Both electoral democracies and authoritarian states are increasingly legitimising hatred and bigotry, hollowing out democracy, and eroding the ideas of equal citizenship. The time is overdue for a radical new imagination of our shared futures.
By Harsh Mander
There are signs all around us of a world in tumult. In many countries across the planet – including in India, the world’s largest democracy – freedoms and fraternity are being challenged, and sometimes snuffed out by ever stronger politics of hatred. If you are a minority of any kind – religious, racial, ethnic, caste, gender – a life with dignity and security has become increasingly precarious. We today inhabit a planet in which the odds are high that your neighbour will not look like you, worship like you, speak your language, as well as eat, dress, sing, dance, and love like you. How do we respond to these “different” people? Are we welcoming, curious, and friendly? Or fearful, resentful, and hateful?
Few countries in the world are today immune from the rise of far-right leaders who foster the path of distrust and hate of people of different faiths, skin colour, beliefs, and ways of life. Worryingly, significant and growing sections of the electorate in many countries, including in Germany, are subscribing to this politics of resentment against “different” people recast as outsiders, interlopers, and do not belong. In India, this campaign of hate against minorities has swelled into a raging flood, threatening to sweep away all that seven decades of secular democracy has accomplished.
Threats to democratic freedom in India
India’s democracy was never perfect. But even with its flaws, it was robust, vibrant, colourful, and assertive. It had largely free elections, a relatively independent judiciary and press, assertive political oppositions, and a vigilant civil society.
However, in the journey of the Indian republic, a point today has been reached when democracy and freedoms stand gravely threatened. V-Dem Institute fittingly categorises India as an “electoral autocracy.” Among the most dramatic and worrying of these threats to democratic freedoms in India today is the crushing of dissent – in politics, civil society, and academia. Shrill popular discourse, led from the top, equates the supreme leader, the ruling party, and the government with the majority religion and the nation. Thus, all criticism is stigmatised, even criminalised as “anti-national.”
India’s anti-terror UAPA law is weaponised against dissenting voices – intellectuals and activists, both young and senior – who are being jailed for years without trial or bail. The colonial-era “sedition” law is similarly deployed against political dissenters. A full 97 percent of sedition cases filed under the Narendra Modi government have been against citizens criticising the government. A century ago, Gandhi was charged under this law for “disaffection” against the colonial state; he famously retorted that “affection” cannot be forced, it must be earned.
Premier investigation arms of the Indian state are being massively misused and brazenly to criminalise the political opposition and citizen dissenters. Then there is the rapid wilful destruction of the liberal arts university; and a ruinous crackdown on funding and licensing of civil society.
The World Press Freedom Index 2021, published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF), ranks India at 142 out of 180 countries: as “bad” for journalism and “one of the most dangerous countries” for journalists trying to do their jobs properly.
What Germany's past in the Third Reich teaches us
With this we see the violent state and social targeting of India’s religious minorities – especially Muslims but also Christians. Under attack is their freedom of worship, but also their right to equal citizenship. In the year that I spent in Germany, I studied closely the experience of Germany under the Third Reich. This history looms with the sombre caution that democracy requires, but is not restricted to, the rule of the majority – because this can mutate into fascism. Democracy entails the protection of every minority, of all their freedoms including of worship and culture, assuring that they are equal citizens in every way.
In eight years of the leadership of Prime Minister Modi, India has been wracked by the tumult of a state-led campaign of open hate directed against its religious minorities, mainly Muslims, but also Christians’ freedom of religion. A sickness has penetrated the soul of this ancient country. So much so that Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, argues that India under Modi shows early signs of an impending genocide. The US Holocaust Museum estimates that after Pakistan, India is the country most likely to witness a genocide.
I agonise to witness so many similarities between what is unfolding in India today and the hate campaigns against Jews in the 1930s that led ultimately to the Shoah. To list only a few of these:
- Runaway hate speech by senior political leaders: in the media, in academia, in popular culture, in tech and corporate senior positions, godmen, and ordinary citizens. They stoke and legitimise popular hatred and bigotry, and sometimes even call for genocide and mass rape. The reminder again from Nazi Germany is that the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers; it began with hate speech led from the top.
- An epidemic of lynching and targeted hate attacks on minorities by citizen vigilante groups and individuals with the permissive role of law enforcement agencies and courts – and public silence around it.
- Altering laws of citizenship to exclude Muslims from equal access to citizenship, thereby creating a hierarchy of citizenship – and threatening statelessness.
- Legal and social barriers to inter-faith (and inter-caste) romantic and sexual relations and marriages, with the “love jihad” bogey.
- Targeting of cultural and religious practices and shrines of targeted minorities, using both law and violent vigilante actions.
- Attacks on Christian shrines, priests, and nuns.
- Threatening to demolish mosques where claims are made that Hindu temples once existed.
- Rewriting history in ways that demonize Muslims and valorise the role of the dominant groups.
- Renaming cities and roads to erase the participation of minority groups and cultures.
- Rewriting school textbooks and school systems to exclude and demonize minorities.
- Targeting of the economic base of targeted minorities – their livelihoods and properties – using both changes in law and violent vigilante actions.
- Forcing of separate living and ghettoization of targeted minorities, also using both changes in law and violent vigilante actions.
I could go on. These are terrifying echoes not just of Nazi Germany, but also of the Jim Crow U.S. and the unfolding genocide of the Rohingya of Myanmar.
As leaders in both electoral democracies and authoritarian states are increasingly legitimising hatred and bigotry, hollowing out democracy, and eroding the ideas of equal citizenship; the time is overdue for a radical new imagination of our shared futures. This imagination must be founded on fraternity and solidarity, on the idea that we should take care of one another. The idea of secular democracy does not require the denial of religious faith, but instead entails equal respect for every religious faith, including the absence of faith.
A shared future founded on fraternity and solidarity
It must contain the principle of equal belonging of minority faiths, ethnicities, language, and gender, without conditionalities. You do not have to learn to be like us, the dominant majority, to be eligible to belong. We – both dominant and minority peoples – need to accept, respect, learn from, and in the end celebrate one another. Germany under Hitler fell deep into the abyss of horrific hate politics led from the top. It culminated in one of the gravest crimes of modern human history. But later generations have struggled admirably: in a singular national enterprise of bravely confronting the crimes of their recent history in order to build a more kind and equal nation.
As we struggle against dominant ideologies of hate, we must be mindful that hate cannot be fought with hate: this will only deepen it further. We need to find a new idiom of resistance to fight hated, based on radical love. This love, founded on great courage, must indeed become the soul of our new imagination of social contracts between all peoples, of justice, equality, and caring.
Harsh Mander is Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy and Chairperson of the Centre for Equity Studies in India. He is the author of "Locking Down the Poor: The Pandemic and India’s Moral Centre" (2021).
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