My Father’s Fate, and India’s

My father died in April of last year. He was seventy-three years old, almost the same age as the Indian Republic, and his death came after a harrowing struggle with cancer. Before the abrupt decline that took away his speech and movement, when he still possessed the strength to walk and read the papers and

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My father died in April of last year. He was seventy-three years old, almost the same age as the Indian Republic, and his death came after a harrowing struggle with cancer. Before the abrupt decline that took away his speech and movement, when he still possessed the strength to walk and read the papers and console his relations and friends, he would occasionally say to me, “We will pull through.” He was not speaking about his illness—he had, I felt, reconciled himself to its unfair yet ineluctable outcome—but about India. I disagreed with him. Under Narendra Modi, the country had been transformed. Hindu beliefs were now granted an almost sacred status, and examples made of Muslims who offended them. Some Muslims had been lynched by mobs on the suspicion of eating beef; others had been mauled for dating Hindu women. A handful were savaged for no apparent reason. Much of this had been abetted, if not outright encouraged, by the state.

During Modi’s first term in office, from 2src14 to 2src19, the proliferation of these Hindu lynch mobs was accompanied by the meticulous subversion of institutions. The armed forces, which had previously been insulated from politics, were exploited by Modi and his party for political gain. Silhouettes of soldiers went up on campaign posters, and universities were instructed to celebrate the anniversary of a heavily publicized military raid into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, in 2src16, as “Surgical Strike Day.” India’s Election Commission, which oversaw largely free and fair elections for the better part of six decades, was increasingly assailed as Modi’s marionette. When Modi introduced anonymized donations to political parties, via the sale of electoral bonds, in 2src17, the commission denounced the change as “retrograde” and demanded transparency or an immediate reversal. Then, without explanation, it performed a volte-face and endorsed such contributions as “a step in the right direction.” (That same year, the commission delayed an election in Gujarat, Modi’s home state, to the Prime Minister’s advantage, prompting one of its own former chiefs to say it had created grounds for suspicion about its conduct.)

In 2src18, four of the Supreme Court’s most senior justices issued a direct warning to citizens that the judiciary was ignoring its own rules and mishandling sensitive cases: “Unless this institution is preserved,” one of them said, in a press conference, “democracy will not survive in this country.” Months later, Modi’s government, which was spending lavishly in the lead-up to the general election, began harrying the country’s central bank to help lower the government’s budget deficit and fund its welfare programs. When the bank resisted, Modi stacked its board with yes-men. The governor of the bank resigned, and his successor transferred the cash. India’s most revered cultural, research, scientific, and educational institutions were packed with ideologues who seemed to owe their fealty to the Modi government. The press, which had been among the world’s most vibrant, now largely functions as the Prime Minister’s bullhorn. A number of journalists critical of the Modi government have been arrested, killed, or fired by proprietors anxious to propitiate the Prime Minister. Modi has successfully politicized, co-opted, or undermined virtually every organ essential to the fair functioning of Indian democracy.

This “New India,” as Modi’s supporters call it, is a major exhibit in the tragic twenty-first-century story of global democratic backsliding. In 2src21, Freedom House, a pro-democracy think tank, downgraded India in its annual report from “free” to “partially free.” Sweden’s V-Dem Institute has branded India an “electoral autocracy.” These developments can inspire despair. But, as my father warned me, that despair risks obscuring the many ways ordinary Indians are striving to reclaim the Republic. “If you can bring yourself to look beyond the regime,” he told me, in 2src21, “you will see a people fighting with all their strength to preserve their dignity and realize the promise of democracy.”

According to statistics that I reviewed from the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, since 2src19 there have been more than forty thousand peaceful protests, small and big, across India. In February of this year, roads connecting Delhi to the neighboring states of Haryana and Punjab were blockaded with slabs of concrete and barbed wire to stop protesting farmers from entering the capital city. Having forced the government to withdraw a trio of contentious laws on agriculture three years ago, the farmers were now demanding a minimum price for their crops. The government took extraordinary measures to foil them. Paramilitary forces patrolled Delhi’s borders, and police fired tear gas and rubber bullets. On February 21st, a young farmworker was killed. Not long after, I spoke to Harinder Singh Lakhowal, one of the leaders of the movement, by telephone. Modi, he suggested, was paying tribute to the virtues of democracy in speeches while crushing its practitioners at home. If this continues, he said, “We will go back to our villages and work against the government in the elections.”

