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Mass Protests Greet India’s Modi in First Major Challenge
Amit Shah pushes the Hinduvta agenda too far for many people
By John Elliott
Narendra Modi is facing the first major test of his political leadership, and of his image of apparent invincibility since he became Prime Minister in 2014.
The Bharitiya Janata Party leader’s authority is still intact but, largely because of the provocative actions of his henchman, Home Minister Amit Shah, he is being challenged by the biggest and longest-running country-wide protests for decades.
Demonstrations dominated by the young claim that the two Hindu Nationalist politicians have gone too far with their basically anti-Muslim drive since winning an overwhelming general election victory eight months ago. At the same time, Modi has failed to manage the economy effectively and create jobs.
The main target is an amendment to India’s citizenship laws, launched in early December, that discriminates against Muslims by favoring Hindus and other religions, plus an associated National Register of Citizens (NRC) promoted by Shah that could create social havoc as the minorities, the poor, and others without family documents struggle with corrupt officials to prove their rights.
Some states have refused to implement the citizenship legislation (though they may be constitutionally bound to do so), and there are rumblings of discontent among the BJP’s allies. The legislation is now being challenged in the Supreme Court.
Sense of pending crisis
There is a sense of a pending crisis in the country because of widespread concern and speculation about how far – and how forcefully – the Modi-Shah duo intend to go with their aim of creating a Hindu Rashtra (polity), and for how long they are prepared to be tolerant of dissent and protests.
Some critics suggest that, like populist leaders elsewhere, they welcome protests – or the prospect of them – because they can respond with repressive measures.
In Kashmir, when they cancelled the special status of the Muslim-dominated state in a constitutional coup on August 5, they imposed an unprecedented massive security shutdown with curfews, blocked internet and mobile telephones, and detention of political activists.
Internet and social media are still partly blocked despite international protests and criticism by India’s Supreme Court, and leading mainstream politicians remain under a form of house arrest after almost six months.
Significantly, however, the change in Kashmir’s status and the security action have had widespread support across India, as did an earlier cancellation of the Muslim triple talaq method of instant divorce.
The citizenship legislation, however, went too far for large swathes of public opinion, Hindu as well as Muslim, mainly because of the prospect of the NRC. There was extensive violence, burning of vehicles and attacks on shops that provoked tough repressive action. In Uttar Pradesh, where an extreme Hindu priest is the chief minister, there was extensive and brutal police repression, with reports of young protestors being assaulted by vigilante groups.
There are also reports of detention centers being built to accommodate those (Muslims) who fail the citizenship test, and the chief of army staff has talked publicly about de-radicalization centers being used to deal with errant Kashmiri youth.
It is easy, as some critics have done, to relate this to China’s re-education camps that are used to stifle protests by a million Uighurs in the western province of Xinjiang, and it is equally easy to dismiss such a comparison as extreme for a democracy such as India.
Observers wonder however how far in this direction India will have moved by the time of the next general election in 2024, when Modi and Shah will want to inspire their party cadres and win votes. In last year’s elections, concern about the worsening economy was eclipsed by Modi campaigning on national security and on tough action against terror attacks emanating from Pakistan.
One contact in Mumbai even talks about the risk of “SRCC” – Strikes, Riots, Civil Commotion – being generated in order to justify clampdowns. Such extreme ideas raise memories of the two-year State of Emergency declared in 1975 by India Gandhi, then the Congress Prime Minister.
Modi restructuring society
Sources both within and outside the BJP suggest that Modi believes India needs an overhaul of how society works in order to meet his ambition of building a strong, successful and self-confident nation.
This would galvanize the 80 percent of Indians who are Hindus with a sense of nationalism, reducing the power of traditional elites (typified by the Congress Party and its Gandhi dynasty), strengthening the potential for the poor with a sense of empowerment, simplifying and improving the way that government works and impinges on people’s daily lives, and gaining respect abroad.
Shah (below) however, whose political role has escalated in recent months, seems to have little interest beyond establishing Hindu rule at the expense of minorities. There is considerable speculation about whether he and Modi are fully united and are playing a modified version of good-cop-bad-cop, or whether Shah is going further than Modi would wish. What is clear is that Shah has none of Modi’s vote-pulling charisma as a populist leader.
The constructive aspect of Modi’s ambitions is rarely taken into account internationally by liberal opinion which is appalled by the seemingly anti-Muslim policies and does not appreciate that Modi is tapping into both a growing sense of national pride among aspirational youth, and a latent but easily aroused aversion to Muslims among a significant number of Hindus.
S. Jaishankar, the former top diplomat who is now the external affairs minister, has talked in Washington about a “new India” that his foreign audiences had been reluctant to recognize. “This new India is a different being, one that lives in second-tier cities, and speaks and feels differently,” he said, referring without being specific to the base of Hindu nationalism.
It remains to be seen how sensitive Modi is to international criticism because he wants India to carve out its own form of society that does not conform to the west’s liberal norms.
His aim is to show off India as a successful economically strong and internationally important country, first in 2022 when it hosts the G20 conference, and then maybe the Commonwealth biennial summit in 2024 just before the general election.
Perhaps more ominously though, the Rastriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the extreme umbrella organization to which the BJP belongs, celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2025, which will require more Hindu nationalist-oriented achievements.
The immediate focus is how Modi and Shah handle the citizenship legislation, which Shah says will go ahead.
Then there is the bigger question about the National Register of Citizens that Shah originally said would be in place by 2024. It is currently not clear how far he will push this, but Swapan Dasgupta, an MP and prominent Modi-supporting columnist, indicates that it might not go ahead for some time.
“The architecture of any proposed register is not yet clear,” he said. “It has to be designed and there needs to be a wider understanding in society about what to do with those who are declared illegal.”
That indicates the need for a national debate on the issue, but neither Modi nor Shah have shown any interest in public debate, or tolerance of criticism which is usually rejected as being “anti-national” or “pro-Pakistan.” This makes people extremely cautious about what they say, even in private, for fear that someone will report back to Modi or Shah.
Focus on religious-based policies
There is also deep dissatisfaction about the government’s focus on religion-based divisive policies while failing to arrest a decline in economic growth, which has fallen to an 11-year low of 4.5-5 percent, and a failure to generate jobs promised by Modi.
Prospects of a good rabi (spring) harvest indicate the decline in growth might have bottomed out and Modi is expected to spring some surprises via his unimpressive finance minister, Nirmala Sitharaman’s annual budget speech on February 1.
That is one of three significant dates for Modi. The second, on February 8, is the election for Delhi’s assembly, which will test the BJP’s popularity and could lead to victory for the local-based Aam Aadmi Party. Later in February, the Supreme Court is expected to rule on the constitutionality of the citizenship legislation.
It is tempting to wonder whether it would suit Modi, if not Shah, for the court to rule against it, or at least demand some changes. That would be one way of curbing the current protests, giving Modi and Shah time to reassess what to do next.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.