By Logan Rader—Opinion Editor
Recently, a couple of bombastic personalities (one very familiar) were publicly satisfied with what they desire most: screaming fans and popular attention.
On Sunday, Sept. 22, a roaring crowd packed into a football stadium in Houston, TX greeted India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi with grandiose applause, celebrating his triumph in the country’s recent parliamentary elections. At the cultural rally, notably and officially called “Howdy, Modi!” the prime minister was joined by President Trump who asserted his support for the passionate populist.
The two leaders have risen to power through similar veins. POTUS relied on his gold-plated persona and status as a divisive outsider, tapping into the fiery, xenophobic character of the American experience. Modi shares a similar claim to fame.
He served as Gujarat’s chief minister from 2001-2014 and has been prime minister since then. During his time in Gujarat, he deliberately allowed a deadly anti-Muslim pogrom to occur in 2002, in which over a thousand Muslims were killed. These minorities, as Modi publicly pondered, needed to be taught a lesson. He was subsequently banned from travel to the US until 2014 under the International Religious Freedom Act. It was rather objectively apparent to most that he bore some responsibility, from which the current US position toward India has dramatically departed.
There is a prevalent anti-Muslim sentiment that runs deep in Indian politics, and this has been exacerbated by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) grip on power, the right-wing Hindu nationalist coalition. India has been in the news over the last few years because of their dispute with Pakistan, a majority-Muslim country, over the region of Kashmir. Muslims have increasingly taken on the role of scapegoat in Indian politics.
Traditionally seen as a bastion of democracy in the East, the Indian state has increasingly taken on a character of “Hinduness,” and dissent, in whatever form, is taken as criminal criticism of the government. Further, authorities have responded to dissent in a paradoxically cowardly and bold way. As authoritarian China is holding over one million Uighur Muslims in “re-education camps” on counts of terrorism and espionage, India is imprisoning and abusing those they deem threatening to the power of the party and the government.
These very same broad charges of undercutting the regime’s legitimacy were used in the arrest of GN Saibaba, a professor of English at Delhi University.
Saibaba was sentenced to life in prison on Mar. 7, 2017, and convicted of “unlawful activities,” among other things, on the basis of evidence with scant merit. After his home was raided by the police, various electronics were collected by India’s government like hard drives, flash drives, and academic writings. These pieces of evidence served as the Indian courts’ basis to accuse Professor Saibaba of being a member of a front group for the Maoist Communist Party of India, which is banned from political activities. He remains in prison today, for advocating for indigenous and other oppressed groups in the country.
Saibaba, in his late fifties, also suffers from post-Polio syndrome, and ninety percent of his body is paralyzed, including his legs. Bound to a wheelchair in prison, he has been diagnosed with over fifteen ailments like acute pancreatitis and a cardiac condition. His family rarely receives updates on his medical status and safety. Under painful conditions, and even having been denied access to proper medical care, bail, and an accessible toilet for up to seventy-two hours, Saibaba is one of the many faces of the dissent-crushing, intolerant regime of PM Modi.
In order to preserve their hold on power, Modi’s BJP is brutally cutting off all advocates of minority groups under the auspices of silencing terrorism. GN Saibaba is only a slice of the current political climate in India. As a not-so-subtle note, the government is deploying surveillance drones to areas of indigenous peoples. The US is currently selling armed drones to the country, and there is speculation that they will join the surveillance technology as a further and potentially fatal encroachment on Indian minorities. Our military offerings have the potential to wreak havoc on minority communities.
Modi’s India is slowly moving toward dangerous territory. The Hindu majority is bolstering its legitimacy through repressive measures. Anti-Muslim violence continues, advocates, like Saibaba, amplifying the voices of minorities are oppressed, and critics of the government and its policies are being thrown in jail at best, targeted for violence or even death at worst.
This is not simply a far-away place where far-away issues are affecting far-away people. President Trump, since his election, has consistently deemed critical media the “enemy of the people” (sometimes immediately after defending conservatives who he believes are being unfairly silenced). A hallmark of democracy is the legitimation of a free and independent press. If you didn’t know, it’s in the Constitution. The implication of this is the need for a free flow of information to insure a well-functioning system. This freedom of speech is not arbitrarily bottomless, but that is an argument for another piece. It most certainly is not subject to the government’s arbitrary whims for protection of the regime.
The suppression of dissidents under dubious charges, solely for maintaining a vise on the status quo, is a sign of democracy’s demise. India, the shining story of democratic triumph over centuries of colonial oppression, is withering. In the case of GN Saibaba, and dozens, hundreds, millions of others, the authoritarian government and its populist autocrats rouse support for truly despicable means of suppressing constructive advocacy and criticism.
PM Modi was elected to be India’s strong man, battling a rigged establishment. Sound familiar? Now, after previously being banned from travel to the US for his role in a brutal, xenophobic campaign, he is showered with praise in Texas. This story, one of a divisive and autocratic leader claiming power through his aversion to democratic institutions and norms, is not new. Rather, it is entirely too familiar, especially right now. Just look at the far-right’s current rise in Italy, Britain, and elsewhere.
Democratic government is something to be maintained, and that requires pointing out its flaws and patching its unfortunate gaps. The Cold War is beginning to rear its ugly head, and no nation is immune to popular discontent with the very foundations of democracy.
“Those who make bloodless revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” – President John F. Kennedy