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The accelerating rise of a dangerous new nationalism in India

In Modi’s India, nationalists are using the Covid-19 crisis to further redefine who belongs and who doesn’t.

 
 

Late this past January, I sat in the audience at the Jaipur Literature Festival. The festival is sponsored by Zee News, the right-wing media outlet that is seen in some corners as having contributed to the degradation of Indian democracy. There was a certain irony, then, that a company that helped create the country’s current precarious conditions also paid for a panel that brilliantly described them.

During a discussion on the Indian constitution, Margaret Alva, the former governor of the state of Rajasthan, captured the painful irony of the situation. She was born, she said, a British subject. It was the Indian constitution that made her and hundreds of millions of other people fully-fledged citizens of India.

Except in India today, there are those who would consider Alva less than a fully-fledged, equal citizen. A new law – or, rather, a relatively new amendment to an old law known as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – will give citizenship to migrants fleeing persecution, provided that those migrants are not Muslim. This stands in opposition to the Indian constitution, which is explicitly secular. Furthermore, the act is broadly understood to be a means of tackling the chaos that would ensue should India implement a National Register of Citizens (NRC), requiring Indians to provide documents proving that they are citizens.

When such a register was published last summer in the state of Assam, a significant number of the two million people who were excluded from the citizenship list were Hindu. Therefore, although India’s governing party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has denied that there is any connection between the CAA and the NRC, many have connected the dots. They envisage a future in which a NRC is implemented and then the CAA is introduced – allowing Hindus, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains or Parsis to “become” citizens, while Muslims are stripped of their rights.

The group most affected by this is, obviously, India’s Muslims, many of whom are now frantically searching for documents they never knew they needed. And while the CAA-NRC nexus is a formal process that will also likely hurt others, such as members of the tribal population and lower castes, Muslims are unmistakably the most targeted group.

There is a separate but related informal process. While critics of the CAA have noted that it undermines the nature of India’s constitution, the government and its supporters insist that it is the protesters and dissenters who are the “anti-nationals”, undermining the unity of the country. The law can strip certain people of their citizenship, and the party and its followers can then strip others – who do not consent to this vision of India – of theirs. It is not only the nature of the constitution that appears to be at stake, then, but the question of who, exactly, gets to be Indian.

“I refuse to submit any papers to any authority,” Alva, who is from a Christian family, said during the panel discussion. She recalled previously citing her family's past imprisonment as freedom fighters (adding: "I don’t think Mister Shah can claim the same," in an allusion to Home Minister, Amit Shah). But still she'd been trolled and told to "go back to Portugal". "Why Portugal? What is my connection to Portugal?” she now asked.

“For me, after 70 years of freedom, to be told to prove that I am an Indian. Why should I? I told my people: anybody comes to your house to fill out forms, tear them up. Don’t fill them out. This is civil disobedience.”

A man in the packed audience stood up to ask what the problem was if, under these legal changes, the infiltrators were going back to where they came from. “Who is going back?” Alva snapped back. “And who is the infiltrator? And who decides who is the infiltrator? Is it the RSS … [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist paramilitary group that has some membership overlap with the BJP] who are in police uniforms in UP [Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state] going from door to door?”

But despite the strength of Alva’s protestations, it seemed as if it was people such as the man in the audience, and not Alva, who were empowered in this new India. It didn’t matter how powerful one was, or how much of their life they’d spent in service to the country, or how famous they were; to criticise Modi or the BJP, or their vision of India, was to be anti-national, and to be told to go back somewhere else

***

On Valentine’s Day, I sat not with a media badge under the fabric tents at a literary fest, but in a semicircle with Zoya Azmi and several of her student peers on their campus at Jamia Millia Islamia. It was a warm, crisp Delhi day; dogs lounged on the grass in the sun not far away. It felt, for a moment, like we could have been at any other university.

But majority-Muslim Jamia Millia Islamia isn’t any other university. Two months prior to this, on 15 December, violence broke out at student-led protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Police entered the campus and were shown on video using force against students; they claimed that it was the students who had been violent, and that their actions were justified. Footage released by the protesters two days after I met with Azmi and her peers appeared to show police entering the library and beating students with sticks.

Then, two weeks before I met with the students, there had been a shooting at the university; a young man confronted protesters asking them if they really wanted “azaadi”, or freedom, the word that had become a kind of talisman at the protests, and shot at one of the student protesters.

Azmi was extremely articulate and poised, but it was also clear that she had suffered trauma. They all had, she said. They were still being made to sit their exams, but how could they focus when every time they heard a siren they had to wonder if it was happening again? Yet still, they would go to protests. They had to.

I asked them what they made of it: this idea that there was no identity, no religion, no gender, nothing that could protect them from being called “anti-nationals”, and from enduring the very real threat of violence that came with that. The students were, after all, not the only ones who’d been painted with the anti-national brush. There was seemingly no status or level of fame that could protect one from the charge.

The BJP’s main opponent in the Delhi elections, the Aam Aadmi Party, was the incumbent, and ran not on a promise to protect the rights of all, but on its record of fighting corruption and improving schools and hospitals; the BJP nevertheless campaigned on the idea that to vote for AAP was to vote for traitors (AAP won). The national opposition party, the Congress Party, the party of Gandhi and Nehru, was similarly painted as a party of anti-nationals and traitors. Even the country’s pre-eminent Gandhi biographer, Ramachandra Guha, was decried as an anti-nationalist urban Naxal (Maoist) when he was arrested for participating in protests in December.

