India’s Ominous Turn to Totalitarianism

India is at a historic crossroads. A sixth of the world’s population, nowhere else today democracy, social harmony and free speech are in such peril.

By Partha Banerjee

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his powerful home minister Amit Shah have long announced that the present parliamentary democracy is obsolete for India. They have all but decided that they would want to repackage the multilingual, multi-religious country into a monolithic Hindu Rastra. Recently, at the inauguration of a new, colossal parliament house in Delhi, invocation ceremonies were relic of an ancient Hindu king being throned, with Modi surrounded by saints and religious figures. The president of India, a Dalit woman, was excluded from the ceremonies.

And the way Modi’s government has handled any voices of dissent – from a massive farmers’ protest to a more recent sexual assault victims – where any empathy and care were replaced by heavy-handedness and disregard for democratic solutions – has moved the world’s largest democracy deeper into the path of authoritarianism.

A massive privatization of practically every economic sector – from railways to banking to insurance to telecommunications to health care, education and agriculture, coupled with speed-passing major laws often denying a discussion in the parliament – has shattered the longstanding fabric of plurality in a country of many religions, races, regions, languages and complexities of life. A rule of forced conformity in favor of an exclusive Hindutva has emerged. This doctrine also aspires to build a Hindu nation expanding into neighboring countries – creating an Akand Bharat, or “Unified India.” The new parliament house now adorns such an expansive map.

To understand the rise of Hindu right wing, we need to know the history.

Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP is intricately connected with a grassroots organization Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps) or RSS. In fact, it is the RSS that created BJP as its frontal political wing, as it had created its religious wing VHP, student activism wing ABVP, and labor wing BMS, among many other branches and groups. RSS drives BJP, prides itself in its “India is for Hindus” slogan, and espouses Muslims, Christians and socialists as India’s three primary enemies. M. S. Golwalkar, eminent RSS ideologue, had often praised Hitler and Nazi Germany. Along with fierce doctrinaire V. D. Savarkar, he envisioned a social model where India’s Muslims would be “purged” the way Hitler purged the Jews. RSS modeled its functioning – drills, parades, chants and a supreme, uncontested leadership – on the footsteps of the Schutzstaffel.

Savarkar had said, “If we Hindus grow stronger, Muslim friends will have to play the part of German Jews”.

Immediately after India got its independence from the British through a traumatic partition, an RSS volunteer who was also a disciple of Savarkar, killed Mahatma Gandhi – on the contentious premise that Gandhi could have stopped the partition, but didn’t. Even though RSS had actively stayed away from India’s long freedom struggle that saw thousands of young men and women jailed, tortured, and killed, it concluded that Gandhi and his centrist protégé Jawaharlal Nehru – two leaders who ultimately saw the fruition of freedom — were among those responsible for an “unwanted” creation of a Muslim Pakistan.

Other than fighting three major wars with Pakistan, India saw numerous bloody Hindu-Muslim riots since then, and on many occasions, India’s courts or civil rights organizations have found RSS and its offspring groups to be responsible for inciting the riots. The two most recent examples of such riots happened after the demolition of the Babri Mosque in 1992, and one in 2002 in the state of Gujarat, where Modi was chief minister at that time. In both incidents, thousands of Muslims lost their lives. Indian and international rights groups have often implicated Modi of not doing his part to stop the carnage. In fact, USA had revoked Modi’s visa temporarily.

What India is now going through is dark and dangerous, even considering India’s post-independence history of violence and bloodshed.

BJP government has left the striking farmers literally on the street in the middle of a harsh winter, with little possibility of a dialogue with the government. If anything, authorities have now put barricades and barbed wire – as if it’s a war zone — to prevent the farmers from moving into the capital. Indian government has decided that farmers – over half of Indian population — would have no choice but to sell their crops to private corporations, instead of their traditional markets. Moreover, corporate houses would mandate what crops farmers would grow and sell at what price, and when.

In the past couple of years, BJP government has imposed civil rights laws that yanked religious and ethnic minorities off India’s citizenship, and human rights groups have noted jailing of thousands of innocent people driven off the roster in private prison camps. In 2019, BJP government passed an “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act”, by enforcing which many voices of dissent were arrested, denied bail, and indefinitely put in prison.

A Trump-like personal-megaphone-style administration is in vogue, where since taking office, the prime minister has refused to hold any press conferences except with his intimate favorite channels. International personalities and human rights organizations criticizing the government measures have faced ridicules and sanctions: BJP and RSS supporters burned effigies of Greta Thunberg, and scandalized Rihanna and Susan Sarandon on social media when they expressed support for the farmers. Under massive political pressure, Greenpeace has withdrawn from India, and Amnesty International is following suit. Modi government has banned a BBC documentary on the Gujarat riots from showing in India, and Twitter’s former CEO Jack Dorsey accused the Indian government of censoring content and threatening to shut the platform down.

Yet at the same time, ground reality is that economic, gender, caste and environmental inequalities are at a historic high, health care and education are in a precarious situation, and BJP government has failed to bring justice to victims of religious and social persecution. Rapes and other forms of violence against women and minorities rank one of the worst in the world.

India has gone through a tumultuous time since its 1947 independence. Yet, the country has tried hard to preserve its fundamental constitutional principles of justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity. India’s present rulers, however, have rapidly pushed the country down the path of religion- and race-based supremacy and hate. Free speech, diversity and democracy are caving in, and a totalitarian structure is rising.

My Muslims friends in India tell me they are living in fear. As a Hindu Indian-American, I feel the people in power are hijacking my birthplace and my religion.

Dr. Partha Banerjee is the author of Gandhi’s Killers India’s Rulers (RBE, Kolkata, 2020) and In the Belly of the Beast: Hindu Supremacist RSS and BJP of India (Ajanta Books International, Delhi, 1998). Banerjee did his Ph.D. in biology from Southern Illinois University, and M.Sc. in journalism from Columbia University. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.

Pressenza New York