The World’s Biggest Democracy Is Jettisoning Freedom and Tolerance

When I moved to New Delhi in 2009 to work as a foreign correspondent, there was already a decade’s worth of magazine covers heralding the inevitable, just-around-the-corner but not-quite-yet-here rise of India to the top table of the global order and its role as a democratic counterweight to China. Usually they included an elephant, or perhaps a tiger or a woman in a shimmering sari. The messy problems of multiethnic democracy, a tangled bureaucracy shot through with corruption, the great difficulty of dragging hundreds of millions of people out of poverty — these would all be overcome through ingenuity, technology and India’s relentless spirit of progress. The cyclical nature of these magazine covers brought to mind the famous quip about Brazil: India was the country of the future and always would be.

But now it appears that the time has finally arrived: India is indeed the nation of the moment. It is a critical player in just about every major issue facing the planet. Its economy is now bigger than that of the country that colonized it, making it the fifth largest in the world. It is expected to outrank China in population this year, if it hasn’t already. The Ukraine crisis has shown how desperately great powers around the world want to count on it as an ally. There will be no successful solution to climate change without India. It holds the presidency of the Group of 20, and its summit in Delhi later this year promises to be a major moment on the global stage for Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Apple reportedly plans to make up to a quarter of its iPhones in India, a huge endorsement of the country’s growing technology manufacturing prowess. India was the toast of the Davos World Economic Forum this year; the writer Fareed Zakaria declared that it “might be the most optimistic country in the world right now.”

So it is perhaps unsurprising that a new British documentary that chronicles one of the most violent chapters of India’s post-independence history, a chapter in which Modi plays a central role, has been welcomed by India’s government like a skunk at a garden party.

Even though the documentary, “India: The Modi Question,” which was made by the BBC, could not easily be watched in India, the government cracked down hard. It used emergency powers to ask that Twitter and YouTube block links to bootlegged clips, and the platforms quickly complied. When groups of students tried to screen illicit copies on campuses, the police roughed up and detained them. On one campus in New Delhi, administrators shut off the electricity to prevent a screening.

The documentary tells the story — now familiar to anyone who follows Indian politics — of how riots broke out in Gujarat in February 2002 after dozens of Hindu pilgrims died in a fire on a train. The cause of the fire was disputed, but Muslims were blamed by some people, prompting spasms of violence targeting them. More than 1,000 people died and an estimated 150,000 lost their homes. An overwhelming majority of the victims were Muslims.

Indian Hindus riot in the streets of Ahmedabad, the main city in the western Indian state of Gujarat, on March 1, 2002.Credit…Arko Datta/Reuters

Modi, a lifelong member of pro-Hindu hard-right organizations, was chief minister of Gujarat at the time. His role in the riots has been investigated and debated endlessly and in many ways remains unsettled; the documentary includes the conclusion of a British government investigation that Modi was “directly responsible” for the “climate of impunity” in which the violence took place.

In the eyes of the Modi government, the questions about the riots have been settled. There have been several inquiries, and courts right up to India’s highest have found that Modi committed no crimes related to the riot. Of course, there are many kinds of culpability. Modi may not have committed any crimes, but it is hard to describe the events as anything but a pogrom: One group was allowed to rampage and kill for days, largely unrestrained by the authorities. Law enforcement fell under Modi’s purview. Criminal responsibility aside, it is a record of which any leader capable of shame should be ashamed.

But more to the point, perhaps, the court of public opinion has weighed in. When I moved to Delhi, the notion that the next election would end with Modi as head of government would have seemed far-fetched. His party had been turned out of office in the 2004 elections; its outgoing prime minister reportedly blamed Modi and the Gujarat riots for its defeat. Modi was barred from visiting the United States after the riots.

But he bided his time and continued to preside over Gujarat, where he was re-elected several times, and developed a reputation as a business-friendly reformer with no patience for either the red tape or the corruption that had rotted the Indian bureaucratic state. Today, Modi is the twice-elected prime minister of the world’s most-populous democracy.

Under Modi’s government, violence against Muslims in India has risen and is often unpunished. Modi’s government has enacted laws and policies that target Muslims, including changes to citizenship rules that disadvantage Muslims and revocation of the special status of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region contested by India and Pakistan.

But it would be a mistake to think only Muslims are under threat in India. The government has systematically cracked down on all manner of free speech and dissent, increasing its emergency powers to block information it wants to keep from the Indian people and making it easier to hold dissidents under murky antiterrorism laws. An Indian journalist friend of mine, one of many who have left the country in despair over the past few years, put it this way: “It isn’t just an attack on Muslims. It is an attack on all Indians because it deprives us of ideas, thoughts, dreams and a rich life of the mind.”

