India has the potential to be one of the leading powers of the 21st century. It is the biggest democracy in the world, and is blessed with talented citizens who have made their mark in global business, academia, IT, entertainment and sport. There is so much India can teach the world about its traditions of democracy and ahimsa (non-violence), which is why its friends, including myself, were profoundly disappointed and alarmed by the communal violence that disfigured Delhi in recent weeks.
Millions of people around the world remain inspired by the example of Mahatma Gandhi, who led India to independence. One of his greatest admirers was Nelson Mandela, who recognised a kindred spirit in the fight against oppression and discrimination. When Mandela was awarded the Gandhi Prize in 2008, he called on rising powers like South Africa and India to work together so “democracy and equality becomes a reality” in the international order. His words still ring true today.
But speaking as the deputy chair of The Elders, the group of independent global leaders founded by Mandela to work for peace and justice worldwide, I am deeply concerned that Gandhi’s vision is now threatened by sectarian violence and divisive political rhetoric.
The attacks on poor, working people, mainly Muslims, in Delhi cannot be separated from the attempts by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to redefine Indian citizenship and who is eligible for it, via the recent Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), and the proposed National Population Register and National Register of Citizens.
These measures would appear to be incompatible with Article 14 of India’s Constitution, which clearly states that all citizens are equal before the law. Together, these developments pose searching questions about India’s democratic future and its place in the global family of nations. Callous imperialism was the handmaiden to India’s violent birth as an independent state. Today, only Indians are responsible for the direction of their country.
There is no way that India can overcome its developmental challenges by pitting one religious group against another and turning some Indians into second-class citizens. Yet, I fear this is the precise implication of the CAA and other legislative measures that PM Modi’s government has proposed. When people of one religion are denied access to citizenship that is freely available to others, it prompts memories of some of the darkest periods in recent human history.
International observers, including myself, have also been increasingly alarmed at the arbitrary attacks on India’s Muslims based on rumours about sensitive issues such as cow slaughter, beef consumption and inter-communal personal relationships.
These actions are tantamount to vigilante punishment, which has a harmful impact on social cohesion as well as the democratic fabric of society. If India were to go further down this path of nationalist and religious discrimination, it would be a political and social catastrophe that could set back the country’s development for generations.
The protests in Assam, when this new citizenship law was first introduced on a trial basis last year, were a harbinger of the wider nationwide alarm, and should have prompted the government to pause and listen to its citizens. More than 1.9 million citizens, both Hindus and Muslims, were left off the NRC in Assam when it was introduced in 2019, sparking fears that they could be declared stateless when the next census is carried out in 2021.
Protests against the register and citizenship law united Muslims, Hindus and Indians of other religions, who voiced their common concerns at the threat to secular democracy. This commitment to solidarity was also evident among civil society groups working in Delhi to support victims of the recent violence.
In 2018, together with my fellow Elder Gro Harlem Brundtland, former director-general of the World Health Organisation, I also visited a “Mohalla” clinic in Delhi together with Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, and was hugely impressed by the model of free, universal services regardless of wealth, religion or class.
It is only through free, unified and collective mobilisation that India can achieve lasting peace, justice and prosperity. Your country’s founding fathers understood this necessity. Their vision should remain at the heart of your future.
This article first appeared in the print edition on March 20, 2020 under the title “Protecting India”. The writer is the deputy chair of The Elders and served as the eighth secretary-general of the United Nations.
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