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Indian Prime Minister Flexes His Authoritarian Muscle

He is cooking up a red scare to justify a crackdown on human rights activists

When my dear friend Gauri Lankesh, a journalist who doggedly championed the cause of India's increasingly persecuted Muslim and dalit (lower caste)ModiHindustan Times/Sipa USA/Newscom minorities, was shot at point blank range in her driveway last year, it seemed that Indians had finally woken up to the fact that their 70-year-old liberal democracy was in trouble. They marched in the streets, organized protests, held candlelight vigils, and demanded an end to the lawlessness that had claimed Gauri's life—as well as the lives of too many others.

But instead of heeding these calls and going after the sinister radical Hindu outfits that are widely suspected to be behind the killings, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party—BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)—is encouraging local authorities to themselves descend into lawlessness. Last week, the state of Maharashtra, which is in BJP hands, orchestrated simultaneous raids in several cities, ransacking the homes and offices of multiple human rights activists—lawyers, writers, journalists, and academics—arresting five. The supposed rap against these people is that they are (a) urban Naxalites or Maoists who instigated violence at a dalit event in January and (b) were involved in an alleged plot to assassinate Modi.

The first claim is manifestly false and the second patently ridiculous. The obvious reason for the crackdown is that having woefully failed to deliver on his promise of turning India into an economic powerhouse, Modi is deliberately trying to scare the public and silence his critics in the run-up to next year's elections.

Naxalites are radical communists with a pretty nasty record of using violence to redress caste and other oppression. But "Naxalite" is also an all-purpose bogeyman label politicians use against anyone they deem "dangerous." The BJP for months has been systematically inflating the Naxal threat. Naxalites have historically operated in rural areas (where caste oppression is a fact of life) and tribal districts (where the government has been grabbing land from indigenous people living for centuries in the forest and handing it without adequate compensation to mining and other corporate interests). However, the media lately has been running stories that the Naxals are infiltrating cities in an effort to destabilize the country, hence the coinage "urban Naxalite." One particularly breathless newscast warned viewers that Naxals might be their neighbors or colleagues! This is India's equivalent of the red scare.

Maharashtra police claim that dalit leaders, in bed with these Naxals, orchestrated the violence during the January event. The reality is the exact opposite. The event, which celebrates dalit pride, has been held every year in Bhima Koregaon, a town near Mumbai, since 1927. It has always riled the local upper castes because it commemorates the victory of the 1818 British East India Company against the provincial Brahmin king. The dalits, who saw the Brahmins as more oppressive than the British, fought side by side with the East India Company to defeat the king. The British, as a token of their gratitude, included the names of the dead dalit soldiers on an obelisk that has become a shrine for dalits.

But this year, thanks to the toxic nationalism that has grown under Modi, right-wing Hindu outfits declared the event anti-national and demanded that it be scrapped. When the dalit leaders refused, Hindu hotheads delivered fiery speeches, triggering riots. Maharashtra's BJP government is now trying to blame the violence on the dalits themselves, never mind how much that strains credulity. Siddharth Varadarajan, the editor of the smart and serious The Wire, put it well by asking why dalits would disrupt their own event that they've been holding virtually violence-free for close to a century.

That, however, didn't stop local authorities from arresting in June five dalit activists allegedly responsible for the violence. Now they are claiming that documents recovered from their laptops implicate the five arrested this week as Naxal sympathizers masquerading as benign human rights activists. One of them, they claim, was even involved in the alleged assassination plot against Modi.

This is absurd and outrageous.

Consider Sudha Bharadwaj, 54, one of the five arrested: She is the daughter of two MIT engineers and herself a math graduate from India's most prestigious institute. Much like Gauri, she has devoted her entire life to fighting for the rights of tribals, dalits and low-wage workers. At a young age, she renounced her creature comforts and started living in a veritable slum with other day laborers. She adopted her daughter from a tribal family and sent her to the same schools as the neighborhood families because she believes that if you don't live the life of the people you are fighting for, you can never fully understand their travails. She obtained a law degree so that she could better represent her fellow slum dwellers and others seeking redress from corrupt bureaucrats and rapacious business interests. Her unwavering devotion to India's worst off has made her an almost Mother Teresa-like figure in local circles.

