By Sidharth Bhatia / The Wire
The following is the transcript of a chat between TheWire‘s founding editor, Sidharth Bhatia, and Professor Ashutosh Varshney. The nearly hour-long talk covers various topics concerning the basic rights of Indians at a time of an openly communal agenda presented by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Listen to the podcast here.
The text has been edited lightly for clarity.
Hello and welcome to ‘The Wire Talks’, I am Sidharth Bhatia. There is an upsurge in violence against minorities, especially Muslims, in different parts of India. Much of it is happening in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, where the police and the state administration remain mute spectators. In Jahangirpuri, in Delhi, a procession to celebrate Ram Navami had menacing overtones with the participants wielding revolvers and swords as they pass near a mosque shouting provocative slogans loudly. Police in Delhi is controlled by the Union home ministry.
Is there a pattern to this? And what does this sudden burst of incidents signify?
We’ll try to understand that with our guest today Professor Ashutosh Varshney, who is now in Brown University and has studied India for decades. He has written several books on this subject and he is a familiar name in India since he publishes in local newspapers.
Ashutosh Varshney, academic and author of books such as Ethnic Conflict and Civic Life: Hindus and Muslims in India, and Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy – and that was true at one time but it’s of more ‘improbable’ and less ‘democracy’ at the moment. Winner of several academic awards, Professor Varshney teaches social sciences and political sciences at Brown University where he also directs the Centre for Contemporary South Asia. Previously he taught at Harvard and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.
Welcome to ‘The Wire Talks’, Ashutosh Varshney.
It’s a pleasure to be here talking to you.
To begin with, how do you see the rise in communal violence and the kinds of violence that is being perpetrated in different parts of India. These are not outbreaks of the old kind when two communities clashed and the police intervened. Sometimes it came down heavily on one community, sometimes it was a little neutral. These are different wouldn’t you say?
That’s exactly right. I have studied communal rights for over 10 years in the 1990s and published a book in 2002, which you mentioned – both here in England and India and Pakistan, in four countries that book was published. And one important part of that book was entirely statistical so with Steven Wilkinson who now teaches at Yale, created the first data set of all reported Hindu-Muslims riots in India from 1950 to 1995, that data set has become the foundation for a lot of statistical work later, its almost always used.
So on the basis of those 1,180 riotous incidents in the data set from 1950 to 1995, in which at least 7,173 people were killed. And I can explain to you why ‘at least’ is a very important qualification here, why exact numbers are virtually impossible – I think, impossible – so ‘at least’ is one way to get some traction on this problem.
It is true that in several riots there were doubts about the neutrality of the state, how the police intervened, perhaps sometimes more on one side and sometimes on the other. But generally speaking, the big difference between riots then with two exceptions – Delhi 1984 and Gujarat 2002 – with the general rule or with generalisation one can derive from 1950 to 1995 period is that the state did not openly abandon the principle of neutrality vis-à-vis religious groups.
There may have been doubts about whether it sided with one community or the other but did not openly abandon – with the exception of Delhi ’84 and Gujarat 2002. We have reached a point in India’s history now that the state in BJP-ruled states is openly abandoning the principle of neutrality vis-à-vis religious groups. And in some cases, [the state is] a ‘mute spectator’ as you put it, and in some cases a very open participant in anti-Muslim violence. That is the big difference.
Now conceptually, and this is the last point that I want to make in response to your first question, conceptually there is a difference between riots and pogroms. Pogroms are a special category of riots when the state abandons its principle of neutrality. India has mostly had riots, as so far. India might be entering period of pogroms now where the state is not neutral and openly abandoning the principle of neutrality.
As I said, there have been two clear pogroms in India, Delhi ’84 and Gujarat 2002, but other than that, the principle of neutrality was not abandoned.
One of the things many of us have observed – I certainly have been writing on this – is that it’s not merely the police looking on or participating in or abandoning neutrality, but it is the other arms of the state. For example, the state administration turns around and says in Karnataka, “Oh no, hijab you’ll have to wear,” or stops and comes up with a rule that says, you know, Muslims cannot sell in shops close to temples or something like that. I seriously doubt, but suppose it is coincidental, suppose they have invoked a law, it just comes in and it’s a form of pressure – if not classical violence – where they go after this community and say, “Oh while you are being beaten up, we are taking away your economic rights.” So it’s on many fronts. And that, I think, I don’t remember seeing at all. For example even in Punjab, even in Delhi, the central government did not turn around and say, “Oh we are going to have a law to say Sardars cannot sell their wares in Connaught Place or something.” So is this a huge change?
