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India marks Independence Day with its secular, postcolonial image in tatters

Money Sharma, AFP | India's national flag on the ramparts of the Red Fort during a rehearsal for the 73rd Independence Day celebrations on August 13, 2019.

India celebrates the anniversary of its independence from Britain on Thursday, but the pomp and splendour cannot mask the country’s abuses in Kashmir and the shredding of its secular principles.

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Exactly 72 years ago, when the Union Jack was lowered from Delhi’s Red Fort and replaced by the Indian saffron-white-and-green tricolor, the world hailed the birth of a new nation that soon became a postcolonial beacon of secular democracy for countries emerging from the tyranny of colonialism.

This year, India’s Independence Day ceremonies stuck to a template that has been followed for decades. Prime Minister Narendra Modi hoisted the flag at the Red Fort just as the country’s first premier, Jawaharlal Nehru, did on August 15, 1947. It was followed by the prime minister’s speech, delivered from the ramparts of the magnificent Mughal era fort, the singing of the national anthem, and a 21-cannon salute commemorating the country’s freedom fighters.

But while the de jure trappings of a secular democracy remain, India has reneged on many of its foundational precepts. In the disputed region of Kashmir for instance, New Delhi has effectively followed the methods and discourse of a coloniser, notes Nitasha Kaul, a novelist and associate professor in politics and international relations at the University of Westminster. “There’s a word for supposed development that comes with assumed moral superiority and economic rationality, in the shadow of the gun, with no input from the people affected, and based on the fantasies of a foreign power. That India claims to be a post-colonial democracy does not change this fact -- no colonial venture in contemporary times has dared name itself as such,” wrote Kaul in a Foreign Policy column.

While the country was birthed as a secular nation transcending religious identity in contrast with the foundationally Muslim Pakistan, India today is a state as Hindu as Pakistan is Muslim. “The vision of Hindu nationalists is the yin or the yang to the Pakistani counterpart, which is unfortunate because India did hold up another model for democracy that was secular and a place for peoples of all other faiths,” said Mira Kamdar, author of the book, India in the 21st Century, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Last week, Modi’s government crossed a Rubicon with the unilateral scrapping of Article 370, which guaranteed autonomy to Indian-administered Kashmir under the country’s constitution. The gutting of Article 370 effectively whitewashed the murky circumstances under which the territory was acceded to the Dominion of India, and the subsequent UN resolutions calling for a plebiscite in Kashmir that India has ignored.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had long threatened the move and made it a key promise of their 2019 re-election campaign. When it was finally abrogated on August 5 in a lightning strike that caught everyone by surprise, Modi’s supporters called it a “final solution” without a hint of irony.

The implementation, though, was far more sweeping than the BJP’s campaign promise. In one fell swoop, India’s only Muslim-majority state lost its statehood and was downgraded to a union territory administered by the central government in New Delhi.

In his Independence Day speech on Thursday, Modi defended his government’s controversial decisions on the erstwhile state of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. While about 4 million Kashmiris stayed indoors for the 11th day of an unprecedented lockdown, under extreme mobility restrictions and without access to the Internet, mobile or landline phone services, Modi said the changes were aimed at economic development.

"The old arrangement in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh encouraged corruption, nepotism but there was injustice when it came to rights of women, children, Dalits, tribal communities," said Modi, referring to the low caste Dalit community, whose leaders have blasted the government’s expropriation of their exploitation to justify the abrogation of Article 370.

Jammu and Kashmir territories are at the heart of tensions between India and Pakistan
FRANCE 24 | The Jammu and Kashmir territories at the heart of tensions between India and Pakistan.

While Modi waxed eloquent on the well-being and economic prosperity this would bring to Kashmir and the rest of India, Kashmiris were placed under an unprecedented lockdown with no access to the Internet, mobile phones or even landlines. Movement was restricted, a curfew was imposed and tens of thousands of additional troops were deployed in one of the world’s most militarised zones.

Meanwhile economists have been left to unpack the myth that the scrapping of Article 370 will economically benefit Kashmir, which has better demographic indicators than many other Indian states.

Kashmiris long denied their right to self-determination were not hailing their latest “salvation”, but the optics of repression failed to dent the Modi administration’s triumphalist discourse.

“India over the years has steadily eroded Kashmir’s autonomous status. This is the final step in the process,” explained Sumit Ganguly, distinguished professor of political science at Indiana University, Bloomington. “This has been done with the vision of India as a homogenous Hindu state with little or no use for secularism.”

The latest backlash by supporters of Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, against critics of the decision is also consistent with the systematic stifling of dissent, experts say. “India as a postcolonial secular democracy has been destroyed because part of what has happened is the way in which the constitution has been treated in a cavalier manner and how people who are objecting to this are being represented as anti-national or as Islamists or pro-Pakistan or pro-jihadist or whatever,” said Kaul in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Acquittal despite a lynching on video

While India was founded on Nehru’s vision of a secularism designed to hold the subcontinent’s disparate communities together, a strand of Hindu nationalism has long envisaged a majoritarian state that would dispense with multiculturalism.

