Modi temple India
India's prime minister at the ground-breaking ceremony of Ram temple in Ayodhya where a 16th-century mosque was torn down in 1992, sparking riots that killed thousands Image Credit: AFP

As India prepares to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of its independence on August 15, a growing number of Indians are coming to believe that the battle to preserve the essence of the country born in 1947 is already lost.

Many commentators have concluded that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government has already, in effect, inaugurated a “second republic” by upending the key assumptions of the first.

According to these despairing analysts, this “refounding” began on August 5, 2019, when Article 370 of the Constitution was abrogated and Jammu and Kashmir was stripped of its autonomy, and was completed in Ayodhya earlier this month, exactly one year later.

There, in an hours-long grand ceremony televised to adoring millions, Modi performed a bhoomi poojan (worship of the Earth) and laid a 40-kilogram (88 pounds) silver brick into the foundation of a future temple to the Hindu god Rama, on the site of the demolished Babri mosque.

The Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgement, condemning the destruction of the mosque but nonetheless awarding the disputed site to Hindus, was in many ways emblematic of the judiciary’s complicity in enabling this surrender

- Shashi Tharoor

Even before the construction of the temple had begun, this ceremony (and Modi’s participation in it) set the seal on the grand Hindutva project of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Many feared that India, which from its foundation has been a secular state, had turned a corner to becoming a Hindu Rashtra, a state of and for its Hindu majority.

From the moment of its electoral victory in 2014, Modi’s government embarked on its project of transforming the polity, consolidating its hold on the state machinery during its first term.

Modi temple
Modi laid the foundation stone of the Ram temple on August 5 to coincide with the first anniversary of India's revocation of special rights in Kashmir, its only Muslim-majority state Image Credit: AFP

Outrage over minority appeasement

Meanwhile, it sought to keep its supporters mobilised through re-conversion to the mother faith, vigilantism and lynching of non-Hindus for supposed transgressions against cows, and outrage over minority appeasement and the allegedly anti-national statements and actions of dissenters, ranging from students to secularists to Kashmiris.

With the groundwork laid, BJP’s bigger electoral victory of 2019 launched the next stage of the national project. It started with the criminalisation of the Muslim divorce practice (an unmistakable warning shot across the bows of the Muslim community).

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It continued with the stripping of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy (a clear signal that constitutional assurances were also up for grabs) and the passage of the amendment to the Citizenship Act (a direct challenge to the secular assumptions of the Constitution).

Next came the temple in Ayodhya, by which Modi’s government signalled that it was dismantling another relic of the first republic — inter-faith accommodation.

As the political scientist Suhas Palshikar put it, “The Supreme Court ruling in the Ayodhya case, ordering that Muslims be given an ‘alternative’ site, formalised the peripheralization of the Muslims both spatially and politically, while the celebrations openly involving state machinery underscore the officialization of the status of Hindu religion as the basis of the new republic.”

If secularism, pluralism, and diversity had been the catechism of the first republic, the BJP’s Hindutva is the liturgy of the second.

The BJP has been able to do all this because it has the necessary legislative majority. But, as Palshikar points out, it has gone well beyond such formalities through “the transformation of the Indian state into a repository of repression” through “a politicised and poisonous administration — particularly in the case of the enforcement and investigation machineries.”

Since 2014, the government has delegitimized dissent and criticism as hostile to the national interest, and every liberal thought and contrarian idea as undermining national pride and unity.

The equation of opposition to the government — indeed, of liberal democracy itself — with “anti-national” behaviour has inevitably followed.

old Srinagar Kashmir
Old Srinagar: The BJP government’s decision to strip the special autonomy of Kashmir has resulted in a prolonged lockdown in the valley. High speed internet continues to be blocked in Kashmir. Image Credit: AP

Clear failure of India's institutions

There has clearly been a failure on the part of India’s independent institutions — the judiciary, opposition political parties, the media, the Election Commission, and universities — to staunch the tide of militant majoritarianism.

The Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgement, condemning the destruction of the mosque but nonetheless awarding the disputed site to Hindus, was in many ways emblematic of the judiciary’s complicity in enabling this surrender.

In many other cases, the Court has obligingly declined to hear challenges to government actions (including on habeas corpus petitions, the constitutionality of the Article 370 abrogation, and the detention of political leaders) or acquiesced in them (like the prolonged internet cut-off in Kashmir) with scarcely a murmur.

The opposition, while articulate, particularly on social media, has been derided for its tameness. It has also been divided — sometimes even within parties — on such vital issues as Kashmir and Ayodhya.

But the battle to define the Indian state is not yet over. Only an India that ensures full rights and dignity for all — the promise of liberal democracy — can do that.

Over the last six years, the votaries of Hindu nationalism have savoured the illusion of victory, but the struggle for India’s soul is still being waged. A divided India — the India of August 5 — can never fulfil the promise of the united India of August 15. To succeed in the twenty-first century, India must remain faithful to its founding values.

Shashi Tharoor, a former UN under-secretary-general and former Indian Minister of State for External Affairs and Minister of State for Human Resource Development, is an MP for the Indian National Congress.

Project Syndicate