Speaking truth to power has ever been a fraught and dangerous occupation, as Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was recently reminded after he narrowly survived a poisoning plot he says was directed from the Kremlin.
Uncounted Kurdish activists languish in jail for challenging Turkey’s modern-day sultan. In Iran, human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh is punished mercilessly for championing women’s causes. In Zimbabwe, Catholic clergy who condemn abuses by Emmerson Mnangagwa’s regime are accused of treason.
When China jailed Ren Zhiqiang, a noted communist party critic who ridiculed emperor-president Xi Jinping as a “clown”, much of the world shrugged. What else to expect from an authoritarian dictatorship sustained by gulags and mass surveillance
But when supposed democracies behave in similar fashion, alarm bells ring. This is now the case with India. Its rightwing populist prime minister, Narendra Modi, has erected an oppressive, Hindu majoritarian power vertical, where inclusive, secular traditions trailblazed by Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru once proudly stood.
Like Russia, Turkey, Iran and Zimbabwe, India has elected leaders, a representative parliament, independent judges, and a lawful constitution. And like them, this increasingly resembles a deceptive facade. Under Modi, the “world’s largest democracy” has become an eastern house of cards, dominated by Hindu nationalist knaves and jokers.
Discussing Modi’s landslide election victory last year, Indian writer Pankaj Mishra said this would-be guru, who stresses his humble origins, had seduced India with envy and hate, exploiting inequality, division and grievance against elites in the style of demagogues the world over. Modi’s method, Mishra wrote, was “to titillate a fearful and angry population with the scapegoating of minorities, refugees, leftists, liberals and others while accelerating predatory forms of capitalism… He has licensed his supporters to explicitly hate a range of people from perfidious Pakistanis and Indian Muslims to their ‘anti-national’ Indian appeasers”.
The latest manifestation of Modi’s intolerant ethnic-religious supremacism came last week with his government’s bid to silence a leading “appeaser” – Amnesty International, the global advocacy group that has made a habit of bravely speaking truth to power.
Amnesty came into being in 1961 after an English lawyer, Peter Benenson, wrote an impassioned article in the Observer, The Forgotten Prisoners, highlighting the plight of people around the world jailed for peacefully expressing their views. The organisation has since helped secure the release of thousands of “prisoners of conscience”.
Amnesty announced last week that it had been forced to shut down operations in India after the government arbitrarily froze its banks accounts – in apparent connection with an inquiry into alleged financial misconduct. In truth, the move was a crude bid to stop Amnesty’s reporting on rising human rights violations suffered by Muslims and other minorities since Modi first took power in 2014. It marked the culmination of a prolonged campaign of harassment and intimidation similar to that faced by other independent civil rights groups, journalists, activists and lawyers.
If Modi hopes to stifle Amnesty India’s criticism, he will be disappointed. On the contrary, the shutdown is likely to increase international scrutiny of systemic mis-governance. Let’s start with Kashmir.
Modi imposed direct rule on the state last year in what amounted to a constitutional coup. The ensuing draconian lockdown, detailed by Amnesty, was lifted, then reimposed as Covid-19 spread. The Indian army maintains half-a-million troops in Kashmir, thousands of arbitrary detentions continue amid sporadic violence, and internet and media restrictions, and limits on access, ensure the majority Muslim population remains largely isolated.
Economic uplift and new investment promised by Modi have not materialised. “Normalcy” has not returned. Meanwhile, an officially sanctioned programme of Hindu settlement is under way, prompting accusations of colonialism. Kashmir, it is claimed, is the “new Palestine”.
A scathing Amnesty report about “multiple human rights abuses” committed by police, and inflammatory hate speeches made by Modi’s political allies before and during communal riots in Delhi in February, is also worthy of broader attention.
Dozens of Muslims died in the riots. And yet, Amnesty said, “six months on, there has not been a single investigation into the role of the Delhi police”. It condemned “ongoing state-sponsored impunity”.
Amnesty has also focused attention on the daily violence, harassment and discrimination faced by women and girls. A rape is reported every 15 minutes in India. Lethal gang-rapes of two young Dalit women in Uttar Pradesh provoked nationwide protests last week.
In 2018, Modi – previously accused of misogyny – mapped out a “women first” national strategy. But like many of his grand wheezes, it has not amounted to much.
There have been some advances, such as expanded rural electrification and banking, and cooking-gas and toilet-building schemes. But Modi’s reign has not brought India the rapid growth, national security and enhanced global status he pledged six years ago.
Unemployment rose sharply after he was elected. His 2016 currency reform was disastrous, as has been his handling of the pandemic. And there have been recent armed clashes with Pakistan and China, with India coming off worst on both occasions. Bizarrely, Modi is sending tanks to the Himalayas. It may be an uphill battle.
Internationally, India continues to punch below its weight. As an ostensibly likeminded partner for the west, its present leadership is a big disappointment.
Donald Trump may approve of “strongman” Modi’s divisive “new India” rhetoric and disdain for civil rights. Joe Biden will not. Kamala Harris, Biden’s Indian American running mate, has been highly critical over Kashmir. Many in Europe have not forgotten his woeful record as chief minister of Gujarat.
The way things are going, it’s uncertain whether India, once an outstanding role model for the post-colonial developing world, can still be deemed a functioning democracy at all. This is chilling. This is grim. This is Modi.
Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian.