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The Rise and Rise of Authoritarian Nationalism: India Edition
Dissenting voices have been stifled in the world's largest democracy, and it is not just business as usual.
By Akshaya Elizabeth Jose and the Cosmopolitan Globalists
Mumbai and Paris
The fateful column
On December 19, 2020, the Indian scholar Pratap Bhanu Mehta—internationally and domestically acclaimed for his work in political theory, intellectual history, constitutional law, and international politics—wrote a column sympathizing with India’s recent student protests. “The ground of protest is clear,” he wrote.
India cannot be a Republic founded on discrimination and a pervasive sense of fear. It cannot exclude or target anyone simply on the basis of their identity. It is hard to predict the shape of any movement. We left the current generation of students a tattered constitutional legacy, weak institutions, an uncertain economic future, a poisonous public discourse and a corrosive politics. We left them insecure and weak leaders or those whose divisive passions are their only policy.
“Violence will not help any cause,” he concluded.
But when the state discriminates and calls it justice, when it stokes fear and calls it citizenship, and when it exercises control and calls its freedom, when it confuses prejudice with policy, it sets the seeds for disorder.
Mehta is a liberal academic, in the traditional sense. His doctoral thesis, submitted to Princeton University in 1994, was titled, The natural career of the imagination: Themes in Adam Smith’s moral and political philosophy. He has for many years considered significant ideas in moral and political philosophy with care and rigor. In the context of India, his comments were not truisms: He was expressing the dismay of a significant segment of the Indian public with the instincts of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, known as the BJP. Indirectly, he criticized Hindutva, a particular view of the proper Hindu way of life, which the BJP would see dominate the subcontinent.
Mehta is a scholar of no inconsiderable repute. Educated at the most elite college of Oxford and then at Princeton, he has taught at NYU’s School of Law, Harvard, and Jawaharlal Nehru University, India’s most prestigious university. In 2017, he accepted the vice chancellorship of a newly-established private university in a remote corner of Haryana State. Ashoka University was explicitly established to rival educational institutions such as Stanford and MIT. The founders assigned a code name to their plan: “Project Nobel.”
Mehta’s column gave rise to a political firestorm, then to his resignation from the university. Why, precisely? And why now? His foray into controversial political commentary was not new. Mehta has long written about passionately debated issues in moral philosophy and jurisprudence, such as caste-based positive discrimination. Nor were the themes of his column new. Indian social scientists, along with the Indian media, often discuss discrimination, authoritarianism, prejudice, state power, religious animosity, and student protests.
Nor, for that matter, is censorship new: India was the first country to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, and it did so before Iran’s fatwa. It is a cliché to say that India is a paradox, but it is true. Freedom is enshrined in India’s constitution, but historically, it has been known to fail its democratic principles and its religious minorities.
In agreeing with the students that India requires one law for all, Mehta was saying nothing new, either. Since the early 1950s, many in India have proposed that such matters as marriage, divorce, and adoption be regulated under a common civil code, rather than a divergent hodgepodge of religious traditions. Indeed, many would argue that the rejection of this idea has been key to the BJP’s electoral dominance.
The BJP’s philosophical progenitor was the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS. Formed in 1925, the far-right movement has made steady inroads into politics, elections, education, and society. The BJP’s leadership has made no secret of its desire for an India governed in accordance with Hindu traditions and no one else’s. In the general elections of 2014 and 2019, for example, the BJP made the building of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya a key electoral plank.
None of this is new.
The shocking comparison
What made this column different was the comparison Mehta drew between India’s present circumstances and the Emergency, a moment widely understood as an outright democratic rupture. Between 1975 and 1977, facing the prospect of losing her parliamentary seat, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi arrogated to herself powers reserved in the Constitution for wartime, including the authority to curb civil liberties, rule by decree, and suspend elections. For much of the Emergency, Mrs. Gandhi’s political opponents were imprisoned. The press was censored. Following student protests, she briefly shut down Jawaharlal Nehru University.
