Contemporary analysts prefer to use the wider terms of ethnic nationalism, populism and authoritarianism to place India in a basket of autocratising countries. In the same way as the three waves of Indian democracy renewal arose at moments of global democratisation, the Modi administration came to power when chauvinist administrations were emerging or had emerged across the world. In Japan, the nationalist Shinzo Abe assumed office in 2006, in Israel, the absolutist Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power in 2009, in Hungary, the authoritarian Victor Orban was re-elected prime minister in 2010, and the numbers grew by the time Modi took office. Two thousand and fourteen, co-editor of the Journal of Democracy Marc Plattner said, was a turning point for the resurgence of authoritarianism. In 2016, nineteen liberal democracies, including India, were reported to be moving to autocracy; in 2021, the number was thirty-three. In India’s own region of South Asia, countries such as Afghanistan, Myanmar, Pakistan and Sri Lanka suffered backsliding and worse.

Though the pattern of authoritarian shift clearly varies from country to country in both nature and intent, autocratising countries tend to be grouped together under the rubric of democratic backsliding or decay. True, contemporary authoritarians share common features, such as inciting social and political polarisation, casting the nation as an ethnic or religious majority in which minorities or immigrants are usurpers, and labelling dissenters “anti-national” or traitor. They also share common strategies to consolidate power, such as dismantling or subverting democratic institutions, including the courts and media, politicising administrative and security services, restricting the flow of information and imposing punitive restrictions on the freedom of expression. Notably too, they tend to make common cause with each other more consistently than their democratic counterparts do, a trend that is even more visible in the 21st century than in the 20th.

But there are also key differences. Authoritarians whose dominant interest is personal power are less dangerous to democracy than those with a long-term and far-reaching agenda. They use populist tactics to feed on public grievance against established elites but are not able to retain power indefinitely.

By contrast, ideological authoritarians with a long-term agenda to transform both society and the state, often with irredentist ambitions, proceed systematically. They create mass cadre, ensure supporters at all levels, including by the creation of new elites and/or oligarchs, turn security services into implementing forces and implant their systems of belief by controlling education and information. Their grip on power is more difficult to shake.

This chapter suggests that the Modi administration falls into the latter category. Looking at its tactics of shock, awe and attrition, it asks whether Indian citizens have begun to internalise what Arendt called “the banality of evil” when individuals internalise horrific acts of violence as normal and if so, to what degree.

The first shocks were social-political, related to the BJP’s strategy to forge the Hindu nation on which its supreme ideology rested. Since its founding in 1925, during a time when Hindu and Muslim political identities formed in opposition to each other, the RSS had propagated that Hindus had the right of majority as well as history to rule India. To achieve this goal, they would have to subjugate minorities and quell the demographic spread of Islam and Christianity since that would cause social and political change. While attacks on Christians by political Hindutva groups multiplied in BJP-ruled states during the Singh administration, after the Modi administration came to power the focus was on Muslims. As a small minority, Christians could more easily be targeted by non-state actors, especially in thinly policed tribal areas; as a large minority, Muslims could only be targeted with the backing of state forces.

Three perceived threats were drummed up against Muslims. The first was the threat of Islamist terrorism, which Indians had grown to revile following a series of Pakistan-backed attacks from 1990 through 2009. A key plank of Modi’s campaign in both the 2014 and 2019 general elections was to associate Indian Muslims with Pakistan, labelling the Muslim community “anti-national” by innuendo.

Post-2014, an NDTV survey of over 2000 news reports and tweets found, hate speech against Muslims by ministers and legislators multiplied five-fold as compared to Singh’s ten years; 90 per cent were by BJP leaders. They included repeat offenders such as Chief Minister Adityanath of Uttar Pradesh, who compared Bollywood idol Shah Rukh Khan to Pakistani terrorist patron Hafiz Saeed in 2015; Union minister Anantkumar Hegde, who said in 2016 that “If we are unable to end Islam, we won’t be able to end terrorism”; Union minister of state Anurag Thakur, who called Muslim women protesters at Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh traitors in 2020, encouraging crowds to call for them to be shot; Tripura governor Tathagata Roy, who tweeted in 2022 that he was “glad” someone had “appreciated what Hindus did” in Gujarat’s anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002; and Union Home Minister Amit Shah, who asserted at an election rally that the BJP had brought peace to Gujarat by teaching “miscreants” a lesson in 2002. No action was taken against any of them.

In 2023, the ADR found that 107 out of 4768 sitting members of Parliament and legislative assemblies had declared cases of hate speech against them: 39.2 per cent were from the BJP and the rest were scattered over fifteen-plus opposition parties. Shockingly the proportion of members of Parliament accused of hate speech was over twice that of members of legislative assemblies (4.3 per cent as against 1.8 per cent).