That is fundamentally correct also.
In Delhi 1984, I was actually physically present there, the attack was clearly state supported. But the state did not come up with the law which says, for example, that Sikhs would not be allowed to drive taxis or Sikhs would not be allowed to sell flowers or mithai near Hindu temples, or even more important if you want to look at the hijab controversy, comparatively, even more important is the turban that Sikhs wear.
In France for example, in government spaces, and often in designated public spaces, no religious wear is allowed. So the Christians can’t have the cross hanging around there, the Jews cannot have David stars and similarly, Muslims cant wear the head covering, the hijab. But that’s not what Karnataka government did and this will spread, I don’t think it will remain confined to Karnataka. Karnataka govt basically said that hijab will not be allowed or Muslim girls will not be allowed to wear head-covering or hijab when they go to school.
That is never been done before and elsewhere in the world also, religious wear is not selectively outlawed.
And whats happening here now is, as you rightly put it, an entirely novel development and a dangerous one. If hijab is disallowed why aren’t turbans disallowed? Or why is wearing a tilak not disallowed for Hindu boys or wearing a dhoti, for Hindu boys? In some parts of India boys come to school wearing a dhoti and not wearing pants, and certainly wearing a tilak, in several parts of India, I have seen that myself.
So this is also not simply how the police behaves in BJP-controlled states but the way the executive wing or the legislature, not simply the police, are functioning also shows a great deal, an abandonment of the principle of neutrality, which is central to India’s constitution. India’s constitution talks about the religious neutrality of the state as well as religious equality of citizens and both principles are violated in practices in the executive degrees you mentioned and in the legislation that is being passed in several assemblies dominated by the BJP especially.
I am going to ask a very obvious question, Ashutosh, and that is why do you think that this is happening? Why is the state being so obvious and brazen about it. We know the answer but I’d like you to give some context to it and why do you think it’s happening only in BJP states? But fundamentally why is it happening?
So Hindu nationalism, right since its origin, has identified some communities as ‘anti-national’, the term was ‘anti-Indian’, earlier and now it’s ‘anti-national’. [They are] Some minorities in particular – minorities that might be born in India but their sacred places are not in India. And the two communities which are substantial in India, which qualify, are Muslims – of course, 14% of India – and Christians, a little over 2% of India.
Their sacred places are, the term was, in Savarkar’s language, “punnibhoomi”. Their punnibhoomi, their sacred lands, are in the middle east or in the Vatican and so the claim was that unlike Hindus whose sacred lands are here, unlike Sikhs whose sacred lands are here, unlike Buddhists whose sacred lands are here, Muslims and Christians and Jews also (but Jews were so in such small numbers that the argument didn’t have any political muscle or statistical muscle) that Christians and Muslims are not true Indians.
Now the next step in the evolution of this idea was the response of Hindu nationalism which believes that India is a Hindu nation and Hindus ought to have primacy and non-Hindu groups cannot be given equality, they have to be secondary citizens. The next step in the evolution of this idea was the constitution of India and Hindu nationalists were completely opposed to Ambedkar’s claim, that India had to be not only equal to all caste but Indian polity and Indian laws had to be equal with respect to religious communities also. The idea of religious equality in citizenry and the idea of religious neutrality of the state, the RSS, which is the ideological mother-organisation, was opposed to, they did not accept the constitution of India.
The Hindu nationalists electorally were not very significant until the 1990s, they were a couple of states basically, but after the Ayodhya movement their national rise began and they came to power in a coalition during 1998 and 2004 but that was in a coalition. In 2004, they came to power without the coalition. Though they maintained the coalition formally but their own numbers crossed the majority in the parliament and in 2019 that BJP majority became bigger. So now we have a party which believes in an ideology which is unconstitutional. It’s an unconstitutional ideology.
However that party is getting electoral majorities or parliamentary or legislative majorities and winning elections on the basis of the Hindu nationalist claim. So its ideological trajectory, though it’s coming in conflict with India’s basic constitutional laws and norms, is beginning to attack what Indian democracy stood for.