These were the words, in particular, that were shocking:
In some ways, the fight during the Emergency was simple. It was a fight for the restoration of democracy against authoritarianism, joined by all kinds of forces. At this fraught moment there are two battles. There is a battle against state authoritarianism, its attempts to exercise pervasive control. But there is also the battle against communalism, the attempt to divide society and unleash passions that relegate minorities to second class citizens. They are two sides of the same coin—the government is fomenting both processes. But in society, the two can work at cross purposes.
What Mehta means is that Indian society, not just India’s government, is in play. Through democratic means, the people have put in power a government that seeks illiberal ends. Now, liberal democrats face a fight on two levels: At the bottom, they confront an organic groundswell of hatred and discrimination toward Muslims, Christians, and members of other religious groups. At the top, they face a government ideologically inclined to nourish and exploit these sentiments.
“A chilling precedent”
Mehta’s defense of liberalism clearly rubbed some organ of the government the wrong way. In early March, he resigned from Ashoka University. In his resignation letter, he wrote that the university’s founders had made it “abundantly clear” that he had become a political liability. “Nietzsche,” he wrote with asperity, “once said that ‘No living for truth is possible in a university.’ I hope that prophecy does not come true.”
He wrote, too, that a liberal university could only flourish in a liberal political and social context. By deferring to the BJP’s sensibilities, he implied, university authorities were, in effect, clamping down on fundamental freedoms on the government’s behalf. No Emergency is needed, after all, if people do the censoring of their own accord.
Swiftly thereafter, Mehta’s colleague, Arvind Subramanian, resigned in protest and in solidarity with Mehta. Subramanian had only recently served as chief economic advisor to Modi’s government. In his resignation letter, Subramanian called it “ominously disturbing” that even Ashoka—a private university, financed by private capital—could no longer protect academic freedom and expression.
The university faculty released a statement of support for Mehta. They described the circumstances of his resignation as “a chilling precedent.” Students at Ashoka protested. So did prominent intellectuals and academics across India. Persuasion, an American newsletter devoted to countering illiberalism in all its varieties, organized an open letter that described the events as “a dangerous attack on academic freedom.” It was signed by hundreds of prominent academics around the world.
The university was embarrassed. On March 18, Sanjeev Bikhchandani, one of the university’s founders, sent an email to the whole student body to inform them the university had asked Mehta to withdraw his resignation. The administration issued a communiqué expressing “deep regret” about the events, with the usual allusions to “lapses in the institutional processes” and promises to rectify them. They affirmed the administration’s “commitment to academic autonomy and freedom.” The Chancellor released a letter stating, unequivocally: “The founders [of Ashoka] have never interfered with academic freedom.”
Too little, too late. Mehta replied directly to the students, who found his letter moving. “The underlying circumstances that led to the resignation will not change for the foreseeable future, in my case, at any rate.’ He would not come back:
We live in complicated times. India is bursting with creativity. But the dark shadows of authoritarianism are also hovering over us, putting us all in often uncomfortable and sometimes dishonourable positions. We will have to find principled and intelligent ways of overcoming this condition. Most of us are reduced to lamenting this looming darkness. … We don’t simply need people who cry darkness. We need someone who can shine the light. I am confident, all of you can and will.
A larger trend
The uproar in response to Mehta’s resignation suggests—perhaps—growing disquiet about the stifling of dissident voices on campuses throughout India. The incidents have been numerous. In late 2019, police stormed and lathi-charged students at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, injuring 125 of them so badly they needed medical treatment. The students were protesting amendments to the Citizenship Act that would favor Hindu over Muslim immigrants. In early 2020, BJP loyalists violently attacked faculty and students at the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus. The standoff lasted days; the faculty and the media accused Delhi’s police of failing to intervene.
Audrey Truschke is a historian of medieval India at Rutgers University. In early March, right-wing politicians and activists declared war on her oeuvre, which they deem Hinduphobic. They swarmed and attacked her online. Rutgers faculty did the decent thing, issuing a public statement to the effect that it was essential to protect the “principle of academic freedom and practice of critical enquiry” from political pressure, but a stern scolding by the faculty of Rutgers University isn’t what it used to be these days.
