On June 12, officials of Tamil Nadu’s animal husbandry department transporting cattle from Rajasthan were attacked by a mob, which suspected them of trading in beef. Such lawless actions by vigilante groups that believe they have state sanction have become all too common.
When the Narendra Modi government took office in 2014, it pledged to avoid ending up discredited like its predecessor UPA regime, in which corruption and nepotism appeared pervasive. The Bharatiya Janata Party government came in looking like tough and disciplined achievers. They spoke of protecting women and lifting millions of Indians out of poverty with fast-paced development.
Three years later, there are growing concerns about the government’s authoritarianism and populist campaigns targeting religious minorities. The BJP government and its backers are cracking down on dissent. It is not just the authorities going after critics, discrediting them with corruption investigations or forcing them to defend themselves under various laws that curb free speech. Sundry backers of the BJP, too, feel emboldened. Student and community organisations directly or indirectly affiliated with the ruling party, its fervent supporters in the media, and organised internet trolls are all out to promote the regime at the expense of labelling any dissent as anti-national.
These efforts have engendered a chilling effect and self-censorship.
Unfortunately, while a congratulatory echo chamber is attractive to any ruler, it eventually hurts the state. Killing the messenger does not make the problem go away. Governing a billion-plus people – spread across a range of economic brackets and subscribing to their own identities – means that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. In a federal structure, many of these issues should be handled by state governments. At the same time, public-private conversations, consultations with civil society and dialogue with dissenting voices are essential when it comes to handling complex problems such as farmer distress or ridding the economy of stolen cash by changing currency.
Instead, human rights protections guaranteed to the citizens are being undermined. India’s proud United Nations troop-contributing Army is now disgraced, not just because one officer decided to tie a Kashmiri civilian to a military vehicle as a warning to other protesters, but because so many, including senior officials, chose to commend this horrendous abuse. At least 100 people have died during street protests in Jammu and Kashmir over the last year as the government ignored warnings of increasing discontent over human rights violations.
There are confusing orders about the cattle business even as Muslims are being killed over allegations of consuming beef or trading cattle for slaughter. It is hard to understand why a country that is unable to feed its population properly wants to restrict what citizens should eat.
Inter-caste or inter-religious relationships and marriages are under attack from groups that claim to be BJP supporters. The government refuses to heed advice that when people feel persecuted, they are easy recruits for regressive violent resistance.
The prime minister has repeatedly said he does not wish to engage in the politics of appeasement, that he intends to work for every Indian regardless of their religion, caste or ethnic identity. If that is indeed the case, his government and its supporters must stop selectively targeting various groups. The administration should not use unjustified lethal or excessive force against protesters. Nor should it fail to prosecute its vigilante supporters. It should not silence the media or activists it dislikes while allowing its favourites to deal in hate politics. It short, it should not jeopardise the promised efforts at reform and modernisation.
Meenakshi Ganguly is South Asia Director, Human Rights Watch.