It’s the electoral victory of the BJP which is causing this constitutional difficulty and it will might soon become a constitutional crisis, depending on what the courts say about so many of these legislations.
So actually, that’s a very good summing up because you’ve given a lot of context going back to Savarkar and the founding of the RSS and its core belief – in fact we should say that it’s not only the core belief and the fact is that all the chief ministers, to say nothing of the Prime Minister and the home minister themselves – are hardcore RSS people so they are steeped, it’s in their DNA, so they will do it. Except that is what I was leading to when I asked the previous question. We live in a highly interdependent world today and if you keep doing this, you know, you are sitting in the United States, you know that several organisations and media in the United States and elsewhere have been criticising this. Politicians have criticised, academics have criticised, various NGOs have been shut down here as they have criticised.
Celebrities also –
Of course, but the celebrities, as you know, who are billionaires, ‘are being paid to tweet’. This is one of the narratives that one keeps hearing.
So if that is the case, isn’t there some sense that we have to bank on Muslim countries or rather Middle Eastern countries who are providing us employment as well as oil and we trade with them. And so also many other countries. So despite that these chief ministers and the Prime Minister keeps quiet. What can be the logic when you think of that?
I think the logic is the following. They believe that they are – in an international context today or a point in the evolution of world politics today – that the persecution of Muslims in India will not lead to powerful countries in the world criticising India to such an extent or dropping India from their international interactions entirely primarily because India is needed for several others international projects, for example, containing China.
And the containment of China in Asia, or in so-called new terminology ‘Indo-Pacific’, in that project of American foreign policy to which several powerful European countries have expressed support, that project of containment of China cannot easily proceed without India’s participation. So the calculation appears to be that India is needed for some other foreign policy objectives of the powerful countries in the world and therefore persecution of Muslims will not rise to the level of significance or concern that a foreign policy objectives would be abandoned altogether and India’s persecution of Muslims will be held against India to ostracise India or to punish India.
So that’s the calculation, that’s clear to me what’s happening. And you raised the question about the Middle Eastern countries. The Middle Eastern countries have not criticised China for the persecution of Uyghurs. For the Middle Eastern countries, when they criticise persecution of Muslims and when they do not criticise persecution of Muslims might also be a strategic choice. So yes, India does a lot of business with Middle Eastern countries and India sends a lot of Indians to work in the Middle East. It is not clear that the Middle Eastern countries are going to very heavily criticise India – they may, they may not.
If they very heavily criticise, I don’t know what Delhi would do and if United States very heavily criticises, I don’t know what Delhi would do.
But I think the calculation in Delhi is that India is needed for some key international foreign policy projects today and therefore the persecution of Muslims would either be ignored and might even be forgiven…
This is just a small point I am making – I don’t want to take down the foreign policy route because that’s unending in itself – but it’s not as though we have contained China. We have given over our land and we have lost land, so how much we have the strength to resist China much less offset it remains to be seen anyway…
That is correct.
So now we understand the calculation, we understand that it is a somewhat cynical and short-term calculation. There is some short termism in it, some short-sightedness if nothing else, because these things are fundamental and anyone can pull a rabbit out of a hat and criticise you heavily at some stage. But why is the prime minister silent? And this is a question, as you know, which has been asked continuously in the country for the past 7-8 years. Why is he silent?
The prime minister believes in this ideology. The prime minister wants to have a Hindu nationalist India. The prime minister has come from the RSS. Right in the beginning when he came to power, he talked about how his rise to power means that, “Bara so saal ki ghulami khatam ho rahi hai” [‘slavery of 1200 years is ending’]. It’s a standard RSS trope.
If you read those books written by Golwalkar – he has this claim about “1,200 saal ki ghulami“. What is the concept of 1,200 saal ki ghulami? The concept is that India’s colonisation did not begin with British capture of Bengal in 1757. India’s colonisation began with the Muslim capture of Sindh in 711 and certainly after the rise of Delhi Sultanate in the 11th century. So you believe that India’s colonisation began in 711 or in the 11th century and not in the mid 18th century. That statement of the prime minister which was made several times, incidentally he hasn’t made that for quite a few years now. But in the beginning, for at least two years he made that statement repeatedly including in New York. And I wrote two columns about that. So that’s the core belief of the RSS.
