment in India to really hold him accountable. He's more popular than ever. How do you account for that?
Siddharth: I think this has a lot to do with the general state of the political opposition— the fact that Mr. Modi is arrayed against primarily the Congress Party at the national level. Congress lacks any coherent or credible leadership. It is faction-ridden at the state level. You have political parties that are quite powerful in some of the states in India, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala. You have opposition parties that are powerful there. But at the national level when people look at the alternatives, it doesn't seem very apparent to them that there is any possibility of a stable government under the opposition, or certainly under the Congress. I think this is a major factor.
Mr. Modi in 2019 when he got re-elected, was able to win something like perhaps 55% to 60% of the seats in parliament. But he and his coalition in terms of their share of the popular vote did not go beyond 41% or 42%. This was in a contest that was literally fought on the basis of “are you with Modi or are you against him?” If in that kind of an election, the popular vote that came in favor of Mr. Modi was just 42%, whereas 58% of Indians who had a choice said, "No, we are voting for somebody else," this gives you an indication of the fact that while Mr. Modi is by far most popular leader, he is some distance away from having a plurality of support.
There is scope for opposition. He has a majority, fair and square, and it's a large majority. But it doesn't accurately reflect voting preferences at the constituency level. There is space, there is opposition, people are dissatisfied, but you don't necessarily see that in an electoral outcome [given India’s first-past-the-post electoral system]. Now, the fact that the opposition is fractured and lacks credibility, makes this even easier for Mr. Modi. And then you have the fulsome support of national media—that lines up behind Modi. All the media propaganda, essentially 24/7, operates in Mr. Modi's favor. The big corporate houses bankroll the Bharatiya Janata Party and Mr. Modi. They give that party much more money than the other parties are able to garner. Modi also introduced, a couple of years before the last election, a system of electoral financing known as electoral bonds where the identity of the donor is kept hidden from the public.
We don't know which company is giving how much money to Mr. Modi. And because you don't know who's giving that money, it is very hard to correlate a quid pro quo when you see the government favoring through its policies certain companies over others. This is another case when the Supreme Court has being unwilling to hear cases that go to the heart of fundamental rights or democracy. There has been a challenge against the constitutionality of electoral bonds pending for the last three years, four years perhaps, and the Supreme Court refuses to hear this. You have election after election, money gets raised, most of it goes to the BJP, and the courts are not interested in dealing with this very obvious abuse of electoral finances. But surely in a democracy the people have a right to know who is giving how much money to their political parties. Yet the whole purpose of electoral bonds is to keep that hidden.
Mr.Modi takes this larger than life persona. All the successes are attributed to him. All the failures, which are manifest, are never laid at his door. These are all factors that go towards creating this kind of space that Mr. Modi obviously enjoys in today's politics.
Shikha: What's very interesting with this whole electoral bond scheme is that one of Modi's talking points was always that the Congress Party is corrupt. There were kickback schemes, there were all kinds of nepotism, favoritism. Yet here is the electoral bond scheme, which in a sense institutionalizes corruption. It's legal corruption—if you're going to take money from certain entities and then write policies in their favor—and you can't even be held accountable for it.
My question is how have India's institutions, whether they are the courts, the opposition and the media failed so completely? In 1975 when Indira Gandhi declared emergency, suspended the constitution and started ruling by decree, all these forces rose to challenge her. The media houses were up in arms. She cracked down on them but they retaliated. Opposition figures rose—Morarji Desai, Jayaprakash Narayan, they all were acting in unison. And of course the courts: They were a little bit more meek, but there wasn't this kind of facilitation of her crackdowns and her declaration of emergency.
Has Modi done something to diminish these institutions or they've just diminished and they can't stand up to him?
Siddharth: I think that the way in which institutions have been captured or suborned or undermined has played a very major role in prolonging Mr. Modi's rule in India. We've talked about the courts and the unwillingness of the courts to enforce fundamental rights. I'll come to the media in a second.
What we haven't spoken about yet, and this has a bearing on, in a way, the weakness of the political opposition, is the use of investigative agencies such as the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate and the income tax to harass and intimidate opposition politicians. And to actually use the threat of investigations to engineer defections from the opposition camp to the BJP and topple state governments run by opposition parties. This is now a virtually open secret that the government is using the investigative agencies.
In India today, these agencies are more than willing to allow themselves to be used in a political fashion. The media refuses to call them out and the courts, whenever these issues have been raised, have again ended up facilitating the very obvious abuse of power. When it comes to appointments, when it comes to the misuse of agencies to target the opposition, when it comes to even placing safeguards or checks on the ability of these agencies to arrest and interrogate people, the courts have invariably found in favor of the government.
When you have a government that has agencies, coercive agencies, at its beck and call, when it staffs these agencies, when it staffs the Election Commission [with loyalists], the government even plays favorites with judicial appointments.