To say that her arrest is ominous is an understatement. If she can be targeted as a Maoist, then literally every journalist, activist, and lawyer who represents India's persecuted and oppressed could be framed. "Nobody will be safe in an environment like this," her lawyers told the court. "We'll be next."

Modi's defenders claim that the arrests have nothing to do with him given that the Maharashtra government coordinated them. But Salil Tripathi, a veteran Indian journalist and the chair of PEN International, which tracks threats to journalistic and artistic freedom around the world, notes that it is highly improbable that Maharashtra could have taken such a major step, requiring the cooperation of police authorities in other states, without alerting and getting approval from the center.

Indian laws already give the government sweeping powers to go after anyone it wishes. But by cracking down against Bharadwaj, Modi is signaling that he will no longer be restrained by basic social norms when exercising his awesome powers. It is a calculated attempt to silence criticism and dissent.

Many commentators are comparing what's transpiring now in India to the 1975 "Emergency." This was the darkest chapter in India's liberal democracy, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi suspended the constitution and gave herself dictatorial powers to conduct mass arrests of political opponents, dissidents, and human rights activists. Modi's abuses might not have reached that scale yet, but they are arguably far more insidious. Gandhi at least had the decency to make an official declaration and alert the public to what she was doing. Modi, on the other hand, is acting by stealth to avoid a public uproar.

Worse, even as he is branding dissenters and critics as radical leftists and throwing them behind bars on manufactured grounds, he has done zilch to clamp down on the violent Hindu outfit whose members are among those arrested for Gauri's murder. Nor has he done anything to rein in Hindu vigilantes lynching Muslims merely suspected of consuming beef. In fact, a prominent Harvard-educated minister in his party garlanded and feted convicted lynchers.

The fear with Modi when he was elected four years ago was that he was an authoritarian Hindu nationalist who would focus less on liberalizing India's economy and more on promoting an illiberal religious fanaticism. After all, he cut his political teeth in the militant wing of the BJP, and as the chief minister of his home state, he had presided over one of the worst anti-Muslim pogroms in the nation's history.

The crackdown on Bharadwaj and her fellow activists and the free rein he's handed to violent Hindu fundamentalists show that these fears were far from baseless.

Unless Indians step up and send him a message in the next election, the best days of their liberal democracy might well be behind them.

This column originally appeared in The Week

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  • SIV||

    Shikha is such a Hindu Nationalism-phobe.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    ;)

  • Juice||

    I pretty sure that no one here gives one shit about what's going on internally in India. I could be wrong though.

  • SIV||

    I didn't RTFA but I think Modi might be cracking down hard on commies. I always like to see that.

  • The Last American Hero||

    You Know Who Else cracked down hard on commies?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Stalin?

  • ||

    Mao?

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Pol Pot and Idi Amin?

  • Oli||

    Your mom?

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    Modi targets commies the same way Antifa targets fascists.

  • Oli||

    I'm a European giving half a shit about what's going on internally in the US, so I guess there are American readers giving one about India as well.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    You know who else wears Orange on the podium?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Defendants?

  • The Last American Hero||

    Jim Boeheim at a pep rally?

  • Paloma||

    Peyton Manning at theSuperbowl?

  • MJBinAL||

    Shitma is a pain in the ass. Pretty much always.

  • Jerryskids||

    I never have understood why the US hasn't developed closer ties to India, if nothing else as a counterweight to China and Islam. For the most part, they're a secular democratic capitalist state and, despite inheriting the Brits love of bureaucracy, an up-and-coming economic power. So why does the US feel the need to treat Pakistan and India neutrally? Why aren't we supporting India in the same way we support Israel? And does it have something to do with the question of why we let the Shah go and got rid of Khadafy and Hussein and are working on Assad - because they were Westernized secular brutal dictators and we prefer our brutal dictators to be anti-American Islamic fundamentalist nut jobs?