And second part of that belief is Hindu primacy can be established only by teaching Muslims a lesson and pushing them into the margins by taking revenge for what happened between 711 or certainly between, let’s say 11th century and 1757, by taking revenge. The British are gone so that’s not a revenge you have to take. The Muslims are still here; 14% of India is Muslim; on the Hindu-Muslim question India was partitioned in 1947, so a substantial proportion of Muslims remained in India; and now that Hindu nationalism has come to power electorally it’s time to establish a new political order premised upon the idea of Hindu primacy or Hindu supremacy. That’s why the prime minister is silent, there is no other reason.
If he followed what Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 2002 called “rajdharm,” if he followed “rajdharma,” he would criticise this openly partisan conduct of the police and he would also criticise the openly partisan conduct of the BJP state governments. But he doesn’t believe in that. His believes are rooted in the ideology of Hindu nationalism which he thinks now he can use to establish a new political order in India even if it goes against the constitution.
So from his point of view, what is going on is just a question of putting the plan in operation. And a few heads will be broken. Nothing wrong if they’re broken. Look at in Jahangirpuri, when the procession came out of the blue they were waving swords, they were waving revolvers, they were shouting provocatively and many people were arrested because naturally there was some kind of retaliation. Many people were arrested. Most Muslims, few Hindus. Houses were bulldozed by the administration and that of course, was clearly done without following the legal system. But the legal system doesn’t matter it’s inferior to the –
Exactly. So whether people are being killed, they are being disenfranchised as is happening in Assam, or they have been jailed, it’s all part of the project. I would not even call it cynical, it’s a very sinister idea, isn’t it?
No that is part of the project, that is an integral component of the project. The project that has long been another part of the ideological belief system, if you read the RSS text, is that ‘the Muslim does not listen to the language of persuasion and dialogue.’ ‘The Muslim only listens to the language of force and that is the truth of Muslim religion, that is the truth of Muslim history.’
You read the arguments in Golwalkar’s writings and Savarkar’s writings. The arguments are very clear. ‘The Muslim listens only to the language of force, not to the language of persuasion or dialogue,’ and that, according to Hindu nationalism, is the truth of Islam, is the truth of the Muslim community. ‘They have used force in the past and coercion in the past to attain their objectives, and it is time for the Hindu community to use force and coercion to attain its objectives now’.
So it is part of the project there is no doubt about that.
Welcome back to ‘The Wire Talks’.
It seems to also work for BJP, politically and electorally. They can easily point out that, ‘we went in for elections wherever they were needed’, because there is always this thing to say, ‘oh they will not have elections,’ but why shouldn’t they have elections give them legitimacy? So they went in for two general elections, won them handsomely, won in UP twice handsomely and just before the second victory, there was a lot of communal upsurge. Now Gujarat is coming, Karnataka elections are coming. So it kind of starts bubbling over in good time. So part of it is project driven and ideologically driven, but part of it also happily it works for them.
It didn’t work in three states. It didn’t work in West Bengal. All for different reasons. It didn’t work beyond a point in Bihar though they had a coalition. And it miserably didn’t work in Maharashtra because the other side – and Maharashtra has its own unique history about not going for the Brahmins – so it didn’t work. They got the rug pulled out from under their feet. It just did not work in three places, but in the Hindi belt it just worked handsomely.
That’s right. See the biggest weakness of Hindu nationalism historically has been its lack of electoral power. Historically, that began to change in the 1990s and it fundamentally changed after 2014. 2014 elections, I have to add, was not fought on the basis of Hindu nationalism. It was not and I observed, watched or was present at many of the speeches of Mr Modi. No, that was not fought on a Hindu nationalist campaign.
You can call it a subsidiary subterranean theme if you will, because the RSS karyakartas were going to UP’s various towns and villages, knocking on the door, etc. that is, and Muzaffarnagar riots had taken place in September of 2013.
But that was not a Hindu nationalist campaign primarily. 2019 was definitely a Hindu nationalist campaign and 2017 UP was the Hindu nationalist campaign. The election of Yogi Adityanath or the choice of Yogi Adityanath as a chief minister of UP was the clearest statement by the prime minister of India that a vigilante organisation or the chief of a Hindu vigilante organisation would represent the political party called the BJP. And not only represent it, but he will be the chief minister of the biggest state of India. Before BJP won the 2017 elections, he might have been an MP alright, but his basic introduction in UP was that he led a Hindu vigilante organisation, led campaigns against “love jihad, etc.