This misuse of agencies, misuse of institutions, it's always been a part of life in India, frankly, going back 75 years. I think the extent to which this is happening now is unprecedented. The silence of the media is also unprecedented, which brings us to the elephant in the room, which is why has the media keeled over? I think here it has to do with, in some cases, the political orientation of media proprietors. Many of them actually are quite happy to support Mr. Modi and the BJP.
We have some proprietors who are actually members of the ruling party. But there are many who believe this is good for business because being close to the government and supporting it and backing it ensures that you get a steady stream of official advertising. If you are a media house that has secondary and tertiary business interests in other fields, you can always look for favors from the government in those fields, and the government will give you those favors.
The corollary is that if you have secondary business interests and your media house ends up annoying the government, chances are that those investigative agencies will be used to settle scores with you.
We saw an instance of this during the second bout of the pandemic in 2021, when a normally docile newspaper group called the Dainik Bhaskar did a series of very damaging stories on how the true number of casualties—or the true number of people who died of Covid in Uttar Pradesh [whose chief minister is a BJP Hindu monk]—was much higher than the government was willing to admit.
They actually went and did a headcount of bodies being cremated and bodies on the banks of the Ganges, and those stories were deeply embarrassing. Within weeks of this newspaper reporting this you had the income tax people launching a raid against the promoters of the newspaper on various frivolous grounds. And sure enough the newspaper then changed tact and no longer has an appetite for those kinds of stories.
The willingness of the government to go after the media—so if you have proprietors who make the mistake of annoying the government—the government throws the book at them. If you have individual journalists or editors who have annoyed the government you can have a criminal cases, often very serious ones filed against them.
Shikha: You've been a target of that, right?
Siddharth: Well, yes. I've had four or five criminal cases filed against me and my colleagues and the organization, the Wire, which I work for. But there are other media houses in other parts of India that have suffered this kind of police harassment simply for reporting what we do. Last year, we had this absurd case of four or five very senior journalists, including Mrinal Pande who was editor of Hindi Hindustan, one of India's top Hindi newspapers, before she retired. She had tweeted about the death of a farmer during a protest and had said that-—she had repeated what many people were saying on TV that this farmer had died because of having been fired upon. Whereas the police were saying he died in an accident. In an act of vengeance the police filed a criminal case against her and a couple of other people, including the charge of sedition. Simply for saying that a protester was shot, you had the police and the national capitol accusing you of attempting to overthrow the state, which is a very serious criminal charge.
The freedom with which these criminal cases are filed and the government is resorting to this kind of criminal intimidation of the media has also become a factor. Now when reporters are in the field doing stories they have to worry about what the impact of their story would be in terms of whether this may force the government to file a case, whether the police will come knocking on their doors the next day, whether the police will harass their families.
We've seen examples of reporters in Jammu and Kashmir being summoned by the police on a virtually regular basis. In some instances when the reporter wasn't at home, we've seen the police pick up the reporter's dad and take him to the police station so that the son lands up to at least free his father. This kind of harassment is again something quite unprecedented at the national level. I'm not saying that things were rosy for the media in India before, but they were never ever so bad as they are now.
A Program of Muslim Erasure
Shikha: We don't have a whole lot of time left but where does India go from here? Muslims and even other minorities such as Christians have faced a campaign of persecution. And they can't defend themselves—because when civil society groups and journalists try to defend them, the government throws the book at them and basically neuters them. Not only that, the government has turned the rule of law on its head and it's going after the actual victims of these crimes, of this vigilantism.
You have 200 million, just to take one minority, 200 million Muslims in India. There are more Muslims in India than practically any other country except, I think, Indonesia. Can you suppress a population this big? Can you intimidate it into complete silence? Or is there going to be blowback?
There was this incident of BJP leader Nupur Sharma saying some rather inflammatory things against Prophet Muhammad despite India's hate speech laws. Tell us a little bit about that and the reaction to that and where do we go from here? Where does the Muslim population go from here?
Siddharth: Well this BJP leader made a very obnoxious comment. It was the kind of comment that her party should have condemned immediately. And the government should have condemned it immediately. I'm not saying that a case had to be filed necessarily, not everything has to become a criminal case. But the government and the ruling party ought to have shown its intent right away in condemning what she had said.
Instead you had silence from her party and her party leaders for something like 10 or 11 days until word of what she had said percolated through social media discussions, to the wider community of Muslims abroad and led to anger and outrage in the Gulf region. You heard the government of Qatar and you had legislators in Kuwait and some other countries condemning her for making those remarks and asking the government of India, "Look, what are you doing about this?" It's only when you had an international reaction, which the Modi the government felt would cost India diplomatically, that they finally decided to condemn what she said and suspended her as a spokesperson, and suspended her membership.
It's very clear that they were not bothered by the fact that she had offended the sentiment of 200 million Muslims. They were only bothered by the possibility that some countries with which India wants to have good relations may not like what had happened.
