India is arguably the most ambitious democratic project of the 20th Century. A region of 6 climatic zones, 9 religions, 29 states, 19,500 languages and 1.3 billion people. It is very difficult to find things that can truly unite Indians.
But there is a notable unifier: the constitution.
A constitution that was crafted specifically in recognition of the region’s plurality. Alongside this, it strived to unite on values of equality, justice, secularism, liberty and fraternity. Whilst the British effectively created the concept of ‘India’, by hastily drawing physical boundaries across the sub-continent, it is the constitution that has truly realised it — politically and ideologically.
Today, we are witnessing the strangling of the ambitious ideal of India as it succumbs to the notion of a ‘Hindu-rashtra (state)’. With the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), there is little doubt that India’s secular underpinnings are being violently cast aside in favour of a framework that blatantly excludes Muslims from the fabric of Indian society.
The Act states that ‘illegal migrants’ — rather, those unable to pass the citizenship test laid out by the National Register of Citizens (NRC) — from Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh that are non-Muslim will be granted citizenship.
There are countless news articles and op-ed’s on the unconstitutionality of the Act; the ruling party’s duplicitous rhetoric in defence of it and about the protests against the CAA. They are all pertinent. They raise questions and deliver key insights that helps us make sense of what is unfolding.
That said, it is most vital to inquire into Indian society itself — all at once an oppressor, accomplice and victim.
The recent Delhi state election is indicative of the dichotomic lens Indians have begun to unironically view politics through. Voters that cast their ballot for the non-BJP candidate (an incumbent with a decent track record of welfare provisions) in the state election, would readily vote for BJP (Modi’s party) in the national elections.
To be clear, the party not trusted to run a state would be entrusted with the running of the nation. If this kind of voter is not an overt BJP supporter, the excuse routinely brought up in defence of the choice is as follows: ‘There is no credible opposition [at the national level]’.
Unfortunately, this claim is justified. Compared to the charisma, strength and strategising of the Modi administration, the Congress party is more corrupt, lacks a competent leader and is perceived as not having made enough progress for the number of chances given to them.
On the economic development and social welfare front, political parties are not terribly distinguishable. Therefore, they need a compelling narrative to attract loyalty. As the economic slump is felt more keenly across the nation, the BJP is capitalising on latent contempt to solidify a narrative that champions the notion of a ‘Hindu-rashtra (state)’
The BJP just isn’t faced by a serious ideological challenge. It’s baffling, given that the eloquence of the constitution is great material for the ideal opposing narrative.
So, why isn’t there any challenge?
Unfortunately, in the 70 years since the constitution’s creation, the goal of realising its principles in the social and cultural sphere is far from accomplished. Deep divisions along the lines of class, caste, religion, gender and regional culture remain within Indian society. The unwillingness of parties to challenge the BJP is a reflection of societal prejudices.
The fragmentation is precisely why the Modi administration’s unprecedented attack on human rights, democratic freedoms and manipulation of public office has not driven people towards the Congress party as the ‘lesser of two evils’. Instead, they remain the non-credible opposition and the vote isn’t reluctantly handed to them. The electorate feels perfectly justified in empowering a group that profits from communal divisions (or fashions them where necessary) instead of one that is currently less sinister.
Clearly, there is a portion of the Indian polity that actively/tacitly approves of ministrations that advance the government’s Hindu-nationalist agenda. It is far more mainstream than I care to admit. Making up 80 per cent of the populace, approval from Hindus is found easily: in WhatsApp group chats, at family dinners and in Uber rides.
Is there any good news?
The growth of the protests is a good sign. The attack on the building blocks of a democracy — its citizens — has proven to be the most potent incentive the public needed to finally mobilise against the Modi administration.
However, we’re dealing not only with a rogue government but also a complicit society. Whether we can nurture greater compassion and righteousness — in line with Indian constitutional values — within the Indian mentality, is dependent on the conversations we have in public and private settings.
It will take some time for dissenters to be successful in keeping illiberalism at bay and preventing the death of India, only to be re-incarnated as a ‘Hindu-rashtra’ — but it can be done.