So you’re absolutely right to say, Sidharth, that it’s the electoral legitimation of Hindu nationalism which has transformed the power of Hindu nationalism. It is working for them as you put it, it’s working for them and at this point, 11 states of India are not with them, 17 are.
And these 11 states incidentally are three of the largest – Maharashtra, Bengal and Tamil Nadu. Bihar is not fully with them but Bihar you could count in their box. But the biggest here is Uttar Pradesh, it is no longer Gujarat, it’s Uttar Pradesh now which has become the new foundation of Hindu nationalist power and new foundation of Hindu nationalism. Uttar Pradesh is more than three times as large as Gujarat. It changes national politics in a way that Gujarat cannot easily, because of Gujarat’s size. They had 73 MPs from UP – 71 of their own and two of Apna Dal in 2014 – and they had 63 again in 2019. That’s a very large contingent of MPs from one state which is the largest state of India, which is nearly twice as large as Bengal, twice as large as Tamil Nadu, more than one and a half times as large as Maharashtra. It is providing the political force, is generating the political force, that BJP has acquired in the last few years.
So the question has to be asked, when we talk of political polarisation or politics or election, is, do the opposition parties which are doing quite well in certain states by themselves – Punjab now, Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Bihar where they are in a coalition but he is not their party member, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala CPM. I mean, when you look at it, it’s the whole political ideological spectrum. Is there any kind of organisation or joint force? It has been done in the past, not once but a couple of times. Is there any kind of force that can be formed to resist this juggernaut?
So from any sensible political perspective that has to be called the most important strategic question in India today.
And the answer takes several forms. The first is the battle against the BJP today cannot be fought by any single party, it has to be a coalition. Just as the battle against the Congress party, historically, could not be fought by any particular party but it had to start as a coalition and then BJP ran ahead of other political parties. That’s point number one.
Point number two, that everyone and every political player understands as the more difficult issue, is who should lead that?
If you think only in terms of which party – Congress still has 19% of India’s vote. In both elections, it got 19% of India’s vote, in 2014 and 2019. And no other party has more than 3.5 % of India’s vote. TMC is probably at 3.2% or 3.3%. It is in control of a very big state of India and historically, a very important state of India, Bengal. But it’s not more than 3.2%.
DMK is not more than 2.6% to 2.7%. Aam Aadmi Party is probably less than 2%. So who should lead that coalition is the most difficult issue. Everyone understands conceptually or is a matter of political understanding that it has to be a coalitional effort but who should lead that coalition is a very difficult issue.
I don’t know whether it will be solved. If it will not be solved then BJP wins again in 2024. And you really have the most propitious conditions for the establishment of a Hindu political order, Hindu nationalist political order and Hindu supremacy. The constitution will, in all probability, come apart. With a third victory, the electoral force of Hindu nationalism will undermine the constitutional integrity of India. I don’t think there is any doubt about that if in 2024 BJP wins handsomely.
In the past, I saw the formation – I was still just entering the profession – I saw the formation of the Janta Party. You had the socialist, and the BJP, and you had the old Congress and some breakaways from Indira Congress. So the Emergency galvanised them and they did form. Though they came apart around 17 or 20 months later, it’s not as if it’s not done.
[H.D.] Deve Gowda was a prime minister, so was [I.K.] Gujral. The thing is that none of them had the lasting power and at that moment, BJP had flexibility. It was ready to be everybody’s tail as long as it was part of it. The Congress does not. The congress remembers its heydays. So we have an issue but you know we have a curious situation where everyone understands that if they don’t hang together they will hang separately.
So anyway, what happens if the minorities react violently?
That is another important question you’re asking, Sidharth.
Let me answer that as a comparative political scientist and then turn to India. The project of the political supremacy of the majority community has been pursued in Sri Lanka; has been pursued in Malaysia. I’m using these two in particular, I can talk about Israel also, but Israel is quite different and Israel was founded as a Jewish state.
