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The best of times, the worst of times for India’s Modi

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, India, August 15, 2019.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation during Independence Day celebrations at the historic Red Fort in Delhi, India, August 15, 2019. Adnan Abidi, Reuters

The year began with an electoral landslide for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, but is ending in an unprecedented display of opposition against his divisive policies. But police crackdowns and an organised Hindu right-wing mobilisation could make 2020 a very violent year for the world’s largest democracy.

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It was the year, it appeared, that would see Narendra Modi’s star rising to unassailable heights. Coasting on a landslide victory in the April-May elections, the Indian prime minister kick-started his second term with a turbocharged Hindu supremacist agenda that seemed unstoppable by an opposition party in shambles and a populace split between exultant nationalist supporters and cowered detractors silenced by the intimidation and assaults on free speech.

But if 2019 began with the stars aligning to make it another “year of Modi”, it's ending in cosmic disarray for the man at the centre of a personality cult that could not be questioned for more than half a decade without the fear of threats, legal harassment, arrest, trolling or, at worst, a violent “justice” by vigilantes.

It took protests in a remote northeastern state against a controversial citizenship amendment law to galvanise student protests that were brutally crushed by police storming campuses to break the wall of silence that had encircled the world’s most-populous democracy.

The rest, as they say, is history in the making.

Protests have erupted across India from the northeastern borderlands to the Hindu “cow belt” heartlands with demonstrators defying bans, communication shutdowns and police brutality to take to the streets. In states governed by Modi’s Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the police crackdowns have been deadly with the nationwide death toll mounting since protests broke out earlier this month.

With the wall of silence finally breached, the protest movement has since evolved from demonstrations against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – passed on December 11 – to a broader battle against the Modi administration’s agenda which, critics say, targets India’s 200 million-strong Muslim community and is destroying the republic’s constitutionally enshrined principles of secular tolerance.

The protesters have not minced their words, with banners proclaiming their outrage against Modi’s authoritarian, Islamophobic agenda. “Shut down fascism, not the Internet,” read banners at a Delhi protest. In the financial capital Mumbai, banners decrying the links between Nazism and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu nationalist organisation in which Modi once served as a full-time worker, were explicit: “Jab Hindu-Muslim razi, toh kya karenga Nazi” – when Hindus and Muslims agree, what can Nazis do? Banners equating Modi to Adolf Hitler and the BJP’s lotus symbol to the swastika have been on display across the nation.
 

 

Modi’s about-turn, in just 12 months, from poll-sweeping leader worshipped by his supporters to publicly proclaimed hate-mongerer destroying the foundations of the Indian republic was one of the most dramatic developments of 2019. As a new decade dawns, the situation in the world’s largest democracy, home to the world’s second-largest Muslim population, could be a harbinger of the struggles confronting citizens caught in the thick of a whittling down of the post-World War II liberal order.

“For Modi, this year has been the best of times and the worst of times,” noted Salil Tripathi, author of “Offence: The Hindu Case,” a book on Hindu nationalism and free speech, in an interview with FRANCE 24. “He had such a phenomenal victory in the 2019 elections, but for reasons that rationally make no sense, Modi decided not to have an economic agenda but to push a social one to remake India.”

The metamorphosis has been noted in the international press, long focused on global jihadism and Pakistan’s role in the phenomenon, and willing to overlook the human rights abuses and excesses in India.

“The year is culminating into a very bad ending for Narendra Modi. His international reputation is in tatters with major US and British papers, as well as leading French dailies such as Le Monde, pulling away the Modi mask. For the first time, the Western press is talking of Modi not as an economic reformer, but as an authoritarian Hindu nationalist leader. It’s a very big transformation,” said Mira Kamdar, author of “India in the 21st Century” and former member of the New York Times editorial board.

Suicide attack in Kashmir, landslide win in polls

The year began with measured criticism of Modi’s first five-year term, with ambitious but ill-conceived policies such as demonitisation, failing to deliver the promised economic miracle and resulting instead in slower growth rates coupled with rising unemployment and inflation. As the country geared up for the general elections – a massive democratic exercise with a 900 million-strong electorate voting over six weeks – pundits wondered if India’s battered opposition would seize a campaign opportunity.

But Pulwama changed that.