A spokesman for India’s foreign minister slammed the documentary, saying the story it told had been discredited and was driven by a “colonial mind-set.” Britain has much to answer for in its colonial history, but it recently named its first nonwhite prime minister, the Conservative Party’s Rishi Sunak, a Hindu of Indian origin. Meanwhile, the anti-Muslim politics of Hindu nationalism have found a comfortable berth among Indian-origin politicians on Britain’s right. A member of the House of Lords, Rami Ranger, wrote to the head of the BBC to complain about the film, demanding to know “if your Pakistani-origin staff were behind this nonsense,” The Guardian reported.

The invocation of colonialism here feels especially ironic because it implies that powerful nations are using allegations about supposed atrocities to keep India down. There is, of course, a long history of rich Western countries selectively using human rights concerns as a cudgel to undermine the sovereignty of poorer countries. But there is an equally long history of wealthy-country governments looking the other way when it suits them — see the long list of butchers the United States propped up across the global south during the Cold War.

Essentially none of the big global powers — except China — have any reason to stymie India’s rise. If anything, they need a more powerful and prominent India to meet their own geopolitical goals, the United States perhaps most of all. Asked about the controversy, the State Department spokesman, Ned Price, told reporters that he wasn’t familiar with the documentary but was “very familiar with the shared values that connect the United States and India as two thriving, vibrant democracies.”

The Biden administration, like Apple and other big tech companies eager to work in India, seems more than willing to bury the Gujarat riots and mostly turn a blind eye to rising anti-Muslim sentiment.

India is a democracy, no doubt, and Indians have made it clear that they support Modi: His government was returned to power in the last election with an even bigger majority. As the journalist Mihir Sharma wrote after Modi’s 2019 blowout: “We do not live in Modi’s India. We live in Indians’ India, and the reason so many Indians adore Modi is because he represents their preferred conception of the Indian state and the Indian nation.”

Credit…Altaf Qadri/Associated Press

Next year Modi will almost certainly run again, and if he wins and serves a third term, he would become the longest-serving prime minister other than India’s first, Jawaharlal Nehru, and his daughter Indira Gandhi. It was Nehru who set the blueprint for a secular, democratic, multiethnic India. In his speech on the eve of India’s independence, one of the most famous political speeches in modern history, he declared that “at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”

Nehru shepherded an Indian Constitution that enshrined the values of secularism and democracy, and India’s highest court has held that while the Constitution can be amended, its fundamental character cannot be altered. Last month, India’s vice president declared that he disagreed, sending shock waves through the political system and calling into question one of the bedrocks of Indian society: democracy guided by an immutable Constitution. One of the most cherished goals of the Hindu nationalist movement has been the elimination of secularism in the Constitution, something it sees as a foreign, Western concept. If Parliament can change the Constitution in any way it wishes, India could very well slide further into autocratic majoritarian rule.

It seems likely that a further emboldened Modi, bolstered by a third-term victory and the wind of history at his back, will seek to make fundamental changes to the structure of the Constitution and declare India a Hindu nation. This would drive a stake through the heart of the extraordinary and utterly original nation promised in Nehru’s majestic speech, changing its soul in profound ways.

India’s painful birth, its “tryst with destiny,” in Nehru’s indelible phrase, began the greatest experiment in self-rule in history. Never before had so many people, from such diverse ethnicities and creeds, tried to live together by common assent. It was a beacon for so many postcolonial states, cobbled together with alien borders by distant powers and left to sort through the wreckage.

Modi’s supporters argue that it is no coincidence that India is reaching its zenith after eight years of muscular, Hindu-centric rule. After all, the opposition Congress Party, which is still dominated by descendants of Nehru, has had decades in power to accomplish this feat. Leaders in many countries around the world, not least the United States, have found great power by playing on the unfounded fears of an insecure majority. This also may explain the government’s heavy-handed response to the BBC documentary. After all, it is hard to play the embattled victim if everyone is rooting for you.

It is difficult to believe that when I arrived in India more than a decade ago, Nehru’s dream seemed alive — more than a billion people living in relative harmony, cheek by jowl atop a palimpsest of fallen empires. It is a tragedy that India’s rise comes as that dream fades and is replaced by a new India that is less free, less tolerant, more willing to jettison the furniture of democracy to build a temple of national greatness around a single faith. The whole of humanity will be poorer for it.

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