In India, a country of probing and often rambunctious political debate, another chapter in the “who we are” story has started in the wake of what President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is calling a Russian “war of annihilation” of his country. Speculation about India’s international posture runs on two separate, parallel tracks.
Globally, India, a country of nearly 1.4 billion people geopolitically situated with China to the northeast and Russia to the north-northwest, gets the most attention. That is especially so now, given its refusal to condemn, through strategic votes in United Nations bodies, Russia’s methodical destruction of Ukraine.
India is an industrial hub and a nuclear power that has not signed international agreements on the nonproliferation and testing of nuclear weapons, giving Pakistan the perfect excuse to do likewise.
At home, the consolidation of near absolute power in the hands of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has obliterated the Indian National Congress, the party of India’s independence-movement leaders, including Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi. The BJP has adopted harsh policies against Muslims generally and ordered the military takeover and repression of Kashmir (part of the region of Jammu and Kashmir), India’s only Muslim-majority state.
Modi’s control of political space expanded further this month in four out of five state-level legislative elections. The exception was Punjab, where an upstart party, Aam Aadmi (Common Man), which governs the Delhi metropolitan area, won its first election since its founding in 2012. The party was formed by a former civil service official, Arvind Kejriwal, who led an anticorruption campaign and will be watched as a potential opposition leader.
On Ukraine, two close neighbors of India — Bhutan and Nepal, often treated as Himalayan diplomatic vassals of the national government — bravely broke with India this month to vote yes with 139 other countries in the UN General Assembly condemning Russia for its invasion.
India’s human-rights advocates argue that campaigning against government repression is needed if Indian democracy is to survive. In 2021, Freedom House, a Washington-based tracker of global trends, demoted India to “partly free” from “free” with a separate ranking of “not free” for Kashmir.
On gender issues, India ranks as the most dangerous country in the world for women, according to a poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. It found conditions worse there than in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Syria.
“Since Narendra Modi and his BJP party assumed power in India in 2014, international observers and human rights defenders within India have noted an alarming rise in violence and hatred against marginalized communities and religious minorities, particularly Muslims but also Christians, Dalits, and indigenous people,” Sunita Viswanath, executive director of Hindus for Human Rights, wrote in an email interview with PassBlue.
“India’s pluralist society is being threatened by the political ideology of Hindu nationalism, which seeks to establish a Hindu state in which non-Hindus are at best relegated to the status of second-class citizens and at worst targets for extermination,” Viswanath added. She referred to a December 2021 gathering in northern India attended by BJP members. (The BJP has since distanced itself from some of the remarks.)
“On the surface, India’s democracy seems functional,” Viswanath said. “However, a closer examination reveals that India’s judiciary, police, educational institutions, and media are being deeply compromised and hollowed out under the Modi government. We have seen the Indian government use draconian laws to incarcerate students, academics, journalists, and everyday citizens who express any forms of nonviolent dissent.”
“There may be people in India and the diaspora who support Modi because they see him as a great global leader putting India on the global stage, and developing the country to be a world power,” Viswanath added, commenting on the millions of people voting for the BJP. “I would argue that these people support Hindu nationalism because it is building temples, destroying mosques, empowering Hindus and literally killing Muslims, Christians and Dalits. That has increased Modi’s popularity. Most people won’t say out loud that they support the lynching of Muslims, but their vote says it all.”
Puzzling to many Indian human-rights advocates is the persistent praise that United States administrations repeatedly heap on Modi. The praise was taken to extreme, garish heights by Donald Trump during his presidency, when the two men staged public displays of fawning affection.
“Unfortunately, the US government seems intent on treating India as a vibrant, pluralistic democracy while turning a blind eye to rising human rights violations and majoritarian violence for too long,” Viswanath said. “I hope that India’s stance on Ukraine opens America’s eyes to the fact that Modi’s India is not a stable and reliable ally and partner to the US.”