It was a very kind of insincere apology that the government and that the ruling party gave. This is the reason why I think even after she was removed you had protests that continued by different Muslim organizations across India and this kind of sense that the government was not acting. It's unfortunate that you had these two [Muslim] zealots' in Rajasthan who went and murdered Hindu tailor in Udaipur, accusing him of having supported this statement by this BJP leader. Of course these men, they made a video and they were arrested.
What's interesting is that there has been universal condemnation of what these two guys did by virtually every Muslim organization In India, every Muslim leader of standing. And ordinary Muslims have been very quick to condemn and criticize what they did. You very rarely see statements of outrage and anger and condemnation from the wider Hindu community when Hindu extremists commit similar crimes.
Shikha: Like lynchings for beef eating-
Siddharth: In fact, the same state where this Hindu tailor had been killed, was killed by these two Muslim zealots and they made a video of the killing, about a year and a half or two years ago, a Hindu fanatic had killed a Muslim man, again, on camera. And far from the Hindu clergy condemning this guy, you actually had a number of Hindutva leaders, including some who are connected with Mr. Modi's party, who actually came out in defense of that killer. This is the terrain we're dealing with here.
I think that somewhere down the line, there is a section within the BJP, within Mr. Modi's party that would very much like to provoke Muslims in India towards having some kind of a violent reaction. I think the policy of daily hate and daily humiliation is aimed at getting some kind of a response, which could then be used as an excuse or a pretext to further ramp up the anti-Muslim rhetoric that the party anyway wants to do.
I think Muslims in India are feeling insecure and justifiably so because it's very clear that there is an attempt to remove traces of Muslim life and Muslim culture from the public sphere. There is a constant demand to change the place, change the names of cities that have a Muslim name. Muslim buildings and places of worship are constantly under threat. Some of these Hindu fanatics who demand that they should be converted into temples. This latest example that I gave you of the school where even including a Muslim prayer in the menu of multi-faith prayers is deemed to be a crime.
This attempt to erase Muslims and Muslim symbols and Muslim names and Muslim culture I think has unsettled people in deeper, more fundamental ways than the violence that Mr. Modi presided over as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, which took the lives of around 1,200, 1,300 people over the space of a few days. Today, the kind of fear and terror and insecurity that these policies have engendered is much more widespread.
There is fear, there is insecurity. But there is also a sense of wariness of not being trapped into getting provoked, which will only make things worse. I think that there is a sense in which the average Muslim-Indian knows that this is a burden that they have to carry for now.
But they have to find allies to defend their democratic rights. Here I want to draw your listeners to the fact that this is not a fight of the Muslims alone. The attack on Indian-Muslims is part and parcel of the attack on the fundamental rights of Indians, the right to free speech, the freedom of association, women's rights, the rights of different states in India, federalism. Mr. Modi keeps saying that he stands for what he calls cooperative federalism, but in reality, he has pursued policies that are really quite centralizing and which are eroding the powers of the states.
You have resistance at multiple levels from multiple cohorts, which I think offers some glimmer of hope that the kind of offensive that we are seeing against everything that India has stood for is being resisted.
People are not prepared to go silently into the night. People do want to stand up for what they believe is the essence of India's freedom struggle because we're talking of 75 years of independence. The essence of what was reflected in the constitution of India. And the essence of 3,000 years of Indian history where people of every language and culture and faith have belonged here. I don't think that this is a fight that Muslims alone have to wage, although it is true that they are today bearing the brunt of the ongoing assault against democracy and liberty that is happening in India.
Shikha: Well, we are out of time, but I'm very happy we are ending on a glimmer of hope here. I just have to say, this glimmer of hope is in no small part due to people like you who are fighting the good fight, Siddharth.
Siddharth: Thank you, Shikha
Copyright © The UnPopulist, 2022.
I liked this a lot, Shikha! Thanks for doing it and highlighting the thoughts and works of one of the bravest journalists India currently has. The fact that he is still reporting along with a few others - despite the dangers - gives me hope.
I particularly liked the important distinction drawn between being a democracy and a liberal republic. People run around confusing the two and forget all too easily that BJP/Modi and his band are an elected bunch and still have people's vote.
And therein lies the challenge, the conundrum and hopefully the solution. At some level it's really important to understand why people vote(d) for the BJP (despite/because of their anti-secular stance) before we can address it. It's not helpful to brand a whole country anti-secular, fanatical, intolerant (and not what you/Siddharth are doing here) but to tease apart the varied reasons for such a vote. I suspect a vast majority is/was willing to turning a blind eye to the BJP's illiberal agenda in return for economic growth, better governance vs. being committed to intolerance themselves. Not that we should not criticize this approach but just that people and voters are complex.
Thankfully, the fact that the BJP has been unable to deliver on its growth agenda and is so radically intolerant of any dissent, and is losing ground because of that gives me some optimism. BUT it also raises the horrible spectre of a future where a populist dictator comes along and is able to deliver on growth while oppressing/ suppressing dissent and minority groups. The two can co-exist and that would be much harder to overcome. Don't have answers except to keep up the good fight like you're doing! Thanks.