The “2022 Resilient Democracies Statement” to which the G-7 countries, who gathered in Germany this week, and their special invitees including India are signatories reads like a spoof or parody.
On the day Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of India’s most reliable and prolific fact-checking website AltNews and thorn in the side of the hate speech-defending Modi government, was arrested, it declared: “Democracies enable open public debate, independent and pluralistic media…” and claimed the signatories were “…resolved to: Protecting the freedom of expression and opinion online and offline and ensuring a free and independent media landscape…”
Zubair has systematically documented hate speech, most of which is by supporters or members of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. Recently, Zubair tweeted clips of offensive comments about Prophet Mohammed by an official spokesperson of the BJP, Nupur Sharma. Her comments provoked protests, some violent, in many parts of the country. On Tuesday, they even led to a barbaric beheading in Udaipur.
The international fallout of her comments, made on a popular right-wing TV news show, embarrassed the Modi government, forcing the BJP to suspend Sharma from the party and the government to send grovelling explanations and apologies to various Gulf countries.
Zubair was arrested ostensibly on the complaint of an anonymous social media user who claimed that a four-year old tweet of a meme, drawn from a 1983 Bollywood film, had “hurt Hindu sentiments”. But it was the Dainik Jagran, the newspaper with the largest circulation in the country, historic ties to the BJP and a record of acting in consonance with its majoritarian propaganda goals, that set out the real reason for the arrest and why the government intends to make a case against Zubair, in clear terms.
The newspaper’s headline in Hindi was “Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, involved in spoiling the image of the country, arrested”, and its concluding paragraph states: “It is believed, Zubair fuelled [these violent] protests”.
Any dispassionate observer of India cannot have missed the fact that over the last eight years BJP Union and state governments have deployed the law to corral and silence the government’s critics. Since 2014, when the Modi-led BJP first came to power, the government has used draconian anti-terrorism laws to incarcerate without trial, rights activists, students, lawyers, trade union members, intellectuals and journalists, a disproportionately large number of them Muslim. Political violence through non-state, and now increasingly state actors like the police, is used to terrorise minority communities.
The Modi-led BJP government’s partisan use of state power against those it deems enemies of its Hindu majoritarian project should give true democrats pause. But Modi and his government are secure in the knowledge that democracy, liberty and human rights are tradeable commodities in the global market place of power politics. Western democracies, in pursuit of their own global agendas, have always done deals with authoritarian regimes. Zubair’s arrest, while Modi supped with the heads of G-7 countries and India signed a parodic declaration of its commitment to freedom and democracy, underlines this fact.
The commitment to real democratic values at home and abroad, this last half century has shown, is a minority concern, not just in India, but across the self-described democratic world. It was impossible after the end of the Cold War to maintain the fiction that North American and European military campaigns had some greater moral purpose, other than power, influence and profit. The triumphs of Donald Trump in the US and Brexiting Boris Johnson in the UK showed that these purported liberal democracies were prone to the same infirmities as the countries they were intent on fixing.
The timing, co-terminus with the rise of the Modi-led BJP in India, was a kind of levelling out. The two biggest (by size and population) democracies in the world proved that populist leaders backed by money, misinformation and mass organisations could swiftly lay waste to the institutions that act as checks and balances (in India’s case nominally) in a functioning democracy. That merely ejecting the populists from power, as the US has seen this last week, will not easily re-set the equilibrium domestically, nor internationally, as Indians have seen this week.
As the G-7 and other US and European groupings confabulate over how to contain Russia (while not running out of oil), counter China and retain global dominance, they will play nice with India – democratic or authoritarian. They will lionise Modi and talk up their countries’ shared values.
Any expectation that international approbation can act as a check on an authoritarian and Hindu majoritarian trajectory at home seems to have little basis. Regimes of self-interest rule the day. Hence western democracies see no irony in claiming that they “remain steadfast in [their] commitment to defending peace, human rights, the rule of law,…” and hailing “…all courageous defenders of democratic systems that stand against oppression and violence”, even as a co-signatory representing almost a fifth of the world’s people, makes a mockery of these claims in real time.
The internationalism that attended the early and mid-20th century fights against fascism in Europe and the anti-colonial emancipation movements was perverted by the Cold War, and blindsided by northern parochialism – a condition that remains unchanged in the “global” fight against climate change. Residually, it holds together a vocal but mostly ineffective minority that today, in countries like India, may face charges of being “traitors” and “anti-nationals” for seeking solidarities beyond sovereign borders for ideas like liberty, human rights and justice.
Yet there was never a time in the last 30 years when the need for international solidarity against anti-democratic regimes was greater. As a determined minority in India fights the good fight against Hindu majoritarianism and authoritarianism, perhaps it will, as it did in the early 20th century, make right thinking people everywhere sit up, take notice and think again.
Anjali Mody is an independent journalist.