BY NATALIE FIERTZ
In 1989, foreshadowing events to come, India’s current ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) issued the Palampur Resolution, throwing their support behind the construction of a temple devoted to the Hindu deity Rama on the site of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya. This was a remarkable gamble at the time, as the BJP was less than a decade old and held merely two of the Lok Sabha’s 533 seats. The controversy surrounding the temple’s construction sparked anti-Muslim riots throughout the country, but paid off for the BJP, as inflaming growing Hindu nationalist sentiment worked to steadily increase their power, culminating in winning 161 seats in 1996. The BJP’s embrace of this populist sentiment, and its violent manifestations, has impacted India’s performance on the Fragile States Index (FSI) in 2020, reflected in a significant worsening in the country’s Human Rights and Rule of Law indicator, and ultimately leading to India rating at the world’s 11th most worsened country overall.
In 2002, then-Chief Minister of Gujarat – and now India’s Prime Minister – Narendra Modi oversaw three months of widespread anti-Muslim violence throughout the state that was “carried out with the complicity of the state government and officers of the law.”1 He then proceeded to ride the resulting popularity to increased electoral majorities in the state and ultimately leadership of the BJP nationally. As Chief Minister, Modi also cultivated a reputation for successful economic management, though critics noted that Gujarat has always been one of India’s fastest growing states, despite the state ranking relatively poorly on human development metrics such as access to clean water and child malnourishment. Nonetheless, Modi leveraged his reputation and the support of the business community to be elected as prime minister in 2014 on the back of the strongest ever showing for the BJP.
In his first term, Modi introduced major initiatives to improve public services, including a multibillion-dollar campaign of road construction and a nationwide campaign to build public toilets in every school. Modi also launched a series of controversial dramatic reforms, most notably demonetization, which invalidated 86 percent of existing currency in a purported attempt to flush out and punish those who had accumulated ill-gotten and untaxed wealth. Poor implementation led to an acute cash shortage in one of the most cash-based economies in the world, hurting growth while largely failing to accomplish the reform’s purported goals. Due in part to this and other poorly thought out and implemented reforms, India’s economic growth has slowed, declining to its lowest nominal level since 1978. Modi’s response – an embrace of protectionism, higher government investment, bank lending targets, and direct export assistance – has been unable to reverse this trend.
Unable to tout his economic record, during the 2019 general elections, Modi embraced the type of hardline Hindutva that had fueled previous success for the BJP at the national level. With anti-Muslim hate crimes having already soared during Modi’s first term, the BJP promised to extend the National Registry of Citizens (NRC) to the entire country. In a country where paperwork is limited, especially in rural areas, the NRC put 1.9 million predominantly Muslim residents of Assam at risk of being rendered stateless unless they could provide official documentation proving citizenship. In April, the BJP’s president, Amit Shah, referred to undocumented Muslim immigrants as “termites” and promised to “throw them into the Bay of Bengal.” Shortly after winning a resounding re-election, Modi’s government began building 10 mass detention camps to hold those who had their citizenship stripped away.
In August, Modi revoked Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which guaranteed special status to the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir. Modi sent 35,000 additional soldiers into Kashmir ahead of the announcement, adding to the 500,000 already stationed there, and arbitrarily detained nearly 4,000 people, including over 200 politicians and two former chief ministers of the state.2 The government also implemented a complete communications blackout for six months, the longest such blackout ever in a democracy.
In December, Modi’s government fulfilled another campaign promise when it passed the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB), which created an expedited path to citizenship for migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, provided they are Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Sikh, or Zoroastrian. The law sparked widespread protests across the country from a broad cross-section of people; Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and head of the All India Trinamool Congress, the fourth-largest party in Parliament, led a series of massive rallies in West Bengal’s capital of Kolkata against the NRC and CAB, saying they would be implemented in the state “over [her] dead body”.3 The government has taken to routinely blocking access to the internet in response to protests against the NRC and CAB. In February 2020, BJP politicians egged on a mob into attacking protesters in Delhi, setting off days of anti-Muslim violence that left more than 40 dead and over 200 injured while the city’s police, controlled by the Home Ministry, either stood by or assisted the mobs.
Modi’s actions have been facilitated by a media that has been largely cowed over the course of his first term. In 2016, his administration pulled all government advertising from NDTV, one of the most credible and popular news channels, and pressured private companies to do the same. By the end of 2017, NDTV was forced to cut up to 25 percent of its staff, with further cuts expected. Modi and the BJP have also reportedly pushed both broadcast and print media to remove prominent critical journalists. As a result, media coverage has been almost uniformly positive in the Indian press, exemplified by reporting that the situation in Kashmir was returning to normalcy just weeks after the revocation of Article 370, during a time when phone and internet service were cut off, schools were closed, Friday prayers were banned, and the only signs of life on the streets were the robust military presence.
Some forecasts are now projecting that India’s already flailing economy will grow by just 1 percent in 2020 due in part to COVID-19 quarantine and lockdown measures. Ongoing internet restrictions in Kashmir and the shrinking of the independent media have curtailed the free flow of information and limited oversight of the government. Finally, rising Hindu nationalism, inflamed by the BJP, has widened internal divisions ahead of a period that demands high levels of social solidarity. Taken together, India is facing a dangerous dynamic in the upcoming year.
1. Nussbaum, Martha. “The Clash Within: Democracy, Religious Violence, and India’s Future”. Belknap Press. 2009.
2. India Today. URL located at: https://www.indiatoday.in/news-analysis/story/-if-situation-has-improved-then-why-send-38-000-troops-to-j-k-1576436-2019-08-02 .
3. “’Over my dead body’: Mamata Banerjee leads mega rally against Citizenship Act”. Hindustan Times. December 16, 2019.