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Who is paying the cost of India’s declining democracy?

Protests in Mumbai against the CAA/NRC. Image by Vishal M.

Protests in Mumbai against the CAA/NRC. Image by Vishal M. Used with Permission

India is often called the world's largest democracy, and in terms of voters, it can certainly claim the title, as 900 million people are eligible to cast ballots. But a closer look at India's legal framework may cast doubts on the quality of this democracy and whether or not the country is living up to this moniker.

While India did repeal its anti-sodomy law in 2018, a major victory for the rights of the LGBTQI+ community in India, the Indian government also brought about restrictive and discriminatory changes in citizenship and refugee law, increased the disruption of internet services, and downgraded the legal status of Kashmir and Jammu.

All of the previously mentioned legal changes have happened in the past two years as the Modi-led government continues to openly favour Hindu nationalist ideology and attempts to impose it as a national discourse for all Indians. Many of the legal decisions the government has spearheaded have been met by public outcry and demonstrations which in turn have led to ruthless crackdowns with at least 27 dead, and hundreds arrested.

India's 190 million Muslims have been on high alert since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. As a member of the right-wing Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), Modi became notorious as chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, when Muslims were targeted and killed en masse in 2002. For this, he was banned temporarily from travelling to the United States. The BJP maintains close ideological and organisational links to RSS, thus contributing to a groundswell of Hindu nationalism in India.

Modi’s India has indeed succeeded in mobilising the majority culture of the country towards a Hindu Rashtra, or a Hindu-centric ethnic state to the detriment of the multicultural and secular India originally enshrined in the country's 1947 constitution.

Concern for the protection of secular values reached an all-time high in September 2019, when the northeastern state of Assam began updating the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a government register containing the names and relevant information for the identification of all Indian citizens. To be included in the list, citizens must prove that their ancestors were in Assam before 1971 when the Bangladesh War of Independence saw millions cross into India. The process of updating the NRC has left 1.9 million Indians, including 1.3 million Hindus, facing the possibility of becoming stateless.

A number of top ruling party leaders, including Home Minister Amit Shah, have subsequently proposed that an update to the NRC be implemented across India. As the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) provides a path to immigration for people of non-Muslim religions who may be excluded from an updated NRC, Muslims fear that they will end up in detention centres being built in Assam and other states.

The nationalist rhetoric in the country grew even louder after a February 2019 terror attack in Kashmir, together with an anti-immigration stance and strong social media presence to push narratives online. As a result, Modi succeeded in securing his second term as Prime Minister of India in the 2019 general elections.

Narendra Modi expressing his happiness to voters and the media. Photo by Aviral Mediratta. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

Narendra Modi expressing his happiness to voters and the media. Photo by Aviral Mediratta. Copyright Demotix (17/5/2014)

While the political opposition seems to be largely defeated after Rahul Gandhi resigned in July 2019 from the Indian National Congress party, students, leftist groups, Muslim groups, liberals, and women have been at the forefront of the recent protests. Opposition to Modi's policies can also be seen as more states are refusing to implement the CAA and NRC. The Indian State of Kerala has contested the CAA in the Supreme Court, and the opposition has requested the chief ministers of different states to oppose the rollout of NRC/NPR.

Besides India itself, it is the entire South Asia region that is affected to various degrees by this erosion of democratic rule. Because of its size and centrality, India directly affects migration flows, cross-border trade and transportation, and political discourse in neighbouring Bangladesh and Pakistan, and to a lesser degree in Nepal and Sri Lanka. Bangladesh is particularly affected given the complicated history of migration between the two countries.

Finally, the internet has also been affected by the decisions being made in India. In 2019, the largest democracy in the world has seen the highest number of internet blocks with a hundred monitored cases of shutdowns.

As we continue to update our Special Coverage, find out more in the following stories:

Check out Global Voices’ special coverage of the situation in Kashmir.