Modi and the polarisation of India

Jul 24, 2022
visual of wall art at Shaheen Bagh protests 7 Feb 2020
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Modi must reverse the sectarian polarisation, rein in the hate-spewing Hindutva mobs and practice as well as preach inclusion.

India is the world’s biggest democracy, and then some: the size of its electorate is bigger than all the Western countries combined. Just the number of Indian Muslim voters exceeds the total number of voters in all Western countries other than the US.

In common with nationalist parties everywhere, Modi’s BJP projects itself as the party of muscular nationalism and derides other parties, especially the Indian National Congress party, for being too ashamed to adopt the outward symbols of national pride. It came as a rude shock therefore when students, women and other protestors across the country, including Muslims in particular, appropriated the nationalist symbols with spontaneity and gaiety to celebrate their core Indianness. The tricolour was adopted as the symbol of the protest, the national anthem became its song, and the Preamble to the Constitution the vocabulary. On Republic Day, Jamia Millia students read aloud in public spaces the Preamble to the Constitution – which proclaims liberty, equality, justice and fraternity for all Indians and respect for all faiths – in Hindi, English and Urdu (the language of India’s Muslims) before raising the tricolour and singing the national anthem.

In the process the women and the youth of India articulated a counter-narrative of patriotism and reset the terms of engagement between citizens, the government and the Constitution. This is all the more striking for diverging from the trend to identitarian politics in many contemporary Western democratic societies, for example the ‘Great Replacement’ theory propounded by Frenchman Renaud Camus. The BJP’s slogan of ‘Akhand Bharat’ (indivisible India) has an external reference point: India’s territorial integrity is sacrosanct and no foreign power will be allowed to break apart any part of it. The protestors ‘domesticated’ the slogan: no Indian political party will be allowed to threaten the national integration of India by labelling and compartmentalising them into identity groups divided by religion and caste.

The country’s unity thus becomes a sacred obligation entrusted by the Constitution to every citizen. The hijab-clad and tricolour-draped young Muslim women challenged Modi’s December 2019 dog-whistling narrative directly by instrumentalising the Constitution for framing their engagement with democratic politics. Furthermore, and just as important, they articulated their demands and asserted their rights as Indians, but without sacrificing their Muslim identity. And by directing their demands and rights at the elected government, they expanded the conception of liberal democracy once again, rescuing it from the majoritarian trap into which the Modi government had put it.

In other words, democracy, citizenship, constitutional governance and minority rights are all forged into one powerful national identity. They emphatically and visually rejected the BJP’s efforts to downsize their destiny as India’s Muslims and instead reimagined the idea of a liberal, pluralistic, tolerant and inclusive India embodied in the Constitution.

A Revolution of Aspirations as Indian Muslims

This is revolutionary, for the government had put on notice the whole notion of citizenship in modern India as a legal status, a bundle of entitlements and rights, and as civic identity and belonging to one’s homeland as a birthright. Refusing to be pigeonholed into victimhood and to be shorn of agency, they expanded the BJP’s political agenda to challenge PM Modi: what kind of India do you want? One trapped in the prison of past glory, where ancient Hindu texts replace modern science and technology in the classrooms; addressing Parliament on 12 December, a BJP MP claimed that speaking in Sanskrit can keep diabetes and cholesterol under control (he spoke in Hindi). Or one that puts in place policy settings to maintain social cohesion today and achieve greatness tomorrow? A direct consequence of this is that the tables were turned and the BJP and Modi government stood accused of constituting a clear and present danger to the Constitution, national unity and territorial integrity of India.

The protestors picked up yet another rousing song called azadi. The literal translation of the single word is freedom, but as a concept it is multidimensional and includes the historical weight of India’s independence struggle as well as freedom from want, violence, oppression, inequality and discrimination. And thus it is that the words of the song referenced the azadi of B. R. Ambedkar, the dalit leader who drafted the Constitution, as well as Gandhi who preached and died for inter-faith harmony, social cohesion and an end to the all-pervading indignity of poverty.