About two weeks ago, the dean of India’s top business school thwarted the Education Ministry’s efforts to block a doctoral candidate from graduating. The student’s offence was describing the BJP as “a pro-Hindu upper caste party” in his doctoral dissertation. This offended a member of parliament who claimed not only that it was untrue, but that it echoed British historians who, he held, propagated such views to undermine the idea that India was a single, united society. The dean told the ministry that it was none of its business. The problem, however, is that members of parliament sincerely believe that it is.
Again, it is not news that the RSS and BJP are intolerant of views that contradict their mythological understanding of Indian history. In 2008, under a coalition government led by the Congress party, the BJP’s student wing trashed the office of the head of Delhi University’s history department for including on a course syllabus an essay by the late scholar and linguist A. K. Ramanujan, Three Hundred Ramayanas: Five Examples and Three Thoughts on Translation.(The rampaging students pronounced the essay “malicious and offensive to the belief of millions of Hindus.”)
But it’s the BJP’s electoral success—and the absence of a strong opposition party, with strong ideas to match—that has changed the context of these events. Now, these things are happening with the enthusiastic backing of the state. That makes all the difference.
In 2019, India’s largest opposition party won a mere 51 seats. The BJP won 303. A few days after the government was returned to power, Ram Madhav, then the BJP’s national secretary, described the party’s ideology and ambitions in the Indian Express:
Those accusing Modi of using “nationalism” for electoral ends must remember that nationalism is not just an election issue, but forms the very identity of the BJP. Modi has many achievements in the past five years to showcase, reaffirming his nationalist credentials. That is what Modi and the BJP did during the campaign. In fact, this mandate is a proud reaffirmation of the people’s commitment to nationalism. It is, in a way, an answer to all those critics, both domestic and international, who called Modi a divisive figure. It is the most expansive and inclusive mandate in support of the nationalist idea of India.
He proudly likened Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Napoléon, noting that like Napoleon, Modi “had mastered the art of using propaganda.” He noted that Modi grasped, as Napoléon had, that “What counts is what the people think as [sic] true.”
“Nothing short of building a New India is his goal,” wrote Madhav, and this new India would reject—and ruin—what Modi and his intimates call the “pseudo-seculars” or “liberal cartels,” which in their view enjoy a sinister stranglehold over India’s intellectual and policy establishment. Under the next Modi government, he wrote, “the remnants of that cartel need to be discarded from the country’s academic, cultural and intellectual landscape.”
Strong stuff. Hard to misinterpret.
It is not just academia. Amnesty International was forced to shut its offices in India last September. In Freedom House’s 2021 assessment, India’s status declined from “Free” to “Partly Free.” Freedom House explained the demotion by appeal to a “multiyear pattern” of the government and its allies presiding over “rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population,” and cracking down on “dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.”
So India’s state and society alike are engaged in this ideological battle. It is not a fight between “the left” and “the right,” as some national news channels—and foreign observers—have put it. It should be understood as a broad attempt by the ruling party to encroach upon public and private spaces so better to force upon the nation a single identity—the “new India”—while leaving no space for heterogeneous ideas.
This outcome will determine whether India, the world’s largest democracy, will be a liberal democracy, in the traditional sense, or an illiberal one—an authoritarian nation-state with the trappings of democracy, driven by communal politics—very much, alas, in the modern sense.
Akshaya Elizabeth Jose studies international security and the geopolitics of South and Central Asia at the Sciences Po, in Paris.
The Hindu god Ram, Hindus say, was born in Ayodhya. In the 16th century, Babur—the first Mughal emperor—built a mosque in Ayodhya. Whether he destroyed a temple there is historically unclear, but many Hindus think so. In 1992, Hindu mobs destroyed the mosque, leading to no inconsiderable bloodshed.
We have found no evidence that Napoléon said this. Henry Kissinger, however, did say, “It is not a matter of what is true that counts, but a matter of what is perceived to be true.”