The second perceived threat related to cow slaughter, an issue that concerned many north and some central Indian Hindus but had less salience in eastern and southern India (with the exception of Karnataka). Between 2015 and 2017, 63 incidents of cow-related lynching were reported, 50 per cent of them in BJP-ruled states. The majority killed or injured were Muslims; others included Dalits, Christians and Sikhs. In 28 per cent of the attacks, police charged the victims. The bulk of attacks occurred in and after 2016, when BJP and RSSaffiliated groups launched a campaign to ban the sale of beef.15 In May 2017, the Modi administration issued rules banning the sale of cattle for slaughter. Eight states banned trade in cows.

After 2017, the National Crime Records Bureau stopped collecting data on hate crimes, cow vigilantism and mob lynching; it was found “unreliable”, said Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai.

The incidence of lynching decreased after the Supreme Court issued directives for “preventive, remedial and punitive” measures to address it in July 2018, but did not end. Between 2017 and 2023, the Centre for the Study of Society and Secularism reported, cow vigilantes lynched seven Muslims in the Mewat region alone, encompassing bordering parts of Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. In 2023, a group of widows and kin of the murdered men approached the Supreme Court seeking an amendment to Haryana and Rajasthan’s cow protection laws, which gave government-authorised vigilantes the right to stop, search and seize (even arrest, in Rajasthan’s case) anyone they suspected to be engaged in cattle slaughter. The syncretic Meo Muslims of Mewat, crop and dairy farmers who neither ate nor traded in beef, had had their cattle stolen and been extorted for protection money by vigilantes who exploited cow protection laws to their own advantage. The court directed petitioners to approach the high courts of Haryana and Rajasthan.

Whether or not to ban cow slaughter has been a divisive question in the Constituent Assembly. Eventually, members decided to include it as a non-mandatory directive principle. Protesting its inclusion, Anglo-Indian legislator Frank Anthony remarked that “those fanatics and extremists who could not bring in this provision through the front door have succeeded in bringing it through the back door.” The directive principle claimed to protect the cattle wealth of India, but, as “any child” knew, though India had “more cattle than in any other country in the world, our output for milch and draught purposes is the lowest per capita in the world.” Culling was the best way to preserve cattle wealth.

Seventy years later, Anthony’s caution came back to haunt the Modi administration. The Rs 1120 billion (approximately USD 16 billion) leather trade plummeted. Traders in Uttar Pradesh reported a 40 per cent market loss; the unorganised sector that produced handmade leather goods reported a drop of 90 per cent. The menace of stray cattle, abandoned because their owners could not sell or trade them, plagued farmers. Uttar Pradesh, which had had, along with Madhya Pradesh, one of the highest rates of cattle theft in the 1980s, reported 116 million stray cows and bulls.23 In Karnataka, cattle traders said that they worshipped Indian breeds of cow, but ‘when did European cattle become holy cows?’

The third perceived threat was “love jihad”, a term Hindu chauvinists applied to marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women. Coined in 2009, the term was assiduously promoted during the BJP campaign for the Uttar Pradesh assembly election in September 2014. In 2018, the BJP-headed Uttarakhand legislature prohibited conversion for marriage, except for those returning to their “ancestral religion”. Any aggrieved person could file a complaint against an inter-faith marriage, even when the woman did not convert to marry. In November 2020, the Adityanath administration issued an ordinance replicating the Uttarakhand law, and in 2021 enacted the Uttar Pradesh Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religion Act. By 2022, nine other states had similar laws: Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha (six headed by the BJP, one by the Congress and two by regional parties). Karnataka’s BJP administration also banned the hijab in colleges and Muslim vendors at temple fairs. Students who violated the hijab ban were not allowed to sit their examinations. Nine months later, the Maharashtra administration announced an “intercaste/interfaith marriage-family coordination committee” to track mixed marriages; the next day, they amended the order to focus solely on interfaith unions

A right to information petition filed in 2021 found that 108 cases of “love jihad” were filed against 257 people in 22 Uttar Pradesh districts, the vast majority of them Muslim. In the same year, India Today’s “mood of the nation” poll found that 54 per cent of those surveyed believed love jihad was a real threat. Administrative, police and judicial permissiveness when Hindu chauvinist groups disrupted Hindu-Muslim marriages or filed complaints against them surely contributed to the perception.

Excerpted with permission from The Republic Relearnt: Renewing Indian Democracy (1947-2024), Radha Kumar, Penguin India.