Peace and harmony are central to our ethos. I appeal to my sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times. It is important that there is calm and normalcy is restored at the earliest.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) February 26, 2020
Over the past days, India’s capital city Delhi has been plagued with some of the most violent anti-Muslim, Hindu nationalist riots in decades. President Trump visited India during this time, never acknowledging the violence surrounding his visit despite several of his photos being taken only miles from the riots. Narendra Modi, the Indian Prime Minister, responded to the violence via tweet, requesting “sisters and brothers of Delhi to maintain peace and brotherhood at all times.”
Modi’s statement is a thin cover-up of his vast history of instigating similar riots. The two world leaders have comparable reputations regarding Islamophobia. Modi belongs to a Hindu nationalist political party known as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s barely concealed attempt to strip Muslims of their citizenship as well as causing Jammu and Kashmir, a disputed Muslim-majority region to lockdown by taking away its special status are certainly indictative of his biases. In 2002, when Modi was Gujarat’s Chief Minister, he allegedly deliberately allowed riots that killed over 1,000 people in response to the death of 60 Hindu pilgrims.
The hate that Modi spews with the support and the protection of the BJP has unfortunately been a major part of India’s colonized and independent history, but the BJP’s birth and rise to power is nevertheless interesting. The BJP was founded in the aftermath of India’s brief turn towards authoritarianism, when then-prime minister/dictator Indira Gandhi declared the country to be in a state of emergency for nearly two years after losing democratic elections. Gandhi was fiercely secular, and her incredible destabilization of Indian politics left an organizational and ideological vacuum in which the Hindu nationalist BJP was created.
Modi has been compared to both Trump and Gandhi by critics: Trump for their shared Islamaphobic policies and Gandhi for their shared authoritarian-like power. For some reason, unlike Trump and Gandhi, Modi’s popularity has barely wavered. This is especially surprising considering his failed policy of demonetization, when Modi gave the country hours to react to his devaluation of its most commonly used bills.
So, what is it about Modi that makes him so problematic to democracy and to human rights but so immune to backlash? I propose the answer is nationalism.
One of the many legacies of colonialism is India’s inferiority complex. India’s past successful leaders have taken advantage of this sense of inferiority by reinforcing it. They paint a picture of India’s weakness in the face of an enemy — Pakistan, Sikh nationalists, Muslim extremists, etc. — and warn Indians of the need to stay vigilant to secure their spot in the world. Or, the leaders create a sense of a corrupt, untrustworthy government that needs a strongman or strongwoman to control it. It is a relatively simple formula that has historically given Indian leaders their power and credibility.
These leaders often inevitably overstep the publicly-accepted limits on power, and there is some indication that Modi is approaching the public’s limit on his. Last month’s attempt to denaturalize Muslim citizens created a period of sustained protests in many major cities across the nation. However, Modi and his associates have not stopped their anti-Muslim rhetoric. Modi’s aforementioned tweet from last week did little to hide the fact that a member of the BJP, Kapil Sharma, made a provocative speech where he condemned the protestors of the Citizenship Amendment Bill and said that if the police would not deport Muslim Indians, then “we” would step in.
As much hope as there is for a break in Indian leaders’ historical cycle of power by these protests, I feel that much of the hope is premature. It took two years of turning India into an authoritarian regime for Gandhi to finally lose her power. It is Indians’ inferiority complex that is truly at the heart of their continued susceptibility to near-dictators. India’s power and history comes from its diversity. Indians deserve truly productive leaders who understand, accept and support diversity rather than those who mask their failings with superficial nationalism. Until India escapes this aspect of colonialism’s legacy, history is condemned to repeat itself.
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Aarushi Nohria is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.