  • Left ± Right > Hihn||

    India swung towards the Soviet Union in the late 1940s/early 1950s, continued to be nominally allied with them (neutral but leaning towards Russia), and still swings vaguely socialist. So it started seven decades ago when India bet the wrong side; Israel, meanwhile, started seriously trying to court the U.S. about fifty years ago.

    Plus, there's a fairly sizable Jewish community in the U.S. You can't say the same about an Indian community. And when you add in that India doesn't really seem to have much in the way of natural resources we need (read: oil), and that India has seemed pretty ambivalent towards the U.S., well, there's not much of an incentive to court India.

  • SIV||

    Nuts

    Jews are 1.4% of US population
    Indo-Americans are about 1%

    There has always been reason to court India, geopolitics. They border China (why they courted the Soviet Union) and Pakistan.

    We're their second largest trading partner. They're our 9th.

    India has a lot of educated, English speaking, high achieving people.

    Oh, I see you are responding to someone who made the same points, and you're still wrong.

  • Left ± Right > Hihn||

    The question of "why haven't we" was asked. And these are basically the reasons why.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Times have changed, and so have the demographics. In 1900, Jews were 2% of the global population. The Holocaust changed that, but non-Jews still remembered Jews as a sizable group after the Holocaust. Now, no one alive remembers life before the Holocaust and America's Indian diaspora has grown from barely visible to significant. Given the new facts, it is time for America to build a closer relationship with India.

  • Echospinner||

    If that is what the Indian government wants. Not sure that is the case. They have tended to be very independent in international relations.

    Israel is an entirely different matter. Different history and culture there. Israel and India have a good relationship. India buys a lot of Israeli weapons and the attitude of Indian people is very open to Israel.

  • Hugo S. Cunningham||

    We pushed India toward Soviet Russia when John Foster Dulles enrolled Pakistan into the ostensibly anti-Soviet Central Treaty Organization (CENTO) with Kemalist Turkey, the Shah's Iran, and pre-Ba'athist Iraq. We sent the Pakistanis weapons to deploy against Soviet Russia, but they immediately deployed them against India instead.

    We would have done better to renounce Cold War interests in the still-bleeding Indian Subcontinent. The worst enemy of both India and Pakistan was poverty. We could have let the Soviets build dams and steel mills, while encouraging Indian entrepreneurial classes to develop skills in the USA.

  • DRM||

    In order to form closer ties to a country, that country has to be willing to form closer ties with you.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    If we started a reciprocal visa program with India, they would probably like it. The visa program wouldn't specify career paths, but I look forward the day when American preservationists move to India to save the rain forests there and Indian researchers move to America to develop new technology. Although, I might feel a bit guilty sending our environmentalists to India, someone has to put up with them.

  • vek||

    I've always wondered the same. We've basically had more of a kiss ass relationship with Communist China than with India in recent decades. India was a bit more socialist up into the 90s, but they reformed earlier than China! And they were always a democracy at least... If loving big government precludes us from being friends with anybody, then bye bye NATO!

    We really should work on closer ties with India. SOMEDAY in the far flung future China will likely be the biggest economy in the world, followed by India, followed by the USA. If India ever gets its act together it may well be number 1, because they have not tried to knee cap their population growth through official policy, and still have a growing population unlike China.

    Any which way, we will be the Big Three. China is clearly aggressive, ambitious, and anti western... To NOT become CLOSE allies with India is INSANE.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Naxalites are radical communists with a pretty nasty record of using violence to redress caste and other oppression. But..."

    No enemies to the Left, no friends to the Right.

    Notice how when commies use violence, it's to "redress" wrongs. It's not like Marxists have any history of murdering tens of million of people.

    Add Shikha to Nick as the local Marxist apologists.

    "Libertarian Moment"

  • Left ± Right > Hihn||

    Did you read anything beyond the "But"?

    Shikha basically compared the Indian establishment's use of "Naxalite" as a slur to "Commie" as a slur in the fifties. If you want a decent alternative, being called a "Naxalite" by the Indian establishment is like being called a "Nazi" by the American establishment.

    Seriously, that's what the rest of that paragraph is about. Read the fucking article, davy.

