For those scholars and activists who are following India, there is not much good news coming out of the subcontinent. Day after day, there are reports of riots, planned attacks on minorities and institutional corruption that has forced many democracy watchers to downgrade India’s standing as a democracy. Amidst the silence of the leaders of the ruling party and the abetting of violence by law enforcement agencies, one is forced to ask: How are leaders supposed to behave in this situation? While attacks against Muslims and other minorities increase, and the democratic basis of the country: with the existence of a (supposed) free press, unbiased judiciary and administrative apparatus that functions without political interference is challenged, it is important to ask the question: How should the leaders of the country behave?
One model that exists is that of the founding father of India’s modern secular republic: Mahatma Gandhi. It may well be a good time to ask, given the political, economic and other turbulences in the country, what would Gandhi do?
As Aakar Patel, the Chief of Amnesty International pointed out recently, Indian government at the Central (Federal) level seems to be at a war against NGOs. He pointed out that over 18,000 NGOs which received funding from sources outside of India have been denied access to their funds. Amnesty is itself one such example, as a human rights organization, it has been denied the ability to work freely and Patel has been harassed through legal and other means.
In his arguments, based on his many books on the topic including The Price of Modi Years and India’s undeclared Emergency, Patel highlights how the institutional mechanisms and laws have been subverted to favor the current Hindutva logics and secularism and fair play have been sidelined.
He points to the selective nature of how the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) has been subverted over the decades to exclude the various branches of society that it was supposed to regulate. Today, FCRA is exclusively being used to target civil society, while in the past it was meant to regulate funding of political parties and media outlets, Patel pointed out.
“FCRA makes it impossible for NGOs to operate. 1976, came into effect during emergency. News media, Judiciary and other areas. In time, they got out. FaceBook and google are fully foreign owned. In 2016 – the BJP got political parties out of the regulation of FCRA. IF you consider that NGOs can only receive money through one branch in Delhi, regardless of where they are, in India. The consequences of such restrictive laws (including restrictions on re-granting their funds to others) are here to see: During 2nd wave of covid, NGOs could not communicate about oxygen received from abroad, to others. They could not re-grant to others. This aid lay at Delhi airport while people were dying. We are doing this out of malice.” He points out that the focus on identarian politics is the undoing of India. The focus on basics of life : healthcare, education, employment should come back soon. And media have a big role in focusing our attention on these items, rather than on religious identity and what one can or cannot eat.
With media being one of the biggest tools of government propaganda and the causal factor of the social tensions, it may also behoove us to ask: how can we reform the media landscape? There seems to be a total takeover of the media landscape by the Modi government, and most media are being used as propaganda machines, rather than mechanisms to check the power of politicians and business houses. Freedom House has also expressed concern and downgraded India to a “Partly free” country.
What would Gandhi do? How would he quell the religious divides that are being stoked and stop the corruption at every level – constitutional, administrative and media – that are making India unsafe for anyone who does not agree with the majoritarian agenda? This is a vital question for all leaders, both local and national, in India.
As a reminder, Gandhi put his own life at risk to quell riots post partition, in the spirit of saving the newly found republic. He was a paragon of inter-faith harmony and did his best, and one could argue, gave his life for this cause. What would Gandhi do? This is a question that is worth asking.
It may be the only one worth asking, if we are to save the fabric of India’s democratic freedoms.