India has been rocked by the recent arrest of two students on colonial-era sedition charges for their involvement in protests against the execution of Afzal Guru, the man convicted of an attack on the Indian Parliament in 2001. This event turns out to be only the most recent episode in a long series of free speech violations perpetrated by the government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi has built his career on strong economic policy, starting when he served as governor of the state of Gujarat and now as prime minister, by implementing economic reforms which have revived India as an economic giant. However, while his economic policies have shown him to be an adept leader, he must rely on the merits of his policies rather than repressive tactics to maintain support for his rule. The fight for freedoms is not a battle that can take a backseat to more “concrete” policy, and if Mr. Modi does not take steps to uphold rights like the freedoms of speech and the press, his admirable economic legacy will be overshadowed by an immense domestic failure.
The current wave of protests and violence surrounding the prosecution of the students has been investigated elsewhere in great depth; BPR’s own Divya Mehta offers an insightful explanation and analysis of recent events, as does the Huffington Post. The current turmoil, it should be said, is by no means a new phenomenon. Modi himself has a past spotted with injustices from his governorship, when he was complicit in deadly rioting, to the first months of his tenure as PM.
Much of the problem stems from Hindu nationalism. Around 80 percent of the country is Hindu; with many in that majority identifying with Hindu nationalism, a conservative doctrine of preserving old social patterns, thereby protecting social inequalities and asserting one cultural, Hindu, path to “Indian-ness.” This position is enshrined in a cultural organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which the BJP is the political arm.
Because of the widespread support for Hindu nationalism, many politicians are forced, at the very least, to pay lip service to the Hindu right. The RSS exerts an incredible degree of control over important elected officials; it routinely commits impressive resources to campaigning and its direct membership alone numbers in the millions. When these methods fails, the RSS does not hesitate to intervene directly to see its policy priorities implemented. A key to the success of Hindu nationalism has been perpetuating an “us versus them” narrative, most often regarding Hindus and minorities, namely Muslims. It’s an easy path to victory, but it does leave a man like Modi beholden, willingly or not, to the RSS and the type of nationalism it represents.
There is some evidence that Modi is more a victim of his circumstances than wildly radical; comments by members of his party and his own conspicuous silence on domestic rights issues point to a politician who is more moderate than his party membership may indicate. Modi has been shaped from childhood by the RSS and has not made any substantial efforts to challenge the crackdown on sedition and so-called antinationalism, so it is distinctly possible that he is willingly engaged in this oppression. However the combination of his apparent reluctance to become involved in the controversy and his single-issue history as an economic reformer reveals Modi more believably as the former. At the very least, he has tried to paint himself as a neutral party.
If that is true, then Modi must recognize that the fight to define what is Indian, and the freedoms that allow for that discourse, are incredibly important. As of right now, it seems like Modi may view the injustices perpetrated by his government as a mere distraction, but freedom is more concretely valuable than it may seem at first. To speak Mr. Modi’s language, freedom of speech has been found repeatedly to correlate with stability and economic prosperity. Although the government prosecution against the students appears to be technically supported by language against secession, it is a clear violation of the spirit of free speech laws to treat these college students so harshly, especially considering the controversial nature of the case. Additionally, the optics of such oppression are pretty poor; even if normative rights claims and the clear economics backing freedom of expression aren’t enough to convince Modi to stand up to the radical elements of his party, he should consider how he may be hurting his legacy in the eyes of voters and his country’s image on the world stage.
Making a case for less oppression of speech is the easy part. How Modi can go about changing the national dialogue about nationalism and reforming the institutions that actually carry out law below him is difficult to see. A starting place would be for Modi to simply end his silence. He can start with action on little things— speaking out against the prosecution of the JNU students, siding with the growing consensus which includes Amnesty International, much of the Indian academic world, and the rest of the political spectrum. It will take a number of such assertions of the right to peaceful dissent for Mr. Modi to build credibility for a broader defense of pluralism, but acting in this particular instance is a clear first step.
Besides this, Modi can apply a wealth of already-existing knowledge about the state of Indian policing to his country. An excellent place to start is the Delhi police department, which has been responsible for the JNU incident. The Delhi police department has shown itself as corrupt or inept in a number of ways. First, it is possible that footage upon which the prosecution in the case of the JNU student Afzal Guru depends has been doctored. Additionally, the police department is clearly responding to the scandal in an overly aggressive manner, refusing to admit wrongdoing and closing ranks. All of these facets of their response are in fact fairly typical for the Delhi police department. In other instances, the Delhi police have acted as the blunt arm of the BJP, violating fundamental liberties and clearly exhibiting bias. As the Police Chief BS Bassi is retiring soon under immense pressure from opposition parties, this is the perfect time for Modi to encourage new leadership with an eye towards evenhanded and not so overzealous policing. Reform deserves to spread from there across the country, but small, politically opportune first steps are incredibly important to establish a more neutral government.
The odds are stacked against Modi taking the kind of stand for pluralism and free expression that India needs, but it is what needs to be done. In order to restore confidence in the government and his own legacy, Modi ought to use the kind of consensus and technocracy that surround his economic policies to build more consensus-driven responses to the oppression in the country. He has already indicated that he may be more reasonable than the rest of his party; now he has the perfect chance to prove it.