On February 14, a young Kashmiri man rammed a car packed with explosives into a security services convoy in Pulwama, a district in the disputed region, killing 40 Indian paramilitary policemen and triggering cross-border airstrikes between arch foes India and Pakistan. As Indian news organisations switched into high jingoistic gear, everyday economic issues flew off the agenda.

Riding a rejuvenated patriotic wave against jihadist-supporting Pakistan, the BJP swept the polls in May, thrashing a weak opposition to win a historic parliamentary majority.

The ‘enforcer’ turns home minister

Modi’s second term kicked off like no other as the BJP set upon appeasing its vote base, implementing a long-dreamed vision of Hindutva (or “Hinduness”) that views India as a Hindu rashtra (Hindu nation), where the fate of religious minorities depended on the good will – or lack thereof – of the majority.

“On the political front, the current crisis began with the appointment of Amit Shah as India’s home minister. He’s the real brain behind the operation propelling a series of events culminating in the Citizenship Amendment Act,” explained Kamdar.

Dubbed “Modi’s enforcer", Shah is the head of the BJP and has been the chief strategist behind Modi’s rise to power. Shah was the home minister of the western state of Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was Gujarat chief minister as anti-Muslim riots engulfed the state, killing more than 1,000 people. Modi was accused of sanctioning the violence while Shah was arrested and charged with murder in connection with extrajudicial killings. Both men deny the charges and they have never been convicted by India’s courts.

While Modi focuses on an anti-corruption, “new India” discourse, his political strategist makes no bones about his xenophobic, anti-Muslim agenda. At a campaign rally ahead of the 2019 polls, Shah turned his invective against a pet Hindutva target – illegal Muslim immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh – calling them “termites” and vowing to “pick up infiltrators one-by-one and throw them into the Bay of Bengal”.

Following Modi’s May 2019 reelection, Shah was appointed home minister – India’s equivalent of an interior minister –sending a signal across the country that a Hindutva agenda would dominate Modi’s second term.

They were not wrong – although the speed of the changes caught everyone by surprise. On July 30, the Modi administration banned a form of divorce permitted under Muslim personal law. On August 5, the government stripped Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, of its autonomy, imprisoned thousands of Kashmiris – including politicians who were former BJP allies – and put the disputed region under an unprecedented communications shutdown. On November 9, the country’s Supreme Court cemented the Indian judiciary’s reputation of failing to deliver justice to victims of violent Hindu extremism when it ruled that a flashpoint religious site be handed to Hindus. The top court ruled that the 1992 destruction of a 16th-century mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya by Hindu extremists was a criminal act. But it nonetheless granted Hindus permission to build a temple on the site of the criminally demolished mosque.

Trump mistakes ‘Howdy Modi’ for the Mahatma

Reactions to the policies ranged from jubilation among Modi supporters to a resigned despair among his critics. While the Kashmir violations made international headline news and sparked condemnations from human rights groups, Modi looked set to ride out the storm on the world’s stage. French President Emmanuel Macron stuck with New Delhi’s position on the Kashmir dispute between India and Pakistan, maintaining the issue had to be resolved bilaterally, implicitly rejecting Islamabad’s calls for international intervention. On the question of Kashmir’s revoked autonomy, Macron maintained it was “an internal issue”.

The next month saw Modi’s star power mount to giddy heights when he attended a “Howdy Modi” mass rally with US President Donald Trump in Texas, where about 50,000 Americans of Indian origin chanted, “Modi! Modi!” Some fans, dressed as India’s founding father Mahatma Gandhi, equated the prime minister with the Mahatma – a man whose vision of a tolerant, secular India was antithetical to Modi’s dream of a Hindu rashtra. Even Trump mistakenly called Modi “the Father of India”.

‘Doubtful citizens’ and detention camps

While Modi adulation grabbed airtime in an India plummeting on world press freedom indices, opposition against the government’s divisive politics was brewing. But the anti-Hindutva sentiment – electorally dispersed over fractious regional political parties and silenced by press intimidation – was underestimated and overlooked.

Until it erupted on the streets, catching everyone by surprise.

Toward the end of August, as world attention was focused on Kashmir, the Modi administration published results of a controversial National Register of Citizens (NRC) in the eastern border state of Assam that was officially aimed at identifying illegal immigrants.

Nearly 2 million people were found to be “stateless”. Opposition parties flagged reports of legitimate citizens being deemed “illegal”– including former army and police officers and the family of a former president of India. They were plunged into a nightmare of appeals before non-judicial tribunals amid desperate scrambles to assemble paperwork that activists called “a humanitarian disaster,” with local rights groups recording suicides linked to bureaucratic precariousness.

