"Muslims are the principal target"

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, wearing a saffron cap, greets supporters from an open vehicle
Slaves to the geopolitical agenda: don't expect the U.S. and West European governments to criticise Modi's increasingly authoritarian policies, there is too much at stake (image: Mahesh Kumar A./ASSOCIATED PRESS/picture alliance)

With elections on 19 April, India looks set to re-elect Narendra Modi's BJP party, greenlighting an ongoing process of Hinduisation on the subcontinent. The persecution of Muslims and other minorities will intensify. Yet India has little to fear in the way of criticism from its Western allies, says political scientist Achin Vanaik

Interview by Dominik Müller

In Germany, large companies and the established parties are warning against voting in favour of the far-right, as this would hamper economic growth. They argue that a far-right government would discourage foreign investors and well-educated workers from coming to Germany. In India, the corporations and the far-right government seem to work well together. How is that possible?

Achin Vanaik: The major corporations are mainly concerned that India's neoliberal economic orientation remains intact. This neoliberal shift was achieved by the Congress Party at the beginning of the 1990s. During the Bharatiya Janata Party's first term (1998-2004), it continued with this orientation. When Narendra Modi came to power after 2014, he also pursued the same course, but made sure of favouring his own crony capitalists from his Gujarat past as chief minister, namely Mukesh Ambani and Gautam Adani

These days, their groups are among the leading Indian transnational companies. The overall impact of the swing towards neoliberalism in India has been different to that in Germany and the advanced West. There, for substantial sections of the working population, life is now worse than it was in former times, when much stronger welfarism and fuller employment existed. 

A group of Modi supporters waving against a background of Modi banners
"The BJP under Modi is seeking to establish a system of religiously exclusivist 'ethno-nationalism', in which the excluded group, namely Muslims, is permanently reduced to fearful, second-class citizen status," says Vanaik (image: Debajyoti Chakraborty/NurPhoto/picture alliance)

In India, although social inequality has increased dramatically and the rate of growth of real income of the bottom 50% has been slower than in the pre-neoliberal era, in absolute terms, things are better. India never had a past 'golden age' like the West with which today's conditions can be compared and found wanting. 

Modi, like his predecessors, has pursued a compensatory form of neoliberalism with a few targeted material 'freebies' for women and poorer sections of society, such as the provision of gas cylinders for cooking, or a modest monthly cash transfer into household bank accounts set up for the first time in certain states. Thus, besides Hindu nationalism's expanding ideological influence, there has been much wider public acceptance that Indian big capital 'guided' by the government has created greater 'trickle-down' benefits for the masses. 

Mass poverty still exists

That said, mass poverty still exists. Moreover, unemployment/underemployment among the educated youth has also been growing in recent years. Europe's far-right tends to attack the negative effects of neoliberalism, yet refuses to reject neoliberal policies when sharing power – except on the fringes. In India, the public perception of economic performance is quite different and the racist and exclusivist ideology of the Modi government enjoys wider support. 

If Modi and the BJP are going to win the elections a third time, what does it mean for minorities and the political opposition in India?

Vanaik: Modi and the BJP will be re-elected. The question is whether the BJP will secure an even larger majority or not. If it does, it will move even faster to establish a stronger institutional and emotional foundation for securing Hindu supremacy. 

Labourers carrying a sack loaded on a cart
Concept of 'trickle-down' widely accepted by those Indians not dependent on it: Modi, like his predecessors, has pursued a compensatory form of neoliberalism with a few targeted material 'freebies' for women and poorer sections of society, such as the provision of gas cylinders for cooking, or a modest monthly cash transfer into household bank accounts (image: Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/picture alliance)

The two religious minorities it is most concerned about are Christians and Muslims, but the approach is different. Christians only make up around 2.3%, while the number of Muslims is between 14 and 15 percent. Among the northeastern states there are four – Nagaland, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya – where Christians are a majority. Here the BJP/Sangh Parivar tactic is to work with their representative political parties. 

The slower, more gradual process of expanding Hindutva influence and control on the ground is left to the cadre activism of the Sangh Parivar and to the workings of its schools, NGOs and its other civil society organisations. Generally, because the West is more concerned about the ill-treatment of Christians than of Muslims, Hindutva forces are more careful in what they do. 

As for the political opposition, at the party-electoral level the aim is to steadily reduce the regional influence of and support for Muslims and undermine them when in state governance, so they can see the benefit of aligning themselves with the BJP to retain some relevance. At the non-party civil society level, there is growing censorship of print and electronic media – the government has set up its own "fact-check unit", which has the power to remove material considered anti-national, hurting religious sentiment – Hindu feelings, etc. 

Expanding surveillance capacities and newly introduced criminal laws are among the methods increasingly used to frighten, reduce and silence dissent generally and to punish select dissenters, be they liberal, leftist, or simply antagonistic to the current political climate.

BJP's ethno-nationalist system

"Divide and rule" along religious denominations was an important instrument of political rule during the British colonial era. To what extent are the BJP and the Sangh Parivar following this policy?

Vanaik: The British policy of divide-and-rule was meant to prevent any unity of the colonised population, at a time when the proportion of Muslims was much higher than it is now, and when several parts of the country had a majority Muslim population. Moreover, the British wanted to weaken both sides, so as to maintain its colonial-imperialist rule. The BJP's current effort differs, in that it is seeking to establish a system of religiously exclusivist 'ethno-nationalism', in which the excluded group, namely Muslims, is permanently reduced to fearful, second-class citizen status. After the indigenous tribal population, India's Muslim community competes with the Dalits for second position in terms of poverty and deprivation. 

As a community, Muslims are not a threat to anyone. But they are the ones who suffer most in all major religious riots. Since 2014, they have been the principal target of India's localised vigilante violence. Many Indian states have anti-conversion laws directed against Muslims, while Hindus officially get away with carrying out "re-conversion" to the 'original faith' of Hinduism.

In a growing number of states, marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women are first subject to official scrutiny and approval. Yet the official nod may not be given, particularly if family relatives or neighbours claim this was forced, or that there was a forced pre-marriage conversion of the bride to Islam. Should the BJP be re-elected, as all polls suggest, Muslims will continue to face general oppression. 

The West is reluctant to criticise human rights violations, the dismantling of the rule of law and atrocities against minorities in India. Is that the price it has to pay?

Vanaik: Today's geopolitical order is characterised by the rivalry between a Western imperialist bloc of the U.S. and its junior European allies against a weaker imperialist bloc of Russia and its allies, plus an emerging imperialist power China, which is increasingly seen as the U.S. empire's main geopolitical threat. India, because of its decades-long conflict with China, sees the need to align itself with the U.S. and its allies, which is central to the United States and its 'China containment' policy. 

The U.S. and the West have always aligned with brutal authoritarian regimes, supporting them materially and politically – remember apartheid South Africa – when it served their geopolitical agenda. 

Progressive civil society organisations in the West will no doubt do what they can to condemn what is going on in India and offer victims of persecution support. Yet the U.S. and West European governments are likely to do little more than offer the occasional criticism of the Indian government's authoritarian behaviour. We will wait a long time for any serious sanctions or penalties.

Interview conducted by Dominik Muller

© Qantara.de 2024

Achin Vanaik is retired professor of international relations and former head of department of political science at the University of Delhi. Amongst other books he has authored "The Rise of Hindu Authoritarianism: Secular Claims, Communal Realities" (Verso, 2017).