  • SIV||

    STFU, commie

  • Anti-Fasciitis||

    If you want a decent alternative, being called a "Naxalite" by the Indian establishment is like being called a "Nazi" by the American establishment.

    OK, let's try that.

    Nazis are radical fascists with a pretty nasty record of using violence to redress inflationary and other oppression. But...

    Hmm, doesn't seem to work.

  • buybuydandavis||

    In the 50s, Commie was a slur to people who *weren't* Commies. To a Commie, it was simply true.

    She *states* that the Naxalites are communists. To call people something that they are is not to slur them.

  • perlchpr||

    You seem to have gotten two only tangentially related things stuck together.

    The Naxalites are actual Communists, yes.

    But Shikha here is saying that the term "Naxalite" is being used as a slur, to people it doesn't apply to, in the same way that "Commie" was used as a slur, to people it didn't apply to, just as a means of political leverage against them.

    I.e.: The point is that the people being accused of being "Naxalites" aren't. (Or at least that's Shikha's implication, I have no idea whether or not it's actually true.)

  • vek||

    I would guess, based off of this and a bit of other reading I have done about India over the years, that the people being called such are probably firmly in the leftist camp. So IMO it would be more like a Republican or Libertarian calling a radical Democrat or Bernie Sanders type a commie. Which is to say they're very much that direction, but probably not quite full tilt. Remember India was a very socialist country into the 1990s, and there are still a lot of idiot leftists who think it should return to that. Maybe calling European Style Socialists outright commies isn't the best tactic, but it's not THAT far from the mark.

  • sharmota4zeb||

    Except this 2016 Times of India article about Moists says they are the fourth deadliest terrorist group after the Taliban, ISIS, and Boko Haram. In 2015 terrorists killed 289 Indians making India the fourth most affected country after Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Moists were responsible for 176 of those Indian terrorism casualties that year. Imagine the outrage if there were more than 3 deaths per week for a year recorded by the Black Lives Matter movement. We basically have a belt of terrorism suffering countries in Iran's region, but terrorist attacks there don't make the American news the way deadly terrorist attacks in the EU or protests over statues in the USA make the news. According to the American zeitgeist, terrorism happened because we went where we should not go and it stops once we leave.

  • vek||

    Yup. People forget that India is a country with a lot of real problems, not first world problems like we have here. In addition to crazy leftists, they also have a lot of violence, and just social tension with their Muslim population. There's a reason that a Hindu nationalist was elected president there... Because the issues with the Muslims are a real thing, and it pisses off the majority population. All those Muslims in India are idiots. They should have moved to Pakistan and Bangladesh like the majority of Indian Muslims did after they were all given independence.

  • Hamster of Doom||

    Sorry about your friend, Dalmia. My condolences on your loss.

  • Nirmal Saxena||

    There have been some arrests in Gauri Lankesh's murder case.
    Special Investigation Team arrests Maharashtra man in Gauri case (BangaloreMirror, Sep 10 2018. The url is too big for reason.com site

  • vek||

    "Hindu hotheads delivered fiery speeches, triggering riots."

    And here is THE SAME problem we have with idiot leftists in America, and you just covered for them. Somebody SAID something, the left responds with ACTUAL violence, and you apologize for them!

    Let's get real here, India has a REAL problem with left wing crazies. They ALSO have real problems with their Muslim minority, who should have moved to Pakistan or Bangladesh when they were all made independent. The fact that they have REAL problems, and Modi is willing to deal with them harshly... So what. Leftists SHOULD be dealt with harshly, and if the Muslims weren't stirring shit I suspect there would be a lot less tension there too.

    f the right wing in America really just said "Fuck it, we're going to curb stomp these ANTIFA thugs every time they show their faces!' would it not basically be justified at this point? Because that's basically all that is going on in India right now as best as I can tell. Regular people are sick of it, and going vigilante style on shit bags. It may not be legal, but I wouldn't say it's unjustified. Over 1,000 terrorist leftist attacks/kidnappings a year is a MAJOR problem. Should they just sit there and cry about it? Or bend over and give in to the commies? Surrender is NEVER the correct way to deal with leftists.

  • Chhath||

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