Sri Lanka was not founded as a Sinhalese state and Malaysia was not founded as a Malay state. They were not. They were both founded like India, as constitutional democracies which promised religious equality or racial equality. Israel was not founded on the principle of the equality of Palestinians and the Jews, no, so that comparison is of a different kind.
When the majoritarian push came in Sri Lanka and the Tamil minority was targeted by the Sinhala majority parties and when that majoritarian push emerged in Malaysia against especially, the Chinese, two things happened. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils did not accept the secondary status and within 20 years of that majoritarian push the conditions for a civil war emerged. In Malaysia, the Chinese accepted their secondary status and therefore, after the great violence of riots of 1969, just outside Kuala Lumpur, just outside the capital city, and in some major cities of Malaysia, the civil war was averted because the Chinese – for a whole variety of reasons – accepted their secondary status.
If Muslims of India accept their secondary status, the silence will be minimal. If they organise and do not accept their secondary status, the big difference between Sri Lanka and India would be that – the Tamil minority of Sri Lanka was geographically concentrated up in the north. India’s Muslims are not concentrated in any particular part of India except Jammu and Kashmir. That is a different kind of problem. Indian Muslims would not look at Kashmiri Muslims as necessarily a part of their community. They are different kinds of Muslims and that is a very different kind of problem.
So Kashmir might have been a Muslim majority state until two years ago. It is a Muslim majority geography at this point. But unlike the Tamil minority, India’s Muslim minority is not geographically concentrated. So if they don’t accept their secondary status, what kind of political strategy they’ll come up with remains unclear.
My sense is they will try to go with parties which include them in their political strategy to counter the BJP. Repeatedly, BJP gets only 8% Muslim votes. That has repeatedly happened in UP. The two UP assembly elections and the two Lok Sabha elections after 2004. It’s only 8%, right? So Muslims are not likely to vote for BJP. If they vote in very large numbers for BJP, it means they have accepted their peripherality in Indian society and Indian polity and they have accepted BJP’s claim about Hindu supremacy and they’ve accepted Hindu supremacy.
So this is how I can, as a political scientist and as a political observer of India, answer this question. There are two of these great examples Malaysia and Sri Lanka. Both are different from India, but they come closest to this problem. Israel actually doesn’t come close to this problem, analytically. Israel is more like Pakistan. Pakistan was formed as a Muslim state and that comparison has been made. Israel was formed as a Jewish state where minorities were not given equal status to begin with. But India, we started with religious equality as a cardinal, constitutional principle. Ambedkar has very famous arguments about this – why religious equality and why minority protection is absolutely important.
So in fact and this is not castles in the air or hopeful thinking or something, but two points come back to us over and over again. One, the constitution has acted as a kind of bulwark which, so far, has stayed the course, and till it is fundamentally changed – and that also will take time – it remains a solid foundation on which people put their faith in. Now we are seeing its flouting not just by the executive or by the political system or by the establishment but also by sections of judiciary, sometimes the media. Of course it’s a sorry situation. I don’t have to tell you.
So the media, in fact, is a force multiplier as far as the BJP is concerned. The embedded media. So far, the constitution is held true. If that changes, all bets are off. So then your prognosis assumes even more importance because then they will see which way there lies their security and all that. So I think, I mean its best that we do not start getting moony-eyed about whats happening in the country and how it will stay strong but understand some of the implications.
My own sense is – and this is a completely pragmatic view, a realistic view – that it’s going to take a lot of push because to change the constitution also you need certain building blocks in place. And we don’t know whether the building blocks are there. Just waving them aside this time is not going to be as easy as it was in 1975 and 1976. So we don’t know how it’s going to fall.
I think all predictions and theoretical framework is perhaps the best way to look at it. But all predictions must wait for some time. So you sound grim and a little serious. I won’t say ‘pessimistic’, but you sound grim. But you’ve given the lay of the land and all that. For 70 years India has been the beacon of democracy, India is the largest democracy in the world…shall we continue looking at it as something that will see its way through?
So, the two largest international democracy assessment bodies, Freedom House and V-Dem Institute in Sweden, both have degraded India’s status from democracy to either semi-democracy or in V-Dem’s case, I think slightly that’s conceptually wrong: electoral autocracy.
