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2020 has been horrible year for India for reasons that have nothing to do with pandemic

It has become evident that in the ‘new India’, anyone who questions Modi’s policies will be treated as ‘anti-national’. Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, so the harm done by this contempt for dissension is incalculable.

Written by Tavleen Singh | Updated: January 3, 2021 4:22:09 pm
A woman selling the Indian Flag in Chandigarh. (Express photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

Something fundamental changed for the worse in India in the year just ended. And, it had nothing to do with the pandemic. The change was not subtle. It manifested itself in the first weeks of 2020 in a poisonous new political language that spewed out of the mouths of the Prime Minister’s closest associates and his most senior ministers. The Home Minister set the tone by describing illegal immigrants from Bangladesh as ‘termites’ and then making a series of menacing speeches in which he made it abundantly clear that he intended to use citizenship as a weapon. The discriminatory changes to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) may not have provoked such an angry reaction from Muslims had those speeches not been made.

When Muslims saw that their citizenship could be questioned when the National Register of Citizens (NRC) came and took to the streets in protest, senior ministers called them traitors. The protesters made the National Flag and the Constitution symbols of their protest, but it made no difference. When Covid arrived, the venomous political language transmuted into action. The first response of senior ministers of the Government of India was to blame the Chinese virus on a conference of the Tablighi Jamaat that was being held in Delhi. The conference could not have been held without permission from the Home Ministry, and those who came from abroad to attend it would have come into India legitimately, but they were treated as criminals. Many ended up spending months in jail until the cases against them were all declared spurious by Indian courts. They have now been able to return to their countries, but the political discourse remains poisoned.

Its most recent manifestation comes in the ludicrous ‘love jihad’ laws that BJP chief ministers are competing to pass as soon as possible. These laws are supposed to protect Hindu girls from predatory Muslim men, but in fact are based on that primitive assumption that women are the property of men and have no right to make their own choices. We should all be horrified by this ‘parivartan’, but we are not because we have become so used to new political realities.

We have also become used to the idea that the Indian State has the absolute right to crush dissent no matter how brutally this is done. We know now that the Dalit teenager from Hathras was gangraped by the four men she named before dying. Charges have been brought against them. But, since her battered, broken body was burned in the dead of night without funeral rites, Yogi Adityanath’s officials were able (with the help of the media) to perpetuate for the longest time the lie that she was killed by her brother in an ‘honour’ killing. Those who dissented were charged with being part of an international conspiracy of ‘leftists and liberals’ to defame India’s fair name.

Every time there is dissent an international conspiracy suddenly appears, as we saw most recently with the farmers’ protests. Modi’s ministers and BJP spokesmen only changed their tune when angry Sikh farmers started saying that if they were called ‘Khalistanis’ one more time, they would stop sending their sons to die defending our borders. But, the damage is done. Yet again it has become evident that in the ‘new India’, anyone who questions Modi’s policies will be treated as ‘anti-national’. Dissent is the lifeblood of democracy, so the harm done by this contempt for dissension is incalculable.

This should have been the year in which the Opposition parties found their chance to revive their dismal fortunes by standing up for the values of the ‘old’ India. This did not happen. The Congress party, which is the only political party capable of taking on the BJP nationally, has shown that it is in the middle of yet another nervous breakdown. There have been many since that first defeat in 2014, but it is clear that no lessons were learned from losing two general elections. The party’s most important leader, Rahul Gandhi, continues to treat public service as a hobby and not a fulltime job. So, after making angry noises in support of the farmers, off he went for yet another holiday. What then was the point in demanding a special session of Parliament?

If Indian politics was poisoned by hate in 2020, the Indian economy was poisoned by neglect. It was already going downhill before the Chinese virus hit and it has, for obvious reasons, continued down that road. The IMF recently announced that of all the countries in the ‘emerging markets’ club, India had fared the worst. Other surveys, including those by the Indian government, show that the downward slide of the economy has begun to manifest itself in the health of our children. The National Health Family Survey shows that India now has the largest number of stunted children in the world, and the highest outside sub-Saharan African countries. This cannot be blamed on past negligence because the children surveyed were born after 2015.

So, if 2020 has been a horrible year for the world because of the Chinese plague, it has been a much more horrible year for India for reasons that have nothing to do with the pandemic. At the end of this bleak account of the year just ended, I find it hard to say Happy New Year, but definitely hope that 2021 will be better.

This article first appeared in the print edition on January 3, 2021 under the title ‘A year of bad changes’.

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