Authoritarianism Is Winning on Every Front in India

Instead of its economy becoming more liberal, its polity is growing more illiberal.


Even when India was an economic basket case, it was a political and spiritual bright spot that guaranteed basic freedoms to its people and offered a refuge to Westerners seeking peace and spiritual wisdom. But under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country is going backward on every front: Its economy is in a free fall (with growth at a six-year low and unemployment at a 45-year high); its polity is becoming authoritarian; and its dominant religion, Hinduism, is growing intolerant.

What's even more depressing is that the country seems to have lost its will to fight this descent into darkness. Nothing speaks to that more poignantly than its muted reaction to two developments in the last few weeks. One concerns the exiling of a journalist. The other is the Supreme Court's ruling in the 27-year-old Babri mosque case, involving land that both Muslims and Hindus claim as their own.

In a raw exertion of authoritarianism, the Modi government moved to strip journalist Aatish Taseer of his Overseas Citizen of India status, akin to a Green Card, essentially banishing him from the country where he grew up. The official line is that Taseer, who was born in England to an Indian mother and a Pakistani father, committed fraud by failing to reveal his father's heritage on his OCI application. This accusation is beyond absurd, given that Taseer comes from an extremely prominent family whose history has been public knowledge for decades.

Indeed, Aatish's father, Salmaan Taseer, whom he didn't even meet till he was 21, was the governor of the province of Punjab in Pakistan. His 2011 assassination by Muslim fanatics who hated him because he was a progressive reformer who vehemently opposed his country's blasphemy laws made international headlines. Meanwhile, Aatish's mother, Tavleen Singh, who never married his dad and brought Aatish to India when he was an infant, is a famous Indian journalist who arguably did more than any scribe in the country to put Modi in the prime minister's chair. She is a Sikh and a "liberal." Yet she broke ranks with her community and her peers to back Modi from the very start. She penned column after column backing Modi's line that the then-ruling Congress Party was dynastic, corrupt, and nepotistic and deserved to be thrown out. She pleaded that Modi, who talked up the cause of economic development, deserved a chance—never mind that in 2002 he had presided over a Muslim pogrom in the state of Gujarat, where he was chief minister.

So what did Aatish Taseer, who divides his time between New York and New Delhi, do to deserve exile? He broke ranks with his mother and wrote a cover piece for Time on the eve of Modi's May re-election titled "Divider in Chief." It criticized Modi for feeding a revanchist Hinduism and turning a blind eye to the growing Hindu violence against Indian Muslims.

His anguished mother is now condemning the Modi government as not just "wrong but evil." But Modi targeted her son precisely to send one of his periodic reminders that no critic is immune from his wrath.

Taseer's exile has prompted 260 prominent personalities outside India to sign a petition demanding that the Modi government back off. But within India, the response has been relatively muted. There have been some critical pieces, mostly in anti-establishment publications, but nowhere close to the outpouring of disgust and alarm that the incident merits. It's as if the Indian media is getting too inured or scared—following brutal assassinations and arrests of anti-Hindu journalists and dissidents—to mount a vigorous opposition to Modi. And that is his goal exactly.

If India's lackluster response to the Taseer affair is troubling, its reaction to the Supreme Court's watershed ruling this month in the Babri mosque case is genuinely dismaying. This case had its genesis in 1992, when leaders from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led a procession of Hindu volunteers to Babri, a 16th-century mosque, whipped them into a frenzy, and prodded them to tear down the structure with their bare hands. Modi, a political neophyte at the time, rode on one of the chariots. The BJP's rap against the mosque is that it was allegedly built on the birthplace of Lord Ram, one of the most revered Hindu gods, by a Muslim ruler who deliberately tore down a temple.

The only proper outcome in this case would have been to hand back the land to the Sunni Muslim board that owned the mosque before it was destroyed. Instead, the unanimous, 1,000-plus-page ruling rejected a lower court ruling that recommended divvying the land between Hindus and Muslims, because that would be inimical to "public peace and tranquility." It handed over the entire site to the Modi government to oversee the construction of a temple. In other words, the court allowed political rather than legal considerations to sway its mind.

The result should have been public outrage. But even secular liberals who oppose Hindu nationalism seemed more comforted than upset by the ruling, because the court at least acknowledged that the original destruction of the mosque was an act of "political vandalism" that deserved compensation. It invoked Article 142, a law that gives the court sweeping powers to do "justice," to order that a lot twice the size of the original be handed to the Sunni board to build a mosque elsewhere.

The court also treated the issue as a property dispute, rejecting the notion that Hindus deserved the site simply because of its religious importance to them. But what truly mollified liberals was that the court went out of its way to affirm that the Babri mosque case would not set a precedent for future mosque grabs, given that Hindus dispute literally thousands of Muslim structures, including the Taj Mahal. How? The court pointed out that while the 1991 Places of Worship Act requires the country to honor the status quo that existed when India gained its independence from the British in 1947, this law exempted Babri from its purview because it was the subject of longstanding litigation. It is foolhardy to think that Modi, whose party holds a solid majority in Parliament, will have much difficulty scrapping the 1991 law to pave the way for a systematic dispossessing of Muslim places of worship.

In other words, standing laws pose absolutely no barrier for the ambitions of radical Hindu nationalists under Modi. In the six months since he's been re-elected, he has scrapped the constitutionally granted governing autonomy of the Muslim majority of Kashmir. The state's leaders are still under house arrest. He has also launched an unprecedented drive to strip millions of Muslims in the state of Assam of their citizenship. And his home minister, Amit Shah, categorically stated this month that his government plans make this drive national before the 2024 election.

The national reactions—or lack thereof—to the Taseer case and the mosque ruling demonstrate that the only deterrent to majoritarian Hindu ambitions in Modi's India aren't legal or political, just Modi's own designs. If Taseer can't hang on to his free speech rights and citizenship, its hard to see how India's 140 million Muslim citizens can hang on to theirs.

There was a brief moment in the 1990s when it seemed India would liberalize its economy to go along with its liberal polity. The reverse is happening now, and Indian liberals are getting too fatigued to stop it. Authoritarianism is winning all around in India.

This column originally appeared in The Week