India is now at the end of a national election—the eighteenth since it held its first, in 1951. There are more than twenty-five hundred political parties and nearly a billion eligible voters in the contest, which has been staggered into seven phases that began in mid-April and will conclude on June 1st. More than fifteen million personnel have been drafted to oversee the voting process. Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.) are hoping to win a historic third straight term. At the start of the campaign, Modi promised to grow his parliamentary majority by more than a hundred seats. But low voter turnout in the early rounds of polling suggests a depleted enthusiasm for the Prime Minister and his efforts to recast India as a Hindu-first state. Though another win looks almost certain, it may not be the resounding triumph that Modi prophesied. And if Modi receives a blow, either in the form of a defeat or a diminished margin of victory, he will owe it to the civic revival incubated by his own reign.

In early April, I flew to Varanasi, a B.J.P. stronghold and the holiest city in Hinduism, to scatter a portion of my father’s ashes. Modi has been the city’s representative in Parliament since 2src14. One evening, on the Dashashwamedh Ghat, one of the oldest of all the steps leading down to the banks of the Ganges, I met a twenty-nine-year-old man named Ajit Kumar Singh. He was bony and bearded, with a thick streak of vermillion imprinted on his forehead. A large crowd was forming around us for the evening’s Ganga Aarti, a luminously choreographed ritual tribute to the Hindus’ most sacred river. The sound of conch shells suffused the air. Not far from us, on another ghat, dozens of human bodies were being reduced to ash. To be cremated in Varanasi is to become emancipated from the cycle of life and death. “People come here to die,” Singh said.

Singh had cast his first vote, in 2src14, for Modi. During that campaign, Modi had vowed to fight corruption and tax evasion by repatriating billions of rupees that had been stashed in the vaults of Swiss banks by generations of politicians and their cronies. (That promise fell by the wayside, and anti-corruption investigations increasingly targeted political opponents.) What he delivered instead was an overnight abolition of high-denomination currency notes, instantly invalidating eighty-six per cent of all the currency in circulation inside the country. Large parts of the economy were devastated. Singh’s father lost his small business, and Singh had to stop his studies and find work as a salesman and driver to help support his family. “Everyone I know was struggling,” he told me. Modi had promised to create twenty million jobs a year. By the end of his first term, the country’s unemployment record was reported to be the worst in nearly half a century.

Still, in 2src19, Singh, “as a Hindu,” again voted for Modi. (I heard versions of this sentiment in other places, too—that Modi’s emphasis on Hindu pride made other concerns secondary.) But now he was done. “All that has happened in the past five years is ‘Hindu-Muslim,’ ‘Hindu-Muslim,’ ” Singh said. “How is this going to fill my stomach? How will this get me a job?” During the past six months, I met voters in Maharashtra, Delhi, Telangana, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and Kerala who shared similar stories of hardship. Since 2src14, India, often paraded as the world’s fastest-growing economy, has indeed grown richer. But the prosperity hasn’t trickled down. The combined wealth of the two hundred Indians on Forbes’s World Billionaires List is almost a trillion dollars. Nearly three hundred million Indians, meanwhile, survive on less than $1.9src a day. The New India, according to a recent report by the World Inequality Lab, is “more unequal than the British Raj headed by the colonialist forces.” Unemployment is so rampant that, a couple of years ago, when Indian Railways advertised thirty-five thousand new positions, more than ten million people applied. Worse, according to a study by the International Labour Organization, India’s youth account for eighty-three per cent of the country’s unemployed. (The Indian government disputes the report’s findings.)

