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India Becoming Illiberal

India Becoming Illiberal

One of the top priorities of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been image-building of India among the world nations.  His zeal for the image- building of India took him to 92 nations (including repeated visits) in 55 months, till the end of December 2018, whereas his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, visited 93 nations, including repeated visits, during his tenure of ten years. At the same time, one knows that the perception of the world nations about India depends to a great extent on what happens inside the country. In a globalized world no nation can hide from others the developments taking place inside the country. The political developments that have taken place in India ever since Shri Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister, especially after his re-election, are sending to the world an image of illiberal India.

The Times of India wrote an editorial on 18th November under the title, “Don’t harass Aatish: Intolerance towards dissent and free speech will hurt India”.  The editorial criticized the punitive action of the government of India revoking Oversees Citizenship of India (OCI) status of diasporic writer, Aatish Taseer. Astish Taseer had written an article about PM Nrendra Modi in the Time magazine on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha election under the caption, “India’s Divider-in-Chief”. The action by the government of India is perceived by many as retaliation. The editorial also mentioned about the letter written by 260 prominent authors, journalists, activists and artistes – including Nobel Prize winners – to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi to review the drastic decision. The editorial concluded with an appeal to the government: “Aatish’s OCI status must be restored to send out a signal to both the diaspora and international community that India remains true to its democratic ideals. If New Delhi cannot achieve the latter, then instead of isolating Pakistan it will itself stand isolated and lose control of the international narrative”.

The illiberal attitude of the BJP government has been reflected in its policies, decisions, actions and its response to criticism and dissent. Anyone who is critical of the government or its ideological parent, the RSS, is branded as anti-national. The government uses laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism to crack down on dissent. In April 2018 the police in Tamil Nadu arrested Kovan (S Sivadas), a folk singer, for singing a song at a protest meeting that criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In September, Tamil Nadu State authorities arrested a woman for calling the BJP government “fascist” on board a flight in the presence of the State’s BJP president. In the same year June, police arrested eight people in Bihar State, including five under the age of 18, for sedition, for playing and dancing to an “anti-India” song. Journalists face increasing pressure to self-censor due to the threat of legal action, smear campaigns and threats on social media, and even threats of physical attacks.

In an interview to the NDTV, Aatish Taseer argued that to ask a journalist not to criticise would be the death of his dharma. "Freedom and the right to criticism is the life blood of journalism," he said. "I think the spirit of freedom of discussion, dissent and tolerance is not only part of the modern Indian nation but is in the Hindu soul. So, to create an atmosphere, where critics would be silenced or terrified, where a climate of terror prevailed - you are really doing violence to the spirit of what India has stood for not just for 70 years but millennia," Aatish Taseer added.

What has happened in Kashmir since August 5 is a proof of the illiberal policies and decisions of the BJP government. The world nations and international agencies have started expressing concern over human rights violations, suspension of civil liberties, detention of political leaders and information blockade. “We are extremely concerned that the population in Kashmir continues to be deprived of a wide range of human rights and we urge the Indian authorities to unlock the situation and fully restore the rights that are currently being denied," said Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights on October 29. The spokesperson also alleged that the Supreme Court of India has been slow to deal with petitions concerning habeas corpus, freedom of movement and media restrictions. These developments are sending wrong signals to the prospective foreign investors who will be reluctant to invest in India.

Many policies and decisions of the BJP government have been opposite to liberalism. Meat ban, making the cow slaughter laws more stringent and encouraging the cow vigilantes, giving more teeth to the anti-conversion laws and its abuse and misuse by the extremist Hindutva groups and demonetization are a few of them. 86% of India’s currency was made invalid without any consultation with the RBI. Demonetization was later proved to be a disaster, reducing the GDP growth at least by 2%, according to the assessment of late PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh.

The two most important pillars of democracy, the Judiciary and the media are weakened. The election commission was often accused of favouring the ruling party. The mainstream media has now become more like an extended propaganda arm of the government. The investigation agencies like CBI, ED, and NIA appear to be the agents of the government. In general the institutions are being turned into agencies for furthering the agenda of the political party in power.

BJP government’s antipathy towards the Civil Society Organizations and NGOs working for the promotion of human rights is another example of the illiberal approach of the government. Many NGOs working for the empowerment of Tribals, Dalits and minorities and promotion of Environment were harassed. The Foreign Contribution Registration of many NGOs, including that of the Green Peace was cancelled.

India has a liberal constitution and the constitutional liberalism is reflected not only in “the provisions for free and fair elections, but also for the rule of law, a separation of powers, and the protection of basic liberties of speech, assembly, religion and property.” The Supreme Court of India has often been a guardian of liberalism. In 2017 and 2018, it pronounced a few landmark judgements in social change. Prominent among them are the constitutional right to privacy, the decriminalization of same sex relations and adultery, declaring instantaneous  triple talaq unconstitutional and overturning the ban on women of menstruating age entering the Sabarimala Temple in Kerala.

But the liberalism of the SC was not reflected in the four important judgments the SC delivered during the third week of November 2019: the Babri Masjid case, dismissal of the petition regarding the Rafale aircraft deal, decision to review its Sabarimala temple verdict by a seven judge bench and Karnataka defection case. Swaminathan Ankalesaria Aiyar in his article, “SC should not only be impartial but seen to be so” (The Times of India, November 17, 2019) has asked a question. “Has the Supreme Court, long praised for independence and fearlessness, suffered some erosion of its tough impartial image, and allowed itself to be seen tilting towards BJP?”

While analysing the causes for the worrying economic slowdown in India Dr. Manmohan Singh wrote in a column in Hindu on 18th November, "Mutual trust and self-confidence are the bedrock of such social transactions among people that foster economic growth. Our social fabric of trust and confidence is now torn and ruptured." This is the result of the divisive and illiberal policies followed by the government. He concluded with a suggestion to the government to adopt a ‘social policy’ by inspiring trust and confidence in the economic participants in our society.”

One can find at the root of the illiberal policies and actions of the government its political ideology of Hindutva. Hindutva envisages a majoritarian Hindu Rashtra based on a hierarchical and patriarchal socio-political system as envisaged in the Manusmriti. Hence there has been relentless attack by the Sangh Privar members on the idea of constitutional liberalism of which secularism forms a very important part.

The growth of illiberal attitude is found not only in the realm of politics, but also in other areas of the social life of the Indians. Growth of fundamentalism in almost all religions of India is a significant reason for the weakening of liberalism. The opposition from a large number of women to the Supreme Court judgement, allowing menstruating women to enter Sabarimala temple, is not only the result of the political mobilization by the BJP and the other members of the Sangh Parivar but also the brainwashing by the fundamentalist religious leaders.

Liberalism is one of the important factors that contribute to understanding and harmony among the followers of different religions. Religious fundamentalism promoted by the overzealous preachers creates prejudice and even hatred in the people against the followers of other religions, besides killing critical thinking and choking all creativity. The fanatic preachers have played a key role in spreading the venom of hatred and revenge in the minds of many liberal Hindus in India. In the same way, the fanatic preachers in other religions, especially in Islam and Christianity, are also responsible for the increasing the divide among the three religions in India.

Against this backdrop, the most important mission of the Catholic Church in India today is building peace and harmony among the followers of different religions. Promotion of the liberal constitutional values: pluralistic democracy, justice, equality, liberty and fraternity through the various ministries of the Church, is the best means to build peace and harmony. In the words of Justice Kurian Joseph, the constitutional values are nothing but the values of the Kingdom of God. Simultaneously the Church leadership has to put a break on the fanatic preachers in its own fold who create prejudice against other religions.

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(Published on 25th November 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 48)