Colonial Hangover, Right-Wing Populism Define Indian Democracy

 History testifies that the single most influential construct in the postmodern world is imperialism. The remnants of colonial structures still loom over integral aspects of society in what we know today as ‘the third world’. India, for example, is still reeling from the consequences of the blind partition of the country that birthed modern-day Pakistan. Caught in the crosshairs of the newly-formed nations was the Kingdom of Kashmir. After a brief and bloody guerilla struggle between India and Pakistan, India absorbed the Kingdom on the condition that it be granted regional autonomy, provisional under Article 370 of the Indian Constitution. 

The partition began a 72-year-long tussle between India and Pakistan that — even after two wars, in 1947 and 1965 — continues to shape their relations and respective national socio-political discourse. Generations of Kashmiris have lived and continue to live with this political turmoil, with regularly-occuring protests and acts of terrorism in the region. This turbulence has often forced the government to intervene, resulting in curfews and altercations between the police and civilians. Years of volatility and violence finally culminated in a highly controversial move by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — the ruling party of India — over Indian-administered Kashmir earlier this year.

The original terms of India’s agreement with the state of Jammu and Kashmir granted the state and its people special provisions as of 1950, chief among which was a degree of regional sovereignty within India. This degree, which grants permanent residents of Kashmir the right to determine their own laws, as well as other special provisions, is known as Article 370. On Aug. 5, 2019, the Indian Government declared the complete revocation of Article 370. The decision to dissolve the Article was made unilaterally by the BJP and brought into action overnight, a move many have critiqued as unconstitutional and undemocratic. With the revocation of Article 370, the very basis of social organization within the state has been compromised. Kashmiri autonomy was only further undermined by the decision to strip the region of statehood and split it into two separate areas under the direct control of the central government. What the split means for daily life in Kashmir is debatable, but the facts remain that in the hours following the announcement, curfews were implemented, internet access was entirely disabled, and phone lines were cut — not to mention the arrests of hundreds of political dissidents. 

Almost three months later, the situation remains nearly the same, with the exception of restored phone lines. Journalists and opposition party members have been denied access to the region, leaving much to the interpretation of domestic and foreign media. While the government maintains that basic human rights are still honored, and that there has been no breach of trust, the inarguable truth stands that no one really knows what’s going on. The only feasible option for international media has been to assess the situation based on the available facts — which are just as scarce as access to the internet — and what little information slips through the cracks. The majority of reports to flow out of the state involve terrorist attacks and violence.

To contextualize these events, it is important to understand the nature of the BJP. A right-wing, conservative party with roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh — a Hindu nationalist organization — the BJP has been one of two primary national political parties to operate in India since its independence in 1947. The face of the party, Narendra Modi, has been Prime Minister of the country since 2014 and was re-elected earlier this year. Modi’s track record as a political figure is questionable to say the least. It was during his term as Chief Minister of Gujarat that the 2002 Gujarat Riots targeted against the Muslim minority occurred, resulting in the deaths of 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus. While he has since been cleared of charges of any involvement in the riots, local reports stand that the government and police allegedly helped organize the rioters. Modi’s Hindutva rhetoric and RSS background have most certainly impacted the nature of his government, with many attributing the surge of mob lynching across the country to him. 

It may not surprise many readers to see the similarities between Modi and President Trump, who is equally, if not more, prone to racist commentary. In fact, the number of global right-wing conservative leaders seems to be swelling — Boris Johnson in the U.K. and nationalist parties in France and Germany all seem to be cut from the same cloth.

The right-wing wave has been all too tangible over the last decade, and it is evident that these parties look to each other for validation. Modi, who has spent much of his time as Prime Minister on international envoys, continues to look to the West for answers. His recent decision to show foreign ministers around Kashmir is a blatant expression of this need. Articulated impeccably by the Leader of the Congress Party Adhir Chowdhury, Modi is suffering from a “colonial hangover.” Alongside his seemingly unavoidable need to appease western powers, growing international pressure, and overwhelming international support for Pakistan, Modi finally decided to call in a ‘second opinion’ on the state of affairs in Kashmir. On the invitation of a little known NGO called WESTT, 27 European Union Parliamentarians traveled to India with the purpose of visiting Jammu and Kashmir. After being greeted by the Prime Minister in his residence in Delhi on Monday, the delegation departed for Srinagar, Kashmir, on Tuesday morning. 

The visit is more than symbolic, considering the fact that only select few Indian politicians have been allowed to visit the region. As a breach of the established Indian political hierarchy, this decision to grant foreign diplomats access to the area before domestic figures is unparalleled. Prominent Indian politicians, including Opposition member Shashi Tharoor, have spoken out against this move, coining a trending Twitter hashtag, #InsultToIndianDemocracy. It is, without a doubt, an insult. For a country that prides itself on being the ‘world’s common practice to leave the opposition in the dark, and actively denies it access in multiple regards. Moreover, the explicit purpose of the visit was to brief the delegates on the security situation in Kashmir, a declaslargest democracy,’ it is alarming when a ruling government makes it sification of information that was otherwise unavailable to the Indian public. While the government and its many supporters are characterizing the visit as a stroke of diplomatic genius on Modi’s part, the subtleties of the informal EU delegation raise a number of alarming questions.

Of the 27 members of the delegation, 22 are affiliated with right-wing conservative parties in their countries. Considering Modi’s track record of altering narratives and employing religious rhetoric, the right-wing majority delegation seems suspicious. While it is inevitably impossible to prove, the likelihood of these specific MEPs being specially selected cannot be ignored, especially considering that an entire team dedicated to drafting a plan for the EU’s relationship with India published a “Joint Communication to the European Parliament and the Council” in 2018. Members of that team would no doubt be far better acquainted with the context in political, religious, and historical arenas than the diplomats who visited Kashmir, yet were conspicuously absent from the delegation. So, again, if foreign diplomats had to be taken to Kashmir, why not the ones who are familiar with the Indian context?

The world is experiencing a ripple effect. As college students with the privilege to attend an institution such as Oberlin, it is incumbent upon us to pay attention to the broader implications of right-wing nationalist parties gaining popularity around the globe. Modi is a leader who constantly seeks validation, particularly from the Western world. It is essential, therefore, for countries such as the U.S. to consider the existence of Narendra Modi with as much gravity as Donald Trump. While Trump is in the middle of an impeachment inquiry, Modi faces clear skies. The primary opposition party in the Indian Parliament is in shambles, and the Democrats in the U.S. are navigating an 18-candidate brawl for the presidential nomination, compared to the GOP’s unity. The political imbalance is striking but, more importantly, it’s statistically unnerving. The old guard of democracy is failing, and governments around the world are forced to choose the lesser of two evils. Yet, when devils abound, it becomes difficult to dissociate good from bad. Modi looks to Trump for advice, just as Trump looks to his delusions and Twitter. Most of us are conversant in the realities of American politics, but it is equally important that we connect our understanding to international developments. 

We have the ability to use our voices, opinions, and privilege to bring that moral line back. We must condemn not just Donald Trump and his brazenness, but Narendra Modi and his unilateral governance. So long as major democratic strongholds around the globe succumb to conservative leadership, “who will guard the guardians themselves?”