Indian Hindu nationalist BJP government has become authoritarian, destroying democratic institutions, undermining minority rights, equality under the law, freedom of religion, the right to dissent, independence of the judiciary  and press freedom, leading jurists, civil rights activists, journalists and students have said.

Participating in various panel discussions last weekend 3-4 October at a virtual conference, Reclaiming India, panelists said the only way to combat the Modi government’s authoritarian conduct would be to strengthen the institutions, including the judiciary, and create South Asian solidarity.

Speakers also drew parallels between the ongoing struggle of India’s Dalit community with the Black Lives Matter movement while examining the similarities between Hindutva and white supremacist ideologies.

The diverse variety of speakers laid out the state of democracy in India providing vision and forward-thinking strategies to save democracy and protect human rights and religious freedom in India.

The conference was organised by Global India Progressive Alliance, Hindus for Human Rights, India Civil Watch International, Indian American Muslim Council, and Students Against Hindutva Ideology.

Bilkis Dadi.

Bilkis Dadi from Shaheen Bagh, who was recently featured in Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in 2020, made a video appearance in which she stated, “We are not begging the government to give us alms. We are only asking for equal rights. Modi is also my son. If I didn’t give birth to him, my sister did. Women have achieved (in these protests) what men were not able to do.”

Speaking on the topic of “Independent Judiciary Under threat”, Veteran civil rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Mr Prashant Bhushan came down heavily against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

“This government has singularly tried to subvert the independence of the judiciary, firstly, by not making the appointment of independent judges and getting independent judges transferred,” Mr Bhushan said. “This government is using post-retirement jobs to subvert the independence of the judiciary and, worst of all, it is using agencies to blackmail judges… If the judiciary has to be saved, this government must go.”

Mr Prashant Bhushan.

Mr Bhushan said whenever, “something unsavoury” about the judiciary was exposed, the court would see it as a threat to its independence. “They say that the mere exposure of unsavoury goings on within the judiciary is a threat to their independence. Independence from the government doesn’t mean independence from accountability.”

The sedition laws were being misused against “anybody who criticises the government, the Prime Minister, and the Chief Minister… Once you are accused under [UAPA], the police can make any kind of absurd story against you.” The Supreme Court should strike down this law, “but, unfortunately, they are not doing this duty,” Mr Bhushan said.

Former Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari said the mass protests by Muslim women against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh had been “unique in more than one sense. One, that it was all women; two, it was spontaneous; and three, the majority, but not the totality, of participants were Muslim women.”

He said that the same Muslim women who were being said to need “saviours” just a couple years ago “had suddenly turned out to save India’s democracy… It was a very powerful movement [and] it sent a very powerful message.”

 

Mr Hamid Ansari.

Mr Ansari said the way the government responded to the anti-CAA protests by attacking campuses showed that the police was “more politicised” than earlier, the media was “communalised to the core”, and the bureaucrats were “literally airing their views” in support of the government’s autocratic and ideological response.

The former Vice-President, however, said he was optimistic as it would be difficult for the government to crush dissent. “Throughout our history every new idea has been an idea in dissent, whether it is religious [or] social dissent… You cannot run a steam roller,” Mr Ansari said. “But there is a heavy political price to pay for dissent. What Gandhiji said at his various trials, what Maulana Azad said at his various trials.”

Mr Ansari especially gave a shout-out to iconic youth leader Umar Khalid, who was arrested last month under the UAPA. “[Umar has] resonated with millions of other youths, Muslim or not, because you cannot really… categorise and bracket him to just his Muslimness. He has also become a youth icon.”

Former Additional Solicitor General of India and Supreme Court lawyer Ms Indira Jaising said “criminal procedure has been eroded and become a plaything in the hands of [Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s] government.” Power in the legal profession was now “emanating from the executive, and the judges know this.”

Ms Indira Jaising.

Ms Jaising said “partisan politics” had entered the court through lawyers, saying “Courtrooms are used as a forum to advocate that a few of us are anti-nationals,” and blamed the politicisation of the lawyers. “A necessary condition for the collapse of the judiciary is the collapse of the bar. But I also feel that the Bar has collapsed,” she said. “The question is, how do we break through this breakdown of the Bar and return to the value of reclaiming India?”

Condemning the arrests of activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on charges of conspiracy in violence in Delhi that killed 50 people, two-third of them Muslims, last February, she said protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act did not amount to a “conspiracy to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of India.”

