Modi’s Hindu Nationalism Gamble Threatens Free Speech and Democracy

By Victoria Lincoln

India’s democracy is facing some immense challenges.  As a developing country India is at a crossroads between the socio-cultural, linguistic, religious, caste and class divides and the growing educated middle class emerging from economic development.  To make matters more complicated India has a federalist political system which is notoriously slow and corrupt and the source of much discontent.  In response to these tremendous challenges Prime Minister Modi has undertaken a form of Hindu nationalism to try and unify India, but his gamble does not seem to be working.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) calls itself the people’s party of India, but are better known as a Hindu nationalist party.  The brand of Hindu nationalism is dark strand of aggrandising nationalism.  Hindu nationalism using brute force to enforce silence and assert hegemony is a far cry from the democratic nationalism that spurred India’s independence movement. The democratic nationalism of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was a movement of anti-colonial struggle, but central to Ghandi’s movement was the principles of tolerance, accommodation, secularism and negotiating differences.  BJP Hindu nationalism is flirting with fascism and could endanger the development of India. The BJP have orchestrated a climate whereby if you do not align with their views you are seen as anti-Indian. Even though Modi’s approval ratings have been dropping they are still twice as high as leader of the opposition, Rahul Ghandi.  Ghandi’s leadership of the congress has been weak which damaging the long-term prospects of democracy. In addition to weak opposition the BJP’s demonising tactics of liberals and social democrats has been effective in weakening pluralism.

This is further seen in the BJP’s treatment of students, institutions, lawyers and journalists that dissent against the government.  The BJP have whipped up a storm of ‘nationalist hysteria’ in particular relation to the use of colonial era sedition laws used to persecute university students.  These students’, similar age to ourselves, only crime is being ‘anti-national.’  The latest arrests were in the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University that has strong UK ties to the Universities of Oxford and The London School of Economics. The case was tainted with police brutality, the beating of the accused by government cronies and the use of fake evidence.  Nehru University has a long tradition of critical thinking, dissent, scholarship and debate, but its freedom of thought is under attack.  Other institutions the Government have attacked include the Pune Film Institute, University of Baroda and the Aligarh Muslim University among other places.  Surely national unification should not come at the cost of free speech and debate.  The attack of Aligarh University is even more suspicious as it was over the rumours that the university served beef in the canteen. It is an example of Hindu vs. Muslim tensions that have not been addressed by the BJP that feels India is ‘Hindustan’ and has no place for minorities.  It is deeply embarrassing for India.

BJP has been too busy battling free speech and bolstering its image that it has put vital economic and political reform on the backbench.  The BJP has been obstructionist to tax reform that would benefit all Indians and add 2% to growth.  It is an ugly compromise where the BJP would rather appease individual heads of state rather than a tax reform that has been desperately needed to reduce economic inefficiency. The BJP are afraid to reform, but not afraid to pursue an even more dangerous route of nationalism and oppression of free speech.  Prime Minster Modi has also been criticised in the handling of Caste riots in BJP ruled Haryana, Kashmir and inability to deal with the rape endemic in India.

The future of political and economic development in India is at risk. Rather than pursuing the enemy within approach the BJP needs to change its nationalist rhetoric in favour of reducing political stagnation and solving domestic ethnic tensions.

Photograph: Republic of Korea via Flickr

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