Citizenship in the democratic Republic of India was forged in the crucible of the independence struggle – ‘azadi’ from British colonial rule – that was essentially a mass civil disobedience movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. Thus, the wellsprings of legitimacy of the strategy of nonviolent civil disobedience lie in nationalist origins and are fused inseparably into the drive for full citizenship in a free India. This makes it impossible for any Indian government to discredit and delegitimize dissent expressed through peaceful mass mobilisation. Protests and civil disobedience are potent symbols of collective aspirations of the community for a new, better and brighter India.

Patriotism was disconnected by the protestors from sectarian identity based on religion and caste and relocated in the Constitution. The protests sparked a sustained debate on the nature and meaning of the Indian Constitution and the rights and protections conferred on citizens and minority groups. In that sense they became powerful and effective instruments of mass civic education on citizenship in a liberal democracy. Therein lies the Gandhian political genius of dressing the protests in the national flag, anthem and Constitution. As the veteran journalist Shekhar Gupta noted, India’s core attributes as a global brand include an argumentative democracy, an opinionated society, a chaotic and cluttered but nonetheless inclusive governance, and living in comfortable ease with diversity.

International Reputational Damage to ‘Brand India’

Refusing to learn, of late BJP stooges have even gone after Amartya Sen, one of India’s rare Nobel laureates, because he has been critical of Modi’s economic and social policies. Based on what, prima facie, look to be trumped up charges of land misappropriation, an éminence grise who should inspire national pride is to be dragged into the gutter to be ritually shamed and humiliated. Nor do the Hindu zealots spare Muslim war heroes. Brigadier Mohammad Usman, a decorated war hero from the 1947–48 war with Pakistan over Kashmir, is buried in a cemetery in Delhi. In December his grave was vandalised by miscreants but the Indian Army carried out the necessary restoration work promptly.

The Citizen Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) issue has split Indians at home and the diaspora abroad, risking dismemberment by undermining social cohesion, political stability and economic recovery, while draining diplomatic capital. The contrast could not be starker between the frisson of excitement in the year following Modi’s 2014 victory and the escalating concerns over his authoritarian instincts today. India’s global influence expanded rapidly in the 21st century with impressive economic growth; an overdue acknowledgment of its vibrant pluralistic democracy; the growing recognition that India’s Muslims had successfully integrated into the Republic’s secular democracy to constitute an effective bulwark against the spread of Islamist radicalism southeast from Afghanistan-Pakistan; and the emergence of its diaspora as an increasingly influential lobby in several key countries.

Modi managed to reposition India as a counterpoint to Pakistan just when New Delhi had succeeded in distancing itself from the old lazy habit of outsiders always hyphenating it with Islamabad. Good relations with Bangladesh was just another roadkill on the Hindutva highway. In September 2018, Home Minister Amit Shah – the second most powerful politician in the country – used the language of ‘termites’ for allegedly illegal Bangladeshi immigrants who would be thrown into the Bay of Bengal. Amidst the turmoil of the CAA-NRC controversy, an irritable Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told the Dhaka Tribune on 10 December 2019: ‘They have many problems within their country. Let them fight among themselves’. Pakistan’s schadenfreude at India’s own goal was palpable.

In the US, especially after the crude embrace of Trump at the ‘Howdy, Modi’ event in September 2019, the two-decade-old bipartisan pro-India consensus was shattered with growing hostility in the Democrat-controlled House. Representative Pramila Jayapal (D) – the first Indo-American woman elected to the House who was shunned by India’s foreign minister during a US tour – promised to persist with her attempts to hold India accountable for alleged human rights abuses. From January 2021 the Democrats have control of both houses of Congress and also the White House and Kamala Harris, whose mother was Indian and who too has been critical of India’s drift from human rights standards under Modi, is the Vice President. The ripples have also spread to Europe and the UK. International investor confidence will take a big hit with the escalation of religious tensions.