Renowned journalist Ms Arfa Khanum Sherwani added, “I would classify the Shaheen Bagh movement as a feminist movement because I saw for the first time women who had never been to any political protest or site, making the journey from their kitchens to the protest site within 24 hours.”

Renowned human rights defender Teesta Setalvad said the Modi government’s behaviour was a “manifestation of unbridled abuse of power. Archaic laws such as sedition laws are being applied. The political agenda is both narrow and vendetta driven, archaic laws such as sedition laws are being applied. First comes the branding of an individual as anti-national and then comes the incarceration. The penal codes are not being followed. The number of journalists arrested is unprecedented.”

She said there was a need to build a large South Asia coalition, including civil rights organisations from neighbouring countries, to fight fascism.

Congress party’s Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor said, “I am glad that the organisers of the Reclaiming India conference have chosen to focus on some of the most important issues confronting India’s democracy, and pluralism today. It is time to reaffirm the idea of India enshrined in our Constitution. This requires a conscious effort to defend the besieged institutions of civic nationalism to restore their autonomy and ensure their effectiveness. It also requires us to look to an idea of India that is comprehensive, embraces all experiences and refuses to see the past through the prism of any one faith.”

Mumbai-based human rights lawyer Mihir Desai who is the convenor of People’s Union for Civil Liberties in Maharashtra, said the Modi government had “mastered the use of these [draconian] laws to turn victims into the accused. They are being persecuted and prosecuted. An authoritarian state is being brought in while maintaining a facade of a democratic state. “Democratic institutions are being hollowed much more than earlier.”

He explained that in international law, a political prisoner was accused of an offence not committed for personal gain or benefit, but a larger collective objective, and was treated differently. But in India, there was no distinction between a political and non-political prisoner. “The present government is concerned by its international image, and international pressure should be applied to restore democracy and the rule of law in India,” he added.

Congress party leader, Salman Soz, said the CAA and the National Register for Citizens (NRC) were “wrong” and it was important to criticize them openly. “If you don’t say it, it may seem like it’s politically the right thing, but actually you’re empowering the other side.” He conceded that the Congress party had given the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the torchbearer of Hindutva, an “opportunity… Hindutva ideology is here to stay. We have to introspect and see what our role is in the rise of Hindu nationalism. […] The RSS have taken their ideas, ideology and kept propagating it. They kept working on it. They kept nurturing it.”

He said though the rise of extreme right-wing politics was a global phenomenon, unlike in other countries, India’s institutions had turned out to be “very brittle. They are just incapable of withstanding this tsunami.” There was “no magic solution” to the challenge from the ideology of Hindu nationalism, and it needed to be taken “head on”.

Reflecting on a question to identify an alternative to the BJP, Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader, Atishi Marlene said, “there’s no national opposition to the BJP right now. As an opposition, we need to think very deeply, that we are not here to raise a voice against BJP, we need to defeat the BJP.

She further said that “we almost shunned and looked down upon a conservative Hindu Middle class world-view and when we as ‘progressives’ have refused to engage with this world-view we have left this entire world-view for the fascists to take over.

Veteran journalist Pranjoy Guha-Thakurta said anyone who criticised the Modi government was targeted. It was not just the “regime being unhappy or antagonistic”. The government was different in how it was vengeful in the “manner in which other institutions of democracy have been systematically undermined and demolished, the media has been systematically bled and financially squeezed.”

Akriti Bhatia, journalist and founder of Peoples’ Association in Grassroots Movement and Associations (PAIGAM) said there was a “need to understand the clear linkage between what used to be an independent media and what used to be free and fair elections”. She said even the Constitution had an “anti-national character”, as evidenced in the “processes of concentration, centralisation and homogenisation, economic, political and social.”

US-based Indian author Aatish Taseer, who has been barred from entering India by the Modi Government even though he was born and raised there, shared his experience of being treated as a Pakistani just because his father was one. “If there are 200 people in that room who are saying you are something else, then you are something else. It’s a description of something that’s playing out on a bigger scale in the country right now where people are trying to define themselves against other people. They’re not being accepted on their sense of self, they’re suddenly colliding with other ideas of who you are. That is something that can really stop you in your tracks.”

