Ever since Narendra Modi rose to power, India’s religious minorities, especially Muslims, have come under increased assault. The outlook of Indian society too is gradually transforming into a closed, conservative and religiously intolerant populace. Religious intolerance is a serious violation of human rights and stigmatises the liberal values and principles of democracy. So is India veering away from being a true democracy? Possibly.
A democracy by definition is ‘a system of governance in which rulers are held accountable for their actions in the public realm by citizens, acting independently through competition and cooperation of their elected representatives. In other words, a government that maintains free, fair, competitive and regular elections, transparency and accountability, upholds the rule of law and protects civil rights and liberties is a democracy. Thus, according to this definition, any regime that only demonstrates a few of the following could be a semi, illiberal, transitioning or partial democracy.
In today’s India, human rights violations are at several planes. The supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are relentless in the pursuit of muzzling free speech and mounting attacks on religious minorities. This is a daily issue not just in large cities, but also in far-flung villages and rural areas. In 2016, students were accused of sedition for expressing their views and many people who raised their voices over challenges to civil liberties were deemed anti-Indian. The suppression of students’ voice by a crackdown of security forces at Jawaharlal Nehru University is a significant example.
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Moreover, minorities like Dalits and Muslims were attacked on suspicion of killing, stealing or selling cows for their meat. As a result, this year the Pew Research Centre report ranked India as the fourth-worst country in the world for religious intolerance. A country with 1.3 billion inhabitants, which is a multiethnic and multi-religious society, is placed after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq — nations where sectarian violence is widespread.
Significantly, the indicators in this Social Hostilities Index consider the occurrence of incidents of violence resulting from tensions between religious groups. In 2015, there were instances of attacks by Hindus on Muslims due to alleged cow slaughter, riots after clashes between the two and mob violence involving the two religious groups. The number of such incidents is growing.
In the Indian-Occupied Kashmir (IOK) violent protests erupted in July last year after the killing of Burhan Wani and two other young boys of Hizbul Mujahideen. In all, over 90 protesters and two police officers were killed but since last year tens of thousands of others were injured, killed or were missing. More recently, several mass graves were found in IOK and raised the question of justification for state-sponsored violence and atrocities. The paramilitary unit of the reserve police had also justified the use of pellet guns, which caused thousands of eye injuries. In fact, other minorities in India are also in poor condition, for instance, the military operations against the Maoist insurgents that continue to be accused of severe human rights violations, including sexual assault, and the ill-treatment of Dalits at societal level.
Is India then really a liberal democracy? Those in power have failed to transfer democratic liberal values to society and the general public. The attitude of the people is a reflection of the mindset of the people in power and is either patronised or encouraged by the ruling regime in several cases. Thus, one can say that today’s India is a state oscillating between liberal democracies and hybrid democracies. The term ‘hybrid regime’ refers to a state that contains both democratic and authoritarian forms of rule. Hybrid democracies are mostly found in developing countries since the end of the Cold War. They are called hybrid because they combine democratic traits, eg, frequent and direct elections, but at the same time consist of autocratic ones, eg, political repression. Most of the hybrid democracies are populist in nature, but because of their control and autocratic feature they equally constrain the political activity of citizens. The human rights values and norms are not protected by the regime in power.
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Insecurity at the societal level is growing concurrently with intolerance in India. News of gang rapes, domestic violence, acid attacks and murders of women along with many high-profile rape and sexual assault prosecutions continue to highlight the need for concrete state action to improve women’s safety in public. The Times of India reported that in 2016 alone, there were 33 rape cases of minor girls reported in the first five months of the year. There were also reports of six tourists being raped. As a result, Indian Tourism Minister Mahesh Sharma advised female tourists travelling to India not to wear skirts for their own safety. However, in October this year, a Swiss couple was attacked, followed by statements from extremist Hindu groups against the Taj Mahal and the celebration of Tipu Sultan’s birth anniversary, raising several questions about the prevailing state of affairs of the Indian society.
India’s civil society seriously needs to analyse the challenges and the future of its democracy. Though India claims to be democratic, it lacks what would be considered as fundamental elements for democratic rule and thus may be termed a hybrid democracy.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 24th, 2017.
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