Sunil Adam is an Indian journalist and former editor of the news magazine India Abroad. He is the creator of AmericanKahani.com, American stories and opinion from the South Asian diaspora. Adam knows how far the influence of Hindu nationalism reaches and the history or often mythology on which it is constructed.
“Democracy in India has been eroding for at least three decades, even under non-BJP governments at the national and state levels,” he said in an email exchange with PassBlue. “It began when the country shifted right under the Janata Party which came to power in 1980.
“The difference now, under Modi, is that there have been deliberate attempts to undermine democratic institutions and processes through popular sanction — a feat achieved through conflating anti-Muslim, anti-elite, anti-English policies/rhetoric with nationalism and patriotism. In a way, the erosion of democracy is inevitable, considering that it is the only way caste hegemony in the power structures can be maintained.”
In the case of Modi’s refusal to criticize Russia at the UN, Adam said:
“I don’t believe any other government in New Delhi or any other persuasion would have responded any differently. The Russian veto is the only protection that India can depend on in the Security Council on the issue of Kashmir.”
India is in the second of a two-year term as an elected Council member and will remember that China helped Pakistan get a rare hearing in the Council on Kashmir in 2019. India has refused to accept that it is still an issue on the Council docket.
“Also, abstaining from taking a position does not cost India anything,” Adam said. “But taking a moral stand would come at a price. Sure, Washington and European capitals will murmur, but they can’t throw a fit at a major power and its large market in the Asia-Pacific.”
Most recently, Modi has attracted some criticism within India for its clumsy handling of promises to bring about 700 Indian students safely out of the city of Sumy in a battleground in northeastern Ukraine, near the Russian border. Modi and his diplomatic and defense teams had proudly announced a plan to swiftly evacuate the students from a university specializing in science and medicine there. They called it Operation Ganga.
The Russian invasion began on Feb. 24. On March 4, a group of students sent a message to the Indian government and videotaped it for their families and the world to see. As reported widely in the Indian media, a young woman student said:
“It is the tenth day of war. Today we got news that Russia has announced a ceasefire to open humanitarian corridors for two cities, one of them is Mariupol, which is 600 kilometers away. . . We are afraid. We are risking our life; we are moving toward the [Russian] border [by foot]. . . . If anything happens to us all the responsibility will be for government and [the] Indian Embassy . . . Operation Ganga will fail.”
The students, living on snacks and boiled snow for water, were then relatively quickly evacuated by bus and train with the help of Ukrainians, arriving in Poland on March 6.
Modi was criticized for the delay. He reportedly made a call or possibly two, as the record is unclear, to President Putin asking for help while India’s government spokespeople were singing Modi’s praises for his efforts.
Rana Ayyub, a leading Indian journalist, called the episode a “campaign prop” for use before the recent state elections.
Adam concurred. “Modi’s touting about saving Indian students in Ukraine is his typical way of playing to the domestic audience — the Savior,” he said. “This is not an isolated tactic. In fact, his entire foreign policy is directed toward building a larger-than-life image of himself for the domestic audience. His foreign visits, for instance, are not known for the bilateral events hosted by countries he visits, which are businesslike if not underwhelming. But trips are remembered for the boisterous rallies he holds addressing local Indian communities. These events are projected at home as him being celebrated by the host countries. Clever and effective.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an Indian public intellectual with a global following, wrote a dark assessment in the Indian Express on March 11, about the damage Modi and his party have done to the political culture of India with their messages of bias and hate, which voters seemed to shrug off: “But here is one simple thing Indian democracy will have to think about after these elections,” Mehta wrote. “The fact that a politics that has venom, hate, prejudice, violence, repression and deceit is not a deal breaker for voters is something to think about. This road always ends in catastrophe.
“The somewhat less disquieting answer is that this is a reflection of the depth of incompetence to which the Opposition has sunk. The more disquieting answer is that the loss of our moral compass on fundamental values is irretrievable. Only time will tell. But for now the sovereign people have spoken, and all other tongues will have to fall silent. In any case there is no power to oppose the BJP; one can only hope glimmers of a moral conscience can survive this undoubted feat of political mastery.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.