Joining a panel of students, N Sai Balaji, former President of Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union, said students had, as an entity, become the opposition to the government. We never imagined that would happen. If we can vote for a government, we have the right to choose what policies we want.” He added that when students hit the streets to protest, “they don’t come out as Hindus or Muslims or Sikhs, they come out as students.”

Ruia Prasad, a Dalit Activist in Arizona, US, said there were “a lot of similarities in the way students have taken on prominent issues in our political climate and really organized around them… “In the US, we have seen less violence toward students than [there was against students at] Jamia [Milia University] or JNU.

There also hasn’t been as strong of a political leadership in U.S. student unions compared to India.” The reason Hindu nationalism was being called out explicitly in name was because there were more Dalit activists in the diaspora than before, she added.

Multifaceted artiste Nrithya Pillai, who is from the Devadasi lineage and has been a strong voice against casteism and casteist exclusion in the contemporary dance world, said the “historical casteist exclusion, which is what the reinvention of Bharatanatyam is based on, has been about excluding people from the hereditary communities.”

She pointed out that most artistes in the state-funded classical arts set-up were siding with Mr Modi’s Hindu nationalist government and their views. “I’m not sure if they do it out of political inclination or mere opportunism.”

She added that “ my mere existence is just the questioning of the powerful. There has been institutionalised omission and erasure of history from my community, names have been erased.”

Ahsan Khan, National President of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), said India’s opposition parties had a “critical duty in fighting for the rights of the marginalised and the oppressed, as well as opposing religious majoritarian nationalism that is putting India’s unity and integrity at risk. It is disheartening to see that none of India’s opposition parties has offered a strong resistance to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act beyond tokenism, even though the law threatens to rip apart India and destroy its communal harmony.”

Biju Mathew, co-founder of India Civil Watch International, said “a set of fault-lines” were running through liberalism as the right-wing has managed to “outflank all the  structures of checks and balances that made the possibility of liberal democracy, by internally producing processes and modes of working that fundamentally upset all the checks and balances within liberal democracy.” The right-wing across the world had learned to “flip liberal democracy on its head and cut through all the checks and balances. We need to reinvent that.”

Rya Jetha of Students Against Hindutva Ideology said her organisation focused on changing attitudes and behaviours in the diaspora by organising campus protests and teach-ins, and also briefing Congressional aides and pursuing legislative asks. “For too long Hindu nationalism has been shrouded as a legitimate part of culture and religion in the diaspora. On college campuses we are working to make an entire generation of Indian American youth aware and able to critically think about Hindu nationalism so that future generations apoloigse less and take to the streets more.”

Quoting Bhimrao Ambedkar, the 20th-century Dalit leader who went on to architect India’s Constitution, Prof Roja Singh of Dalit Solidarity Forum said, “Indian democracy is essentially a top dressing on an Indian soil which is essentially undemocratic.”

She said the Reclaiming India conference had shown “amazing democracy rising” with students, lawyers, artistes, singers and writers “in their anti-caste rhetoric and exploding dynamism speaking out against fascism, Hindutva, Hindu nationalism, patriarchy, misogyny; concrete naming of the problems demanding the changes from the Indian government — wow — that was simply an unbound explosion of positivity.”

Manish Madan, founder of Global Indian Progressive Alliance said, “As progressive Indians we stand for bringing people together towards building progressive communities. We aspire to bring progressive values beyond the lens of religion, caste, ethnicity, race, and gender. Our anchor hinges on education, advocacy and social justice. We are glad to have played a modest part in bringing diverse voices together coming from various religious and progressive lenses through this initiative called Reclaiming India.”

Raju Rajagopal, Co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights said, “Hindutva nationalists have taken over almost all political and religious institutions and they have rushed in to occupy all the spaces vacated by progressive Hindus. What is a purely political fascist group is now claiming to speak for all Hindus. With the rare exception of people like the late Swami Agnivesh, it has completely co-opted Hindu faith leaders, who seem nowhere in sight to defend their oft-repeated mouthed, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’.” Rajagopal said his organisation was “united in our goals of working for a casteless and pluralistic and democratic India, with true equality for all.”

Sunita Viswanath, Co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights closed the conference with, “Over the past two days we witnessed so much courage from frontline activists, politicians, intellectuals from India; and also the fierce unwavering solidarity from all of us, your brothers and sisters in the diaspora. Reclaiming India was born over these two days and we pledge to stay together and grow our coalition globally and be back for our second conference this time next year: ReclaimingIndia@74.”