Meanwhile the government started building massive detention camps, triggering alarm bells. Despite the disruptions, Shah promised to extend the NRC across India before the 2024 general elections.

Amid mounting disquiet over the Modi administration’s bid to build a countrywide surveillance network, the government started a pilot project to create “a comprehensive identity database of every usual resident in the country” called the National Population Register (NPR) that would “contain demographic as well as biometric particulars”.

For the BJP, Assam – one of India’s most multi-ethnic states, home to the second-largest Muslim population after Kashmir – was a logical launching pad for a nationwide NRC. But if the Hindu right-wing party was hoping to use the NRC to weed out Muslim “illegals” from voter lists, the move appeared to backfire. When Assam’s NRC list was published in end-August, Hindus made up 1.2 million of the 1.9 million undocumented people declared “stateless”.

That’s when the Modi government rushed through a Citizen Amendment Bill (CAB) granting citizenship to non-Muslim migrants fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Bangladesh. By December 12, the CAB had turned into a law – the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).

The NRC and CAA are closely linked as the latter will protect non-Muslims who are excluded from the register and face the threat of deportation or internment.

“People have connected the dots between the NRC and the CAB and from there, it was not hard to connect the dots with the planned NPA,” explained Kamdar. “People understand not only the government’s primary focus of targeting Muslims, but that with the establishment of a nationwide biometric registry, everything about everybody is known and it’s up to some bureaucrat to decide citizenship in a country where hundreds of millions lack basic documents.”

Police attack students in campus libraries

The first anti-CAA protests erupted this month in Assam and other northeastern border states, many of them marginalised and simmering with insurgencies crushed by Indian security services. The protests were against an influx of migrants regardless of religion into the border areas.

“Modi thought he had consolidated his constituency in northeastern India. He thought his base was against the Muslims without realising that the mood was against all outsiders regardless of their religion,” explained Tripathi.

The protests in the peripheral northeast punctured a prevailing fear of publicly voicing discontent against the Modi government. It wasn’t long before students in the heart of the country – including the capital, New Delhi, and the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh -- took up the baton. Their grouse was against the government’s divisive, anti-Muslim policies and what they perceived as the Modi administration’s bid to identify and surveil “doubtful citizens”.

It took a brutal police crackdown on students in two major Muslim universities on December 15 to unleash a pent up rage against the Modi government’s assaults on India’s much-celebrated secular tolerance.

“The enormity of what was happening to the country finally struck with the police invasion of Jamia Milia Islamia University and Aligarh Muslim University and the violence with which they attacked students in campuses, libraries shocked people,” explained Kamdar. “There was a concerted effort over the past few years to change the very nature of India, to rewrite history, rewrite the textbooks. But there remains, surviving in the fiber and sinew of India, a beating trace of the founding fathers’ vision of India and they [the Modi government and its backers] have not yet succeeded in completely extinguishing that from the soul of India.”

Braced for a violent 2020

But if the embers of Hindutva opposition have been ignited, few doubt the power of Hindu nationalist cadres that can be mobilised and marshaled by the RSS, a vast Hindu umbrella organisation that includes trade unions, youth groups, prayer associations, women’s groups as well as the ruling BJP.

“On the negative side, they [the Hindu right] will not go down easily,” noted Kamdar. “Amit Shah is a ruthless, focused person and he’s not going to easily let go of changing India into an authoritarian, fascist state that tracks every single citizen to ensure no one dissents.”

In his first speech since the nationwide protests erupted, Modi on Sunday, December 22, defended the new citizenship law. In a combative speech to his party members, the Indian prime minister denied his government’s plans to extend the NRC nationwide. “Has anything happened with the NRC yet? Lies are being spread,” said Modi. He also denied links between the NRC and CAA.

An invigourated Indian news media promptly published reports debunking Modi’s assertions about the opposition’s “lies”.

Modi’s robust defense, combined with assertions that the opposition was dealing in “fake news” sets the stage for further crackdowns on the protest movement – and a likely violent 2020 for the world’s second-most-populous country.

“I do think there’s a risk of increasing violence because they’re not going to go quietly,” said Kamdar. “They will do everything in their power to get back the narrative and I don’t think it’s going to be pretty.”

 

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