Back to the Future

Before the painstakingly curated goodwill, respect and admiration for India dissipates completely, Modi must urgently restore a functioning system of domestic political accommodation and economic vitality. The ‘strongman’ Modi government has been sacrificing respect for legitimate authority. After the first iteration of a strict lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020 which banned interstate movement of people, thousands of suddenly unemployed and stranded migrant labourers set out on foot, carrying their children, to walk hundreds of miles to their home villages in mass defiance of the draconian rules. People who become used to resisting citizenship, religiously discriminatory laws and coronavirus diktats will now find it easier to evade other, less arbitrary regulations in the future, to ignore and challenge the idea of authority, and to deepen their contempt for politicians who make arbitrary laws. When a critical mass of people begins to regard laws as arbitrary, unjust, intrusive and infantilising, they will defy them. Unless they are all charged, convicted and punished – an impossible condition with masses of people – this will degrade the whole rule of law.

China’s Communist Party never admits to mistakes but always learns from them. India’s PM Modi never admits to mistakes and seems too stubborn to learn from them. He calls to mind Barbara Tuchman’s description of Philip II of Spain: ‘No experience of the failure of his policy could shake his belief in its essential excellence’. The transition to a post-Nehruvian order will require the ‘politics of trust, credibility, inclusion and consensus building’, says Yamini Aiyar, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a think tank in New Delhi. ‘A divisive, polarizing rhetoric, populist leadership and coercion can help propel parties to power’, but will not be sufficient to create a self-sustaining social and political cohesion. ‘The government may still brazen it out, but the policy agenda and credibility is considerably weakened’, she concludes.

It may be that Modi has come to realise the damage to external relations that has been caused by the domestic politics-focussed Hindutva agenda. He had gone out of his way in his first term to court Islamic and Arab countries like Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates with considerable success. All these initiatives were at serious risk of unravelling because of the Hindutva push. Modi’s speech at Aligarh Muslim University on 22 December 2020 was notably conciliatory.

When the Indian national anthem was sung at the start of the Australia-India cricket test match in Sydney on 7 January 2021, TV cameras zoomed in on the face of Mohammed Siraj, the son of an auto-rickshaw driver from Hyderabad playing in his first series in national colours. Tears rolled silently and poignantly down his face as the emotional weight of the symbolism hit home. But to Hindutva fanatics, his loyalty to the country of his birth and that of his ancestors for several generations will always be suspect. Modi must reverse the sectarian polarisation, rein in the hate-spewing Hindutva mobs and practice as well as preach inclusion. An excellent role model for him to emulate is New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern whose brilliant performance in the immediate aftermath of the Christchurch mosque massacres in March drew global praise. Three snapshots will illustrate the point, as indeed photos of all three illustrations went viral around the world. Her tag line ‘They are us’ was a powerfully resonant bumper sticker slogan for encapsulating inclusiveness of the Muslim minority. She wore a hijab when visiting the mosque. Modi has donned many a colourful headgear over the last five years but not once has he appeared in a skull cap – and the snub has been noticed. And, Ardern instinctively reached out and physically embraced Muslim men and women survivors and relatives of the massacre.

Delivering the annual Gandhi Peace Foundation lecture on Gandhi’s birth anniversary on 2 October 2020 in New Delhi, prominent activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan described the serial attacks by the Modi government’s hit squads on minorities and journalists who question the fundamentally discriminatory laws and the creeping encroachment on the independence of institutions as ‘an assault on dissent by the use of fundamentally unjust laws’. He concluded that were Gandhi alive today: ‘He would have lauded and led the protests and would surely have launched a Jail Bharo Andolan, daring the government to incarcerate millions of peaceful protesters from across the country. It is this courage in adversity that Gandhi would have displayed in leading India today’ – as indeed did the ladies of Shaheen Bagh a year ago.


This is an extract from an article  posted by the Toda Peace Institute in February 2022 ,’They called us Illegal. How is it possible?’

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