The Threat Toward Indian Democracy

3 mins read

By Christoffer Orre

For the past few years, Western society has been attacked by a nationalist agenda. Little by little, this agenda has wounded Western democracy by advocating an authoritarian view on the role of the state. Today this agenda is represented in local boards, parliaments and governments across Europe and the US. Media coverage of these developments has been extensive in every part of the world. The same nationalist expansion has occurred in India, and today both its democracy and pluralism are threatened. Unfortunately, but as expected, Western media is not as interested as it should be.

India has a rich tradition of democracy, which started with its independence in 1947. The constitution gives substantial protection to both freedom of speech and freedom of religion, a freedom benefiting not only the enormous majority of Hindus but also the Muslim and Christian minorities. However, something shifted in the 1980s. When the country’s economic growth started to increase at a faster pace than before, a new middle class arose. Hindu nationalists exploited the fact that the Indian middle class tended to be more receptive to conservative and nationalist ideas. Therefore, their vision of an ethnic Hindu state called “Hindu Rashtra” was revived, and took a step out of the periphery. After a long time with limited political influence, today the movement has gained enough strength to play a vital role in Indian politics.

The nationalist movement is divided into three essential parts. Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) is a right-wing organization. RSS works similarly to a think tank, with the purpose to formulate Hindu nationalist policies. Visva Hindu Parishad (VHP) is a more hands-on organization, with a boy scout-like movement performing social welfare work. An important part of VHP’s work is to reinforce the Hindu nationalist views of their members. Both RSS and VHP have close ties to the governing party Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The third part consists of groups of men who call themselves “gau rakshaks” — cow protectors. They are not an organization as much as they are a mob, since they have a violent approach toward anyone who contradicts the basic principles of Hinduism. It is well known that many people, particularly Muslims, have been murdered after the gau rakshaks have suspected them of slaughtering cows. These three parts are united by a common goal — Hindu Rashtra.

Sten Widmalm, professor at Uppsala University’s Department of Government, says that Hindu nationalists are trying to crush the part of civil society that is opposing RSS in different matters such as human rights and minority rights. He says that this is done via a two-way attack. Approximately 20 000 NGOs have lost their licenses, which are needed to accept external funds. This is due to bad accounting, according to the government. However, everything points towards there being political motives behind the withdrawals. A more direct threat to Indian democracy are the various attacks, performed by the gau rakshaks, on journalists, politicians and others opposing the Hindu nationalists.  Their agenda is not primarily a question of cows as much as an attempt to frighten civil society from engaging in democratic debate. Widmalm then goes on to say that strong political forces orchestrate the behavior of these mobs.

Earlier this year, the journalist Edward Luce released a book called “The Retreat of Western Liberalism”. In it, he describes how the old assumption that material wealth is dependent on liberal democracy has been disproved by China’s economic success and global impact. Instead, his thesis is that future societies are going to be forced to choose two of three of the following values; democracy, globalization and nationalism. This theory is interesting in the context of India’s history as a very poor, but democratic country, and the later development of fast economic growth with more authoritarian governing. But what values will India end up choosing?

Sten Widmalm attempts to answer this question, saying that India could turn into a hybrid regime, with general elections, since even the most authoritarian states have them. The construction of rapid economic growth as a national interest will continue, at the expense of democracy, since efficiency is often in conflict with, for example, union rights. It is all very similar to China’s model. India will also lean toward a more ethnic Hindu state, where Muslims will potentially be forced to convert to Hinduism. This could cause friction between the North and South, in the end dividing the country.  If Indian democracy is to be saved, it must rely on the strong local parties in the many states. There has been an enormous growth in regional parties since the 1980s. They are the foundation of the political system in India, and they benefit democracy. Another key to steering the country in the direction of democracy is through the Congress Party improving their unsuccessful ways of dealing with Hindu nationalism.

No one knows for sure how India will turn out. What we do know is that it takes very little for civil society to give up their belief in democracy. History also shows that it takes a very long time for society to embrace these principles. This is especially so if democracy can be traded in for wealth.


Christoffer Orre is a law student focusing on international law and politics. Currently obsessed with India after a trip there earlier this year. He is interested in all kinds of museums and uses them as a source of inspiration.



Image: Wikimedia Commons

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