“That strand was always present,” said Kamdar, referring to Hindu nationalism. “These were the people who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, who opposed Nehru’s vision and that of [the father of the Indian constitution, B.R.] Ambedkar and others. But now that second vision, which was once an undercurrent, has risen and is in the process of transforming a secular democracy into that other vision, which is a Hindu nationalist state where minorities live at the sufferance of the Hindu majority.”

On the eve of Independence Day, a court in the western Indian state of Rajasthan on Wednesday acquitted six men of the killing of a Muslim dairy farmer. Pehlu Khan’s horrific 2017 lynching by a mob of cow vigilantes was caught on video, making national headlines.

Cows are considered sacred by Hindus and cow slaughters are banned in a number of Indian states, including Rajasthan. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, the phenomenon of vigilante squads lynching Muslim farmers -- who are accused of slaughtering cows without any proof -- has increased.

Following the verdict, #PehluKhan was India’s top trending hashtag, with a number of Indians, including those from the diaspora, voicing their anguish.

“In spite of clear video evidences, the killers of #PehluKhan have been acquitted --  Kill Muslims in the name of Cow will NOT take you to the jail but will make you leaders in New India,” tweeted Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict research at Sweden’s Uppsala University.

Infiltration of Hindu nationalism in institutions

While India has an independent judiciary, the gradual infiltration of supporters of Hindutva into the country’s institutions has gradually, if not completely, eroded secular principles.

“The delicate balance of secularism in India can only be maintained if the rule of law prevails and enables every citizen to feel equal to others, irrespective of community. For that to be true, a watchful judiciary without the taint of religious bias or motivation is required. While the Supreme Court remains the most important Indian institution in this respect, its sometimes contradictory decisions and the communal overtones espoused by some lower judiciary officials have contributed to the erosion of secularism,” noted Christophe Jaffrelot, research fellow at the Paris-based Centre for International Studies (CERI-Sciences Po) and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) in “The Fate of Secularism in India,” a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report.

While Muslims -- who at around 14 percent of the population comprise India’s largest minority -- face the worst consequences of majoritarianism, other minority groups are not exempt from violent Hindu nationalism, says Ganguly.

“Other minorities are also facing increasing discrimination, including the tiny, miniscule Christian community, with churches burned and attacks on individuals,” noted Ganguly.

A massive market

Barring a few years when a national state of emergency was imposed, India has succeeded in sustaining a democratic system of governance, an achievement that has long placed “the world’s largest democracy” in a postcolonial favourite spot in the international community.

But while the democracy has endured, India is reeling from the populism that has gripped many countries. However in the world’s second-most populous country, things tend to fall apart on a grand scale.

The extent of the disruption has often gone unnoticed by an international community clinging to stereotypes of a spiritual nation where Orientalist visions of a non-monotheist “other” can still be projected in a rapidly unifying, globalised world.

“The excitement of international investors about the potential of the Indian market and the image of a forward-looking, progressive, technologically savvy, growing India joining the ranks of the great democracies is titanic and very hard to overturn,” explained Kamdar.

Many of the world’s political and corporate leaders are not keen to offend New Delhi.

“The world’s key capitals value their partnerships with New Delhi since India has tremendous market opportunity, which is why they don’t want to rock the boat,” explained Michael Kugelman from the Washington DC-based Wilson Center in an interview with FRANCE 24 over the weekend.

A massive market is one of the factors accounting for the weak international response to India’s scrapping of Article 370 last week and its systematic human rights violations in Kashmir. In some respects, this oversight is aided by Pakistan’s track record in supporting jihadist groups as proxy geopolitical tools in Kashmir.

“Pakistan struggles with an image problem overseas and has difficulty getting its voice respected. It has tried the UN General Assembly to project its voice, but it lacks credibility on the world’s stage,” said Kugelman.

On Wednesday, August 14 -- as Pakistanis were celebrating their Independence Day, which falls a day before India’s   Islamabad announced that Pakistan had called for an urgent UN Security Council meeting on India’s actions in Kashmir. The special session is scheduled for Friday, August 16.

While major powers and heads of multilateral institutions may still be cautious about censuring New Delhi’s actions in the disputed Kashmir region, a growing international awareness of the crisis could fuel public anger.

Since August 5, demonstrators have been protesting outside the Indian embassy and consulate buildings in cities such as London, New York and Los Angeles. Pro-Kashmir groups have called for another protest outside the Indian High Commission in London on Indian Independence Day. Meanwhile supporters of India’s BJP are also scheduled to hold a demonstration in London on Thursday, raising the spectre of headline-grabbing heated debates. In the Kashmir Valley, the easing of restrictions is likely to spark another wave of protests and unrest, keeping the issue in the international spotlight.

“As the Modi government puts a foot on the accelerator of its Hindu nationalist agenda, it could imperil India’s fairly pristine reputation overseas,” said Kugelman. “Delhi needs to be careful with its optics and the tactics it uses to quell the unrest in the Valley otherwise more negative headlines will put pressure on Western governments to call out India. If major stakeholders start calling out Indian violations, it will then get Pakistan in the place it’s always wanted diplomatically.”

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