In an interview with Democracy Now, award-winning Indian journalist, academic, and author, Siddhartha Deb, when reflecting on the 2019 landslide BJP victory in India’s national elections, stated, “India loses again and the world loses with it.”
Narendra Modi, the BJP’s charismatic leader and India’s Prime Minster, had successfully tapped into anti-Muslim bigotry and right-wing nationalism on issues like Kashmir to help the party accumulate even more power and influence than ever before. Despite a struggling economy, Modi also maintained support from his coalition of reactionary Hindus and business and economic elite, including Bollywood actors and the billionaire Ambani brothers.
Consequently, it is necessary to begin assessing what happened in India and how we got here.
THE RISE OF THE RIGHT
Although many of those who fought for India’s independence were often socialists, communists, and leftists, those who eventually took over the country were far less radical and ambitious. Essentially, what happened in India after the British left, much like the U.S. and Kenya, was the replacement of British elites with Indian elites.
The legendary anti-imperialist and psychiatrist, Frantz Fanon, understood that after independence, political parties such as the Indian National Congress and the bureaucracy it maintained became vessels for the advancement of elite interests and were no longer rooted in organic mass support.
“Since independence the party no longer helps the people to formulate their demands, to better realize their needs and better establish their power,” Fanon wrote, “Today the party’s mission is to convey to the people the instructions handed down from the top.”
Congress leaders rarely sought the necessary policies that would challenge concentrated wealth and power across the country. In fact, India’s business class and the country’s most reactionary elements were allowed to grow their influence politically and economically.
Eventually, due to growing pressures from India’s reactionaries and its middle-class, Congress leaders liberalized the Indian economy, which meant deregulating capital and allowing for multinational businesses to have more power. Ironically, such changes to the economy simply emboldened the right-wing, leading to the formation of the BJP, which is a coalition of right-wing Brahmin Hindus and businessmen and members of India’s upwardly mobile social groups.
“Their ideological leaders have sought to reinterpret history to valorize purported Hindu deeds, rulers, and customs against the ostensibly alien influences of Christianity and Islam,” writes Sanjay Ruparelia, author of Divided We Govern: Coalition Politics in Modern India, adding, “Some BJP politicians have said that critics of Modi should move to Pakistan. Government authorities have charged activists and university students with sedition, a colonial era law still on the books, for questioning state policy, social inequality, and human rights violations in Jammu & Kashmir, the northeast, and the so-called red corridor of central India where various states have waged a brutal campaign against Maoist guerillas. Critics of Hindu mythological claims, such as Govind Pansare, M.M. Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh, have been murdered for expressing their views.”
Essentially, Modi’s BJP continues to reward their most loyal supporters, from Brahmin fundamentalists seeking to intimidate and kill Muslims and Dalits for eating beef to businessmen seeking economic policies that would benefit their profit margins at the expense of farmers and workers.
INDIA’S OCCUPATION OF KASHMIR
Since Indian and Pakistani independence, Kashmir, a region bordering Pakistan and India, has been fought over and divided between the two geopolitical rivals. More importantly, since independence, Kashmiris have lacked basic civil and political rights.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and its allies on the ground, which include NGOs in Kashmir, conducted a report on the situation in Indian-administered Kashmir following regional unrest in 2016. (Link to full PDF of report.)
The report concluded, “There remains an urgent need to address past and ongoing human rights violations and to deliver justice for all people in Kashmir who have been suffering seven decades of conflict. Any resolution to the political situation in Kashmir should entail a commitment to ending the cycles of violence and accountability for past and current human rights violations.”
The Kashmiri people, who are majority-Muslim, were promised a vote to decide their self-determination in the 1950s. However, both India and Pakistan, after having broken that promise, continue to occupy the region with their highly militarized security forces.
In Indian-administered Kashmir, the security forces have free rein to detain whomever they want and are brutal when responding to protests, such as relying on pellet guns at close-range.
“The ammunition is made of lead alloy that is fired at a high velocity thereby dispersing the metal pellets over a large area,” the UN explained in its report, “Experts claim that there is no way of adequately controlling the trajectory of these shotguns beyond a limited range, which makes them inherently inaccurate and indiscriminate.”
The practice of pellet-guns at close-range has led to severe injuries among protesters, including blindness. Further, Kashmiris who have spoken against India’s occupation are arrested without due process and tortured. Many Kashmiris, especially women, experience sexual violence at the hands of India’s security forces.
The UN stated, “Information received through both written and oral testimonies highlighted the use of mass rape, allegedly by members of the State security forces, as well as acts of enforced disappearance, killings and acts of torture and ill-treatment, which were used to intimidate and to counteract political opposition and insurgency.’”
The local government has little power over India’s occupation. Indian security forces cannot be held accountable for their actions by the local government. With limited input from the local government, Indian security services have shut down all communications among Kashmiris, including blacking out all access to the internet. Also, schools have been forced to shut down as well as newspapers and access to hospitals has been greatly impacted.
“During the 2016 unrest, there were numerous reports of attacks on, and obstruction of, basic medical services that had a severe impact on the injured and general civilian population in Kashmir,” the UN detailed, “According to human rights groups, the fear of being arrested inside the hospital led to a large number of injured patients fleeing before receiving medical attention. Human rights groups claimed that days-long curfews and communications blockades also had a major impact on people and their access to medical care in Kashmir. The Doctors Association Kashmir cautioned in 2016 that the communication blockade escalated conditions of anxiety and depression among patients.”
To this day, Kashmir remains heavily militarized and held captive by an Indian central government which is increasingly Islamophobic and nationalistic. The plight of Kashmiris represents the degeneration of Indian politics and the broken promises following independence.
ONE STEP AT A TIME
For decades now, India has been steering further and further away from its socialist and secular roots, toward a politics of resentment and nationalism. The forces responsible for this shift include an impotent Indian National Congress as well as an increasingly authoritarian BJP.
A deeper assessment is needed but for now, it is apparent that those of us who care about democracy and economic and political rights must begin to take a stand, especially those of us with particular economic and caste and citizenship privileges.
For instance, this means supporting Kashmir’s right to self-determination. So long as Kashmiris are oppressed and their land occupied, they will never be able to access basic rights and resources. And the treatment of Kashmir will continue to serve as a rallying cry for the Indian right-wing and continue to contaminate India’s overall political discourse as well. Therefore, ending India’s occupation is necessary.
In the end, we must continue to reflect and respond to the growing fascist threat in India and across the globe.
As famed anthropologist and scholar, Arjun Appadurai, once said about a similar moment after the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which thousands of Muslims were massacred or driven from their homes, “We are in a moment of respite, and in order to ensure that the Hinduization of Indian politics remain history, we need to think through this period with as much care as we can summon.”
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Sudip Bhattacharya is a Rutgers University Ph.D. student and instructor in political science who focuses on race, class and social justice. He has a master’s degree in journalism from Georgetown University. His work has been published at CNN, The Washington City Paper, The Lancaster Newspapers, The Daily Gazette (Schenectady), The Jersey Journal, Media Diversified (Writers of Colour), Reappropriate, Counter Punch, New Politics, AsAm News, Jaggery, and The New Engagement.