Sunday, February 25, 2024

Opinion: Is Narendra Modi’s India still a democracy?

When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi led the dedication of a vast new Hindu temple atop the ruins of a demolished Muslim mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya last week, it showed how far he will go to secure his re-election this year.

Not that stirring up religious conflict is a new tactic for Modi, 73. He came to power, and clings to it today, thanks to militant Hindu nationalism and the threat of anti-Muslim violence.

In 2005, Modi, then a senior official in the Indian state of Gujarat, became the first and only person to be barred from entering the United States under a little-known immigration law that makes foreign officials ineligible for visas if they are responsible for “particularly serious crimes”. violations of religious freedom.

U.S. authorities had determined that Modi stood idly by during Hindu riots that killed more than 1,000 Muslims in Gujarat state in 2002. The visa ban was only lifted when he became Prime minister in 2014.

Today, Modi’s militant Hindu supremacy has replaced political pluralism as India’s dominant ideology, threatening the nation’s status as a secular republic.

As a foreign correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, I witnessed the beginnings of India’s anti-democratic slide on a sunny day in December 1992, on contested ground in Ayodhya.

Thousands of Hindu pilgrims, white-bearded priests, dhoti-clad holy men and other devotees gathered for a political rally suddenly stormed the historic Babri Mosque, built in the 16th century by Babur, the first Mughal emperor, at the site of the supposed birthplace of the Hindu deity Ram.

The Hindu mob demolished the mosque, brick by brick, with pikes, pickaxes and their bare hands. They brought down guard towers with grappling hooks and climbed barefoot over barbed wire barricades. Foreign journalists were chased and beaten. I was hit with bamboo and a brick.

The destruction of the mosque sparked some of the worst religious pogroms in India since independence in 1947. Entire Muslim neighborhoods were burned and families massacred. Anti-Hindu riots broke out in response in Pakistan and Bangladesh, India’s Muslim neighbors. A Newsweek cover warned of a “holy war” on the subcontinent; rival Time called communal violence an “unholy war.”

More than three decades later, much of India stopped on Jan. 22 to watch Modi dedicate Ram Mandir, an ornate $220 million temple built over the destroyed Babri Mosque. In many Indian states, it was a public holiday. Stock markets and most schools and offices were closed. Government offices are closed for half a day.

Continuous television coverage showed the prime minister placing a lotus flower next to the jet-black Ram idol in the temple’s inner sanctum, prostrating himself before it and virtually declaring Hinduism the state religion. An Indian Air Force helicopter dropped flower petals outside, priests blew conch shells and chanted songs, but Modi was the star.

“Ram is the faith of India, the foundation of India,” he told a delighted crowd in Hindi, according to the Times of India.. “Ram is the thought of India, Ram is the law of India. …Ram is politics [of India].”

Modi has become the “high priest of Hinduism”, the prime minister’s biographer, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, told the Indian site after the ceremony. “We are very close to becoming[ing] a theocratic state.

Such a notion would be anathema to India’s once-revered founding leaders, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The government should embrace all religions, not impose one on others, they argued. These secular values ​​are enshrined in the Indian constitution.

But secularism has declined as Modi’s right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party has gradually gained power by blurring the lines between Hinduism and the state. Muslims have their own country, Modi supporters say. Why not ?

Here’s why: Although 80 percent of India’s 1.4 billion people identify as Hindu, 200 million Muslims and tens of millions of Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and others do not. Human rights groups say non-Hindus are increasingly treated as second-class citizens.

The “Modi government has adopted laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, particularly Muslims,” Human Rights Watch warns on its website. “This… has encouraged Hindu nationalist groups to target members of minority communities or civil society groups with impunity. »

Since Modi presided over the Ayodhya temple rituals, Hindu mobs have gone on rampage in several towns and villages. The media took stock of the damage: Muslim-owned shops destroyed in Mumbai, Muslim students beaten in Pune, a Muslim cemetery burned in Bihar, etc.

Modi does not need to stoke anti-Muslim prejudice to get re-elected. He has an approval rating of 76% in the latest polls and is on course to become the first Indian prime minister since Nehru to win three consecutive terms.

But the risk of new clashes is increasing.

Hindu nationalists have sued to remove hundreds of Mughal-era mosques that they say were erected over other ancient Hindu temples. Their main targets include a mosque believed to be built at the birthplace of Krishna, the Hindu god of compassion, and a second in Varanasi, considered the sacred home of Shiva, the Hindu god of destruction.

“People will always remember this date, this moment,” Modi said in Ayodhya last week, hailing the start of a “new era”.

I fear he is right.

Bob Drogin is a former journalist and editor of the Los Angeles Times.

Note: The content and images used in this article is rewritten and sourced from



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