Fear, loathing and the culture wars: the 2019 Indian elections

The Indian federal elections are at an end, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), it is anticipated, will be returned to power. In 2014, it won an unprecedented majority in parliament, overcoming India’s longstanding reliance for leadership at the federal level on the Congress Party – the party that stewarded India through its independence and dominated national politics until its decimation in 2014. The BJP, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, hopes to replicate those results and further entrench its power nationally.

Billing itself as the party of jobs, growth and opportunity, the BJP has fuelled much propaganda about India’s potential for further development and economic growth. But its mainstay is (and has always been) the politics of Hindu nationalism – that is, the reconceptualisation of secular India as a Hindu nation. This has been accompanied by a not-insignificant amount of violence, particularly in the form of persecution of political ‘dissidents’ and religious minorities.

During its time in government, the BJP has overseen some patently anti-democratic developments. Universities – particularly those with a more ‘liberal’ bent – have come under attack for what has been characterised as their unpatriotic thinking, and this has led to a lot of acrimony and bitterness on all sides. Here, I’ll discuss the most prominent of these cases and its implications for Indian democracy.

In 2016, students from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi were arrested on charges of ‘sedition’ and criminal conspiracy for the ‘crime’ of organising an event where demonstrators chanted what were subsequently deemed to be ‘anti-national’ slogans (slogans denouncing government actions). The event was organised to protest the 2013 execution of a Kashmiri ‘separatist’ who was convicted and sentenced to death for a terrorist attack on the national parliament, as well as the 1984 execution of another Kashmiri ‘separatist’.

(In India, sedition remains a statutory offense, punishable with up to a lifetime of incarceration. This antiquated and anti-democratic statute will hopefully be abolished one day but the political establishment can’t seem to give up using this terrible colonial-era law. ‘Anti-national’ is an Indian neologism that has recently gained currency in public discourse. It is essentially a synonym for seditious. The term ‘separatist’ is used by the Indian media to primarily refer to people – particularly politicians and members of militant groups – who support the secession of the Muslim-majority state of Kashmir from Hindu-majority India.)

The organisers were charged with sedition ostensibly because some of those who had attended had chanted ‘anti-national’ slogans; but a lot of people, including media commentators, objected to the very aim of the event, which was to express solidarity with supporters of the movement for Kashmir’s secession, and to the fact that it was allowed to take place in the first instance. Later, students and professors who stood by those who had been arrested were harassed, intimidated and lambasted for being seditious ‘anti-nationals’.

In 2017, students at Delhi University gathered to attend a public lecture featuring, among others, one of the students from JNU who had been arrested. These attendees were severely beaten and assaulted by members of the BJP’s student wing, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP).

Attending students – many of them belonging to All India Students’ Association (AISA), an organisation affiliated with the Marxist-Leninist Communist Party of India – and professors from the university were assaulted, and the event was ultimately prevented from taking place. Later, further protests and counter-protests by the ABVP and AISA roiled the university. A febrile atmosphere descended on campuses around Delhi.

This series of episodes represents one example of a concerted movement – sometimes underpinned by violence – against so-called ‘seditious’ and ‘anti-national’ thought in the country, particularly at universities. Right-wing groups in India have used violence, intimidation and harassment to stifle political discussions on university campuses and, occasionally, more widely in society. They have created an atmosphere of strife and engaged in fear-mongering to provide cover and justification for the violence they inflict on people who do not share their worldview. As seen in the aftermath of many incidents, politicians and police condone this violence, sometimes implicitly but often explicitly.

The core message that comes through many right-wing groups’ demagoguery and mass mobilisations is that the nation is in grave and imminent danger, and that vile ‘anti-nationals’ are out to destroy everything it holds dear. But what exactly are they claiming to defend? Where is this nation that is so imperilled by the calumnious voices of ‘anti-nationals’? Where is this nation that is so in danger of being overcome and overrun by destructive left-wing forces that all criticism of the government’s actions or policies must be stifled? The warlike rhetoric and exhortations to fight in defence of the country that demagogues routinely indulge in make any kind of nuanced dialogue impossible.

This exclusionary, us-against-them, Manichean thinking has long been the staple of right-wing Indian politics – indeed, the staple of Indian politics in general. So mired in irrational dogma is this political culture that it engenders a siege mentality that makes impossible any critical thinking and engagement, and rational discourse.

The fact that violence against individuals targeted for their beliefs has continued to erupt in India should compel us to confront more seriously the question of what kind of political culture (and, ultimately, what kind of society) we’re allowing our representatives to build.

The main opposition, the Congress Party, is rightly vilified for its history of corruption. Since the time of India’s independence, it has fostered a culture of reverence for inherited leadership, gross nepotism and corruption of democratic norms. People in India have come to regard its undemocratic functioning as an unalterable reality. There is little, if any, consciousness about how to achieve change. It is only with the benefit of time that one realises how wrongly the Congress Party has operated, and how it has corrupted Indian democracy.

The opposition is splintered and profoundly flawed. Even where public mobilisations have succeeded in focusing attention on the persecution of minorities and other issues, the danger of their being co-opted by vested interests and political forces has lurked in the background. Nevertheless, even if the BJP wins again, it cannot be given free rein to further undermine democratic and secular principles. The anti-democratic tendencies of the Indian state apparatus need to be fought and changed. The media and civil society need to attempt to stanch the tide of hysteria around ‘anti-national’ thought that the country’s government has fomented. For the party and the country to progress, this is essential.


Image: 2014 election posters, Flickr

Arjun Rajkhowa

Arjun Rajkhowa works in tertiary education in Melbourne. His research interests include public health; media, culture and society; human rights; and policy. He has volunteered in the community sector in Melbourne for several years. He can be contacted on Twitter at @ArjunRajkhowa.

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