Democratic breakdown doesn’t need a blueprint. It can be the result of a sequence of unanticipated events—an escalating tit-for-tat between a demagogic, norm-breaking leader and a threatened political establishment. The process often begins with words. Demagogues attack their critics in harsh and provocative terms—as enemies, as subversives, and even as terrorists.
—Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die.
Levitsky and Ziblatt may have penned their book, How Democracies Die as a response to Trump’s America, but every symptom of a democracy in peril listed in it is currently eerily manifesting in Narendra Modi’s India.
Students and activists protesting against the Citizenship Amendment Act across the country have been met with unprecedented police brutality. The establishment and its media stooges have been quick to label protesters anti-nationals, anti-Hindu, terrorists and the tukde tukde gang (a phrase coined by the right-wing media, which means “secessionists who want to break the country in pieces”). A day after massive protests on the campuses of the Muslim institutions Jamia Milia Islamia and Aligarh Muslim University, the prime minister stated that “those who are protesting can be identified by their clothes,” in what may have been a hint at the traditional attire and skull caps of the predominantly Muslim students at these institutes.
The incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act on 11 December 2019. The act amended the Citizenship Act of 1955 by providing a path to Indian citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian religious minorities who fled persecution in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, before December 2014.
The BJP’s detractors have two main objections to the act.
First, it discriminates on religious lines by excluding Muslims. Rohingyas, Ahmadis and Hazaras are routinely persecuted in their homelands: excluding them on the basis of religion goes squarely against the secular spirit of India’s constitution. The act also excludes Sri Lanka, with its vast swathes of Tamil–Hindu refugees. Perhaps this is because Tamilians have never warmed to Hindutva, which has always been a predominantly upper-caste North Indian movement. The BJP has struggled to win even one seat in the southern state of Periyar.
The BJP also plans to conduct a massive nationwide exercise in social engineering in the guise of the National Register of Citizens (NRC). Under NRC, all 1.3 billion Indians will be required to prove that they are citizens. Indian citizenship will be granted to people who can prove they meet one of the following three criteria:
(1) born on or after 26 January 1950 and before 1 July 1987;
(2) born on or after 1 July 1987, but before the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in 2003. At least one parent was a citizen of India at the time of the birth;
(3) born on or after the commencement of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, provided (i) both parents are Indian citizens or (ii) one parent is an Indian citizen and the other was not an illegal migrant at the time of the affected party’s birth.
Even if an Indian possesses a passport, a voter ID card, Adhaar card, PAN card or any of the half a dozen forms of ID that the government issues to its citizens, she is in danger of being disenfranchised if she cannot meet the abovementioned criteria.
The government has already started building detention centres across the country, to house those who are unable to prove their bona fides.
The NRC was initially implemented in the border state of Assam, with the probable motive of weeding out Bangladeshi refugees and migrants. But it spectacularly backfired, as the greater proportion of those who couldn’t produce the requisite documents were Hindus. The whole exercise was eventually scrapped. Critics fear that Hindutva zealots will use the NRC in tandem with the CAA to strip Muslims of their citizenship, while the Hindus who will inadvertently get caught in the NRC’s net will still be granted a backdoor route to citizenship, through CAA.
The student protests that started at Aligarh Muslim University on the 15 December 2019 have now spread to streets and campuses across the country. The establishment has doubled down, using Hindutva militants to violently attack protestors. On the night of 5 January, masked men armed with weapons and acid, who belonged to the ABVP (the RSS’s student wing), attacked student protestors on the campus of the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.
Meanwhile, in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, BJP’s firebrand Hindutva monk turned Chief Minister Ajay Bisht, aka Yogi Adityanath, unleashed a police force widely considered corrupt and communalist on the state’s Muslim neighbourhoods. The cops were caught on CCTV destroying vehicles and property belonging to Muslims, and forcibly entering houses to rob and beat Muslim inhabitants. They even shot and killed a student who was returning home after Friday prayers at the local mosque. In another incident, a cleric was stripped and humiliated, while the students at the hostel he presided over were allegedly sexually assaulted by the cops.
India’s student protests have enjoyed overwhelming support. Bollywood celebrities, who usually remain quiet on contentious socio-political issues, have also taken to the streets in Bombay and Delhi, to support the anti-CAA/NRC protesters.
Hindutva’s plan to denationalize undesirables has some very murky precedents. Hysteria about immigrants and aliens has been a constant feature of authoritarian regimes. According to historian Erwin Staub, the official SS newspaper, the Schwarze Korps, stated in 1938 that, “if the world was not yet convinced that the Jews were the scum of the earth, it soon would be when unidentifiable beggars, without nationality, without money, and without passports crossed their frontiers.”
Narendra Modi faces a faltering economy and an unprecedented slowdown in India’s economic development. This threatens his government’s popularity and ability to carry out their plans. Yet, his Hindu base remains intact. Unless the average Hindu can be made to realize that no far-right ethno-nationalist project in history has ended happily for its people, India may be doomed to repeat a script that has played out dismally multiple times in twentieth-century Europe.