India's Authoritarian Streak

What Modi Risks With His Divisive Populism

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is pictured wearing a traditional Maithili turban during his visit at Janaki Mandir, a Hindu temple dedicated to goddess Sita, in Janakpur, Nepal, May 11, 2018. Navesh Chitrakar / Reuters

Since the election of Narendra Modi as prime minister in 2014, India has grown deeply divided along ideological and religious lines. Under his watch, Modi’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has issued populist policies that harm religious minorities and dissenters, and its officials have largely remained silent about violence against such groups. In some instances, they have even gone so far as to laud such behavior.

In August 2015, Malleshappa Kalburgi, an Indian scholar who criticized Hindu idolatry, was murdered by Hindu right-wing groups. His death was later celebrated on Twitter by activists from Bajrang Dal, another right-wing Hindu group whose members are strong supporters of Modi. Later that year, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was killed by a Hindu mob for allegedly committing the “sin” of eating beef. After the incident, Mahesh Sharma, a minister in the Modi government, insisted that the murder of Akhlaq was merely “the result of a misunderstanding.” In 2017, after the murder of the journalist Gauri Lankesh, a prominent critic of Hindu nationalist groups, the BJP government accused opposition leaders of trying to “make political capital” out of the situation. In all of these cases, the prime minister failed to issue a statement of condolence or condemnation, leading the well-known Indian actor Prakash Raj to condemn Modi’s silence as “chilling.” This year, after the horrific rape of an eight-year-old Muslim girl by Hindu men who were determined to drive her community from their village, Modi only issued a condemnation after facing mounting pressure from opposition groups.

What is more, the government and Hindu nationalist activists now routinely suppress dissent and label protesters as “anti-national.” As a prominent example, in 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, the president of the student union at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, was arrested for “sedition” and accused of being “anti-national” after he and his fellow students engaged in a peaceful (albeit controversial) protest against the government’s 2013 execution of Afzal Guru, a terrorist trained in Pakistan who helped carry out

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