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International Relations and Human Rights Observatory


India: The Authoritarian and Hindu Supremacist Takeover of the World’s Largest Democracy

It is heartening that opposition parties managed to prune away the BJP’s majority in government - yet it does not change the fact that Modi is an authoritarian leader, and remains a danger to Indian democracy as he continues to steer the country towards authoritarianism.
By Rasheed Ahmed

In 1927, India’s future first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, met Latin American political leaders for the first time at the International Congress against Colonialism and Imperialism in Brussels. Reflecting on the two regions’ similar struggles under brutal colonizers, their fights for independence, and their will to create democracy for and by their own people, Nehru wrote that although India and Latin America are “far away from each other in geography, in the geography of mind we are close to each other.”

Fast forward about a century. Now, in the geography of mind, the Indian government is now much closer to the jingoistic colonizer than it is to the Latin American freedom fighters it once admired. 

On June 4, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s coalition government was elected to another five years in office. The election, however, could hardly be called free and fair. Modi and several leaders of his far-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had repeatedly violated Indian law by using hate speech during election rallies to target Muslims and polarize voters. Government agencies were weaponized to stage witch hunts against political opponents, leading to the jailing of opposition candidates and the freezing of one opposition party’s bank accounts. 

Considering these factors, it is heartening that opposition parties managed to prune away the BJP’s majority in government - yet it does not change the fact that Modi is an authoritarian leader, and remains a danger to Indian democracy as he continues to steer the country towards authoritarianism. He has spent the last ten years in power crushing freedom of speech and dissent, stripping away the basic human rights of the nation’s 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians, and seeks to turn the world’s largest democracy into a religious supremacist state. At such a dangerous moment for the country, it is imperative that the international community stand in solidarity with Indian minorities and those who fight to protect Indian democracy.

To understand how dire this threat is, it is important to understand the ideology of the BJP and its far right supporters. This ideology, known as Hindutva or Hindu supremacy, was shaped by the founders of a Hindu paramilitary group called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which was established in 1925. RSS leaders modeled Hindutva off European fascist movements of the 20th century, believing that India should not be a democracy, but a Hindu ethno-state. Minorities, especially Muslims, are seen by Hindutva supporters as either second-class citizens or deserving of being exterminated from India.

It was an RSS member, then seen as a fringe group, who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. Just ten years later, Narendra Modi joined the RSS at the age of eight, beginning his indoctrination into Hindutva ideology and its anti-Muslim hatred. His decades of radicalization within the RSS had bloody consequences: in 2002, a year after he became the Chief Minister of Gujarat state, Modi played a direct role in orchestrating a massacre of nearly 2,000 Muslim women, children, and men. Known today as the Gujarat pogrom, Modi allowed Hindu militant mobs free reign to dismember, rape, and burn Muslims alive for days without police intervention. 

This same man is now Prime Minister, and under him and his Hindutva supporters, India’s democratic institutions have crumbled. The mainstream media - much of which is controlled by Modi’s billionaire friends - is so awash with anti-minority propaganda and hate speech that it has been compared by the Editors’ Guild of India to Radio Rwanda, which played a key role in shaping popular support for the Rwandan genocide. Meanwhile, India’s court system is beholden to Hindutva at all levels, failing to challenge discriminatory policies, upholding unconstitutional bans on hijabs in schools, and allowing Hindu extremists responsible for hate crimes to walk free with only a slap on the wrist. 

As a result, Muslims and other minorities have been left with virtually no protection against Hindu supremacist violence. Using the excuse that Hindus consider cows a sacred animal, mobs known as “cow vigilantes”  have lynched hundreds of Muslim men over accusations of buying or selling beef. Muslim women - especially activists and journalists - face regular threats of rape and other forms of sexual harassment online from Hindu extremist men and women alike. Muslim children across India face anti-Muslim bullying and sometimes violence at the hands of their Hindu peers and teachers alike. These instances of violence and harassment are often filmed and circulated online, where they rack up likes and praises from Hindu extremists on social media. As the research group India Hate Lab reported, there were 668 documented instances of anti-Muslim hate speech in 2023, with most of the perpetrators being affiliated with the Hindu supremacist movement. 

Meanwhile, Hindu supremacist forces at the federal level seek to systematically disenfranchise Muslims. In 2019, the government abrogated Article 370 of the Indian constitution, stripping the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir of its special semi-autonomous status and subjecting its people to a brutal military crackdown. Just months later, the government introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a law that excludes Muslims from a path to fast-tracked citizenship. Experts warn that this law - along with National Register of Citizens (NRC), a government exercise to identify documented Indian citizens - could be used to strip the citizenship of millions of Muslims. 

At the state level, several governments have passed “anti-conversion” laws that criminalize interfaith relationships and make it painstakingly difficult to convert to Islam or Christianity. Civic authorities regularly bulldoze Muslim-owned homes, businesses, and places of worship, claiming that they are “illegally” constructed. Human rights groups, however, have labeled this practice as a breach of international human rights law and an act of collective punishment against Muslims.  

Christians, too, face Hindu supremacist violence. Anti-Christian hatred is driven by the propaganda claim that the minority group regularly convert Hindus to Christianity by force. Hindu mobs in turn use these laws as cover to attack churches, private homes, and prayer meetings. Instead of arresting the perpetrators of this violence, however, police regularly arrest the victims - including Christian pastors - over allegations of “forced conversions.” This persecution is so mainstream that Open Doors, a watchdog organization, has ranked India as the 11th most dangerous country in the world for Christians. 

While those who inflict this violence often suffer no consequences - and in many cases are celebrated for it - people who criticize the government and its Hindutva agenda are treated as threats to the nation. Journalists who attempt to report on minority issues or fact-check propaganda risk being slapped with charges of sedition and arrested, sometimes indefinitely. Activists have been detained for protesting, documenting human rights abuses, and attempting to secure justice for the victims. One prominent example is that of student activist Umar Khalid, who has been in jail for over three years after he gave a speech calling on Indians to protest Modi’s rollback of civil liberties. More recently, author Arundhati Roy is now being prosecuted under India’s draconian anti-terror law for a comment she made 14 years ago - a move activists say is an act of government retribution for her criticism of the Modi regime. 

Five more years of Modi’s rule are on the horizon, and India remains as dangerous as ever for minorities and their allies. It is, therefore, imperative that India’s allies—both the superpowers of the Global North and the historic anti-imperial comrades of the Global South—take a strong stance against India’s democratic backsliding. 

Rasheed Ahmed
Rasheed Ahmed
Executive Director of the Indian American Muslim Council, the largest organization of Indian Muslims in the United States.

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