The most disturbing development of the past six years has been that the nature of Indian democracy has been deliberately changed from liberal to illiberal. The world has noticed and this ugly change is regularly discussed in the western media. But, most Indians have not because the change has happened insidiously.
It continues to happen insidiously. So, when news first came of the teenage girl from rural Hathras dying a horrible death, and of her body being burned in the dead of night without last rites or the presence of her family, it caused widespread shame and horror.
By last week the story had changed. The same famous TV anchors who wept for her the week before began to raise questions about whether she had been raped at all. She said she was and that should be evidence enough when (if?) her alleged rapists are brought to trial. But, already her tragic story has been forgotten as the Uttar Pradesh government spins a fantastical tale about jihadist conspiracies and an ‘international plot’ to malign the fair image of our most populous state.
Yogi Adityanath who has so far not expressed one word of sympathy for the dead girl or her family appeared on national television to confirm this supposedly malevolent plot. Did you see the faces of the people who went to Hathras, he said, they were the same faces we saw in those protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA). These people are determined to spread hatred between communities and castes because they do not want Uttar Pradesh to benefit from the ‘progress and development’ that he claims he has brought. It did not take long for those ‘independent’ TV channels who have become vehicles of government propaganda to start spreading what they called ‘the truth about Hathras’.
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In the fog of conspiracies, money laundering and jihadists, what has been forgotten already is the brutal way in which the teenager from the Hathras village died. A similar game of smoke and mirrors was used to crush dissident voices that rose against that discriminatory amendment to the citizenship law in the early months of this year. Muslims across India protested out of real fear that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act was going to be followed by a National Register of Citizens. It does not matter if their fears were right or wrong, what matters is that they spoke in dissident voices and this is something that cannot be allowed in an illiberal democracy.
In Uttar Pradesh, the protests were crushed under Yogi’s jackboot and in Delhi when riots happened between Hindus and Muslims (for the first time in decades), they were blamed on a jihadist plot by the Popular Front of India (PFI). This PFI is indeed a ghastly group of violent jihadists, but who allowed it to become so powerful?
Its alleged involvement in riots in Delhi and Bengaluru is believable, but what could it have to do with Hathras? The ‘international conspiracy’ against Yogi Aditynath is too ludicrous to discuss. What is worth discussing is the growing paranoia about supposed international interference in India’s internal affairs. Not since Indira Gandhi spotted the ‘foreign hand’ in everything from famine and floods to poverty and politics has there been so much paranoia in the air. Many NGOs and human rights bodies have had to pack their bags in India and leave or suspend their activities because ‘foreign funding’ is treated as criminal.
All these things point to India’s transition from a liberal democracy to an illiberal one, but who is going to make this an issue? On the national stage the only opposition party is the Congress and its leader, Rahul Gandhi, confines himself to personal attacks on the Prime Minister. Last week, he called him a coward in a truly offensive tone, absurdly claiming that if there were a Congress government, ‘China would have been thrown out in 15 minutes’. Narendra Modi’s China policy has been a disaster, but it needs to be analysed without schoolyard name-calling.
This is true also of the reforms in agricultural policy, but here again our main opposition leader has simply made those old charges about how Modi’s reforms will help only his ‘handful of rich friends’. Rahul is right when he says that the media has been bullied into submission. But, why add recklessly that if the press had real freedom, Modi’s government would fall in days.
The most important issue of all is this frightening transition from liberal to illiberal democracy and it is unfortunate that the Congress party has said almost nothing about it.
If dissidence continues to be deliberately confused with sedition. If every dissident is arrested under harsh preventive detention laws. If poets and writers are treated as traitors, it will not be long before illiberalism becomes normal.
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