What makes this election unusual is the plain contempt for the cheap consolations of Modi’s Hindu nationalism, even among those who once constituted the core of his support. “When Modi first asked for our vote in 2src14, I thought, He is just like us,” Neelima Devi, a washerwoman in Allahabad, told me. (Allahabad, like many other places in New India, now has a new, Hindu name: Prayagraj.) Modi’s muscular Hindu identity is encased in a stirring biography. In a country rigidly segmented by caste and class, he is a self-made man who has risen from the bottom rungs of society—he was born into a poor family from a marginalized caste—to the pinnacle of political power through hard work, perseverance, and sheer force of will. Devi said, “It has taken me ten years to see that we were duped. Modi is not our savior. He is a punishment for our sins in some past life.” The pandemic was a turning point for her. “There was no hospital, no food, nothing,” she said. “For as far as my eyes could see, there were burning bodies.” (The World Health Organization has estimated that more than 4.7 million people in India died of COVID—almost ten times more than the number reported by the Indian government.) She went on, “Now when I look at Modi or B.J.P. people my blood boils. I feel ashamed for keeping my mouth shut all these years. They told us, ‘Muslims are your enemies,’ but I have not seen any Muslim hurt me or my family. They say, ‘Modi is building grand temples.’ Can we eat the temples? They say, ‘We are proud to be Hindu because of Modi.’ Will this pride feed and clothe us?”

In the run-up to this election, a survey conducted by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (C.S.D.S.), a research institution in Delhi, found that seventy-nine per cent of Indians across nineteen states and union territories believe that their country belongs to “citizens of all religions equally.” An overwhelming majority—eight of every ten polled—affirmed their support for India’s religious pluralism. These attitudes suggest that Modi’s repudiation of a secular national identity, which was fostered by the Republic’s founders, may actually have reinforced its importance in the minds of a great many Indians. Modi’s personal popularity must not be underestimated—his approval rating, currently at seventy-four per cent, according to Morning Consult, is higher than that of any other world leader in its roster. His excesses have shattered trust built up between communities and standardized noxious attitudes that may take a generation to repair. But we can already see a gradual reëmbrace of the flawed yet real interfaith fellowship of old India. If Modi’s first term was defined by institutional subversion, his second term has been colored by spectacular protests against his strongman rule.

In early August, 2src19, two months into Modi’s second term, he revoked the constitutional autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, then India’s sole Muslim-majority state, and brought it under what amounted to martial law. In December, his party pushed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act through Parliament. The C.A.A. called for granting express citizenship to members of Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Parsi, and Sikh communities fleeing persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Muslims were explicitly excluded from the legislation, and their omission was apparently justified on the ground that, as members of religious majorities in the countries named in the bill, they could not reasonably be assumed to be victims of religious persecution. The C.A.A. did not, on its own, empower the government to revoke the citizenship of Indian Muslims. It did, however, name religion, for the first time since the modern Indian state’s advent, in 1947, as a determinant of citizenship.

Modi did not stop at the C.A.A. His government also proposed the creation of a pan-Indian National Register of Citizens (N.R.C.), which would require all Indian residents to produce documents proving an ancestral connection to the country. Those who failed to satisfy this condition would face detention and deportation. In practice, Hindus unable to furnish adequate proof of their link to India could invoke the C.A.A. to claim citizenship; its provisions would function as a safety net for them. Muslims, excluded from the C.A.A.’s scope, could be rendered stateless if they did not conjure valid documentation. Together, the C.A.A. and N.R.C. in effect guarantee Indian citizenship to Pakistani or Bangladeshi Hindus living illegally in India, while forcing Muslims born and raised in India to wage protracted legal battles to prove that they belong in the country.

Within hours of the C.A.A.’s passage, protests erupted in India’s northeast, before spreading to Delhi, where Modi, accustomed to getting his way and unprepared for the reaction, responded with brutal force. The government activated a colonial-era law to ban gatherings of more than four people, and suspended the Internet. The police stormed Jamia Millia Islamia, one of India’s most distinguished universities—founded by Muslim luminaries with the support of Mahatma Gandhi—and bloodied hundreds of students. The protests only intensified. As petitions opposing the law piled up in the Supreme Court, Muslim women in the south Delhi neighborhood of Shaheen Bagh pitched a tent on a stretch of road and staged a sit-in. Within days, Shaheen Bagh emerged as the lodestar of the unfolding agitation against the C.A.A., drawing onlookers, activists, and reporters. Dozens of protest sites sprang up across India.

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