Another student, a young man named Aman Pandey, told me that he is Hindu. He stressed that this movement is about and is led by Muslims, but that he felt compelled to participate. “Discrimination,” he told me somberly, as if a much older man, “doesn’t discriminate.” Anyone could receive this label, and the persecution and violence that came with it. To be against the party was to be against India.

I asked Azmi and her peers at Jamia Millia Islamia what would happen if Modi and his government won; if to oppose the BJP and its agenda was to be anti-India and anti-Indian. But they did not forecast and instead rejected the premise of my question:

“There was an India before the BJP,” said a young man named Prabhat Tiwari. “And there will be an India after.”

Azmi herself put it differently. “We’re not anti-national,” she said, calmly but forcefully. “It’s the government that is anti-national.

***

Two weeks later, I was in Kolkata sitting in Sienna Café with Debaditya Bhattacharya, an assistant professor of English at the University of Calcutta. He co-edited a book on communal and national sentiments. I asked him what he made of this phenomenon: of the idea of “Indianness” being changed to mean “those who agree with Modi and the BJP”.

“A new imagination,” he told me, “is being mobilised.”

In part, this is occurring outside the realm of legislation. It’s pursued through rhetoric and popular feeling and rabid TV hosts. Those in power, he said, use “the non-legislative ground of affect to justify and secure legitimacy for what cannot be legislated”. That isn’t to say that this process is spontaneous and uncoordinated; the spectacle of mob behaviour, he said, is a show put on with the tacit blessing and encouragement of the powerful who sit above the mob. In this way, the nation, as understood by those in power, marginalises the people, or all but those people who agree with it.

He told me that, in part, this is achieved by failing to respect state institutions. The nation, he explained, takes over the courts and passes whatever laws it wants with little regard for the constitution. So the party and its supporters, assuming the role of the nation, exclude the people, and the party and its supporters make the institutions of the state irrelevant. There is no public, and there is no state. There is only the party. Only its nation.

And it is, he said, unprecedented in the history of Indian democracy; true, prime minister Indira Gandhi used the slogan “Indira is India” and declared a state of “emergency” and the suspension of certain civil liberties when she was in power decades ago, but she did not have social media with which to spread her message, or the kind of the money that the BJP has at its disposal.

While Bhattacharya and I chatted in Kolkata, Prime Minister Narendra Modi hosted US President Donald Trump and violence broke out in north-east Delhi. Though perhaps “broke out” is too passive: over 50 people were killed; the majority of the dead were Muslim, and it was their fellow Indian citizens who killed them.

People were beaten. Homes were set on fire; in one case, an 85-year-old woman who could not leave her home was burned to death. Some asked why the police, under the control of Shah and the Home Ministry, did not step in to stop the massacre; others said that they did not precisely because the Delhi police are controlled by the Home Ministry.

Some in the BJP said the blame rested with the anti-CAA protesters: that it was they, the protesters, who’d started all this. Others riposted that it was the BJP that had started it, and still others noted that what happened in Delhi echoed what happened in Gujarat in 2002, when almost 800 Muslims were massacred in response to news that around 59 Hindus had been killed on a train.

While Delhi was burning, Modi and Trump hugged at a rally in Gujarat; back in Delhi, they tucked into gold-leafed amuse-bouche at a state banquet. “They love you in India,” Trump said to Modi, “and that’s a good thing.”

***

A month later, the country was in lockdown in the face of coronavirus. Everything had changed, except that it hadn’t.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the focus was taken off the hunt for so-called anti-nationals after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the pressure on those speaking out against the government increased in its wake. In some cases, this was from natural causes: protesters at the Shaheen Bagh neighbourhood in Delhi finally had to pack up and go home; sitting out in a large crowd was obviously a risk.

But in others, it had political causes: in Uttar Pradesh, chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a right-wing, nationalist Hindu monk, charged an anti-CAA protester with the Epidemic Diseases Act of 1897. In other words, a colonial-era law meant to control the spread of diseases appeared to be used against someone who dissented against Adityanath. And all the while, life became more dangerous for India’s Muslims, who are being used as a scapegoat for the advance of Covid-19. 

“Despite the spreading epidemic and the hardship caused by the continuing lockdown, the government has not relented from pursuing a range of critics, increasingly invoking draconian laws intended to combat terrorism,” the Economist observed, pointing to a 69-year-old management professor and a 27-year-old Jamia student, both in prison on charges only tangentially related to their rea crimes: standing up for those the government wants to only see vilified.

The Financial Times also reported that police are using the coronavirus pandemic to justify arresting Muslim activists and civilians, often in connection with the riots that led to tens of Muslim deaths in north-east Delhi in February, as well as to justify limiting access to legal representation. And since one significant infection source was the headquarters of Tablighi Jamaat, a Muslim missionary movement, some BJP members have tried to link the virus with Islam, distributing saffron-coloured flags to mark Hindu food vendors.

Alongside this are concerns that measures put in place for public health reasons could be used instead to surveil citizens. On 4 May, the government mandated that anyone who works or uses mass transit install a contact-tracing smartphone app. The app, as Payal Dhar noted in Slate, has been criticised for its lack of data protection, and activists have noted that the government could exploit it by extracting data on its foes. 

But those ministers would paint with the brush of anti-nationalism are not done yet. I received a message from Zoya Azmi this spring; the students were no longer going to class. It was too much, I told her; she and her classmates had been through more than classmates should have to go through. But, she added, they’d have to start their fight over again once this was over. She was already thinking of what would come next: of how they, the nationals, would continue the fight.

Emily Tamkin was a 2019-2020 Council on Foreign Relations International Affairs Fellow in New Delhi, India.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor