The great lockdown has imposed unprecedented circumstances upon us. As COVID-19 challenges us globally, the need for governments and citizens to come together has never been greater. In this vein, a disturbing trend has emerged from India. Far from relying on collective solidarity, a polarised discourse has reprehensibly stigmatised Muslims as virus carriers. With crude propaganda inciting ill-feeling, a sizeable minority has felt under siege. As the Modi government plans ahead, it should remember that economic and social stability cannot be sustained if a fifth of the population is at risk of being left behind.
In this context, the recently published annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USIRF) makes for sobering reading. The 2020 report assesses religious freedom violations and progress in 29 countries and makes independent recommendations for US policy. This year, the USCRIF has designated India as a ‘country of particular concern’ – such designation is reserved for governments that are seen as either engaging or tolerating severe violations of religious freedoms.
Predictably, the Indian government has lambasted the report. Yet the report deserves close attention and makes for uncomfortable reading. Taken together, the controversies over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, anti-conversion laws, and lynchings have contributed towards an environment of hostility against minorities. In addition, inflammatory rhetoric, and tolerance for violence against minorities at the national, state, and local level have increased the climate of fear among non-Hindu communities.
Just before the lockdown, three days of violence erupted in Delhi with mobs attacking Muslim neighbourhoods. Can it credibly be argued that India is not on a negative trajectory? Granted that India isn’t North Korea and has a functioning democracy – as dissenting USRIF commissioners point out – but that is a low aspirational bar.
The truth is that Muslims continue to face routine insults on a daily basis. They are under-represented within many sectors such as the civil service and professional services. If communities choose to boycott Muslim traders at this delicate stage, the marginalisation and distrust will worsen. The central government has been apathetic at best and indifferent at worst. Dismissing constructive engagement as pseudo-secularism ranting has been its impulse mode. This lack of critical thought simply dodges the issue. If unaddressed, the slippery slope of resentment may well lead 200 million citizens to conclude – to evoke VS Naipaul – that their India is turning into ‘an area of darkness’.
From a comparative perspective regarding the impact of religious authoritarianism on a democracy, Turkey provides us with a cautionary tale. At the turn of the century, its economy was growing by approximately 6% annually. The country served as an important secular democratic cornerstone in a benighted part of the world. However, as the strong-man politics of Erdogan began to assert its grip from 2003, a corrosive institutional impact has been hard to ignore. Moving away from Ataturk’s secular vision into religious orthodoxy has coincided with instability, high unemployment and recessionary pressures. A country that stood out as an exemplar of inter-faith dialogue and a thriving outward looking youthful population has slid into a repressive spiral with critics routinely imprisoned and freedom of expression stifled.
The Modi government should reflect accordingly. Geo-politically, as several post-COVID economies seek to reduce their dependency on China, this presents a massive opportunity for India. Given western economies are poised to re-examine their relationships with China amid a growing backlash over its perceived opacity, this may well turn out to be a seminal moment to reset alliances and seek newer ones. The stage is set for a turbo-charged boost to Indian foreign policy. There may well be renewed interest to explore India as a viable alternative reliable hub for manufacturing with its youthful population, low-cost labour and democratic credentials. It may galvanise the government’s ‘Make in India’ policy. That said, investors and strategic partners may well struggle to commit fully if concerns over civil instability and frequent unrest continue to loom.
To be sure, domestically there will be those who continue to hanker for a lost world of mono-cultural cohesiveness. But that quest is simply illusory. India has maintained a proud tradition of heterogeneity over millennia. It has drawn strength from its plurality. As Pandit Nehru put it eloquently in his ‘Discovery of India’, the nation was akin to ‘an ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously’.
That profound observation should remind us of what we ought to cherish. Turning to the present day, as the government contemplates steps ahead, it should ensure that a large minority isn’t forgotten. Sustainable progress will be challenging if millions of citizens feel excluded. It should be an urgent moral and economic duty of the Modi government to ensure safe spaces and conditions for all citizens to flourish regardless of creed. Anything less will be a disservice to the idea of India that is greater than the sum of its parts.
The writer is a London based lawyer and political commentator.