What’s happening is that the India’s electoral democracy is coming into an alarming conflict with India’s constitutional democracy. The larger concept of democracy – a democracy is not defined by elections alone, it is also defined by what happens between elections. In those five years, how does the government conduct itself and whether it follows the constitutional norms [is to be seen]. So to call India today a vibrant democracy would be conceptually incorrect. India is a vibrant electoral democracy but an increasingly weakening constitutional democracy. Or you can call it increasingly weakening liberal democracy. You can call it that because the notion of liberal democracy is partly reliant on elections as the basis of government formation but the other part is freedom of expression, freedom of religious practice, freedom of association.
The BJP is opposed to civil society organisations and has cracked down heavily on all, except a civil society organisation called the RSS or Hindu Yuva Vahini. That’s a civil society organisation too, but that hasn’t been the object of anger or object of coercion.
But a lot of civil society organisations have been wiped out. So freedom of association as a principle has been attacked. Freedom of religious practice as a principle has been attacked. Muslims are feeling extremely endangered about their worship, about their head gear, about several other practices, even azaan. And freedom of expression also has been attacked.
And Mr. Modi actually has attacked the very idea of rights. He’s now, quite a few times, said that duties are more important than rights. That is not how a constitutional democracy functions.
A constitutional democracy functions on the basis of rights, not on the basis of duties. The so-called duties are part of India’s non-justiciable segment of the constitution – they are called directive principles. No democratic constitution elevates duties over rights.
Mr. Modi wrote in the New York Times op-ed that duties are more important than rights and he has ascribed that notion to Mahatma Gandhi, but in any case, the RSS texts say that. And he said that rights weaken a nation, duties strengthen a nation, so the attack on fundamental rights without which Indian constitution cannot be defined, the attack on constitutional rights, on fundamental rights, is part of this ideological project.
And since you mentioned the judiciary, in any democratic system the fundamental defender of the constitution and of the rights is the judiciary. We know that as part of elementary political science. It’s the judiciary which is the fundamental protector of citizens’ fundamental rights, freedom of expression, freedom of religious practice, freedom of association and the constitution itself.
So the prediction that we cannot make about which you spoke so eloquently as a few minutes ago, the prediction we cannot make is how the judiciary would finally act in the coming years. That is a prediction that cannot be made.
If it follows the electoral logic, if in its interpretation or in its judicial interpretation it ends up following the electoral logic, India’s democracy will completely collapse. It won’t even be a semi-democracy. If it falls, if its judicial interpretation is more in accordance with the constitutional spirit as opposed to the electoral logic of the polity, then India’s democracy can still continue.
The issue, again and again, that is appearing now over the last few years is which way will the judiciary go. Elections are going one way. It’s not clear that 2024 will be very different. It may be, it may not be. But judiciary’s role needs to be clearly emphasised.
Now, the judiciary caved in 1975 and 76. It did. It is not only the press that crawled when asked to bend, it’s the judiciary that also crawled at that time and called the Emergency constitutionally valid.
So let’s see which way the judiciary goes. The signs are unclear. A lot of judicial scholars are reading the conduct of India’s Supreme Court unfavourably now but I don’t think we can close the book on that or we can rule out completely some element of judicial independence exercised over the coming years. So judiciary also will have to be factored in when we try and answer your question about whether democracy is over.
Is it going to be over? No, its judiciary which has become a very important institution now for the furtherance or continuation of Indian democracy.
So thank you so much Ashutosh for giving us the framework to understand what’s happening in India. We read about it in the papers all the time. We watch television – some of us do, many of us don’t. But it has a voice, it has an influencer role. Social media is another platform, as you know. WhatsApp is misused, used and misused in India.
So we are too close to the canvas. You who have studied India and democracies around the world are taking the broad view – the long view with a lot of background behind you in terms of what you have read and written, more importantly.
So we get an understanding of what’s happening in India because similar things have happened elsewhere and what could happen in India. Whether from here or elsewhere, I would say, it looks like a fairly grim situation but many of us who have fundamental faith in the Indian people – such as their strength is at the moment, they are feeling also disempowered in many ways – but that faith has seen us through in the past.
You know it’s politics and all kinds of things happen in politics. So let’s see how these things go. In any case, this discussion is something that will continue to be extremely critical and important to what’s happened in India at this moment and what will happen in the coming year.
So thank you very much for participating in ‘The Wire Talks’.
It was a pleasure.
This article first appeared on thewire.in