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  • India, Sri Lanka, and the Majoritarian Danger
  • Alfred Stepan (bio)

It is disturbing to acknowledge here, as we mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Journal of Democracy, that the question addressed by this special issue of the Journal is whether the trend toward democratization in the world has peaked and begun to recede. In the July 2014 issue, Marc F. Plattner noted that Freedom House’s “measurements of various aspects of political rights and civil liberties now show eight consecutive years of slow declines.”1 And of course, the world’s four most important nondemocratic powers—China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Iran—are confidently exporting their values, while the United States, by contrast, is increasingly ambivalent about where it stands concerning democracy in such key Middle Eastern countries as Egypt and Syria. Plattner concludes his article with a warning: “Perhaps the most fatal blow to the cause of democracy would be the breakdown of democracy in a country where it has been strong and stable.”2

Could such a “fatal” breakdown happen in the world’s largest democracy, India? Those fearful of democratic erosion are worried by the ascension to power of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The BJP won the May 2014 general elections in what is routinely called a landslide, even though the party actually garnered just 31 percent of the total vote, the “lowest such share to have produced a seat majority” in Indian history.3 It now enjoys, for the first time ever, an absolute majority (282 seats) in the 545-seat Lok Sabha, the crucial lower house of Parliament.

Although the BJP is governing in coalition with several smaller parties, it is unlikely to be constrained by them to the degree that was the case between 1998 and 2004, when it could not form a majority without allies.4 The BJP’s “mother organization” is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak [End Page 128] Sangh (National Volunteer Organization or RSS), an anti-Muslim, Hindu-nationalist, occasionally uniformed and stick-bearing mass movement that has often been called semifascist.5 India’s new prime minister, Narendra Modi, spent eight years as the RSS’s organizing secretary in the northwestern state of Gujarat before becoming that state’s chief minister. He is charismatic, energetic, and skilled at using the media to get his message out. He was presiding over Gujarat’s government in 2002, during the most deadly intercommunal riots to have broken out there since partition in 1947. He has never offered an apology for this violence, which took more than a thousand lives, having erupted on his watch.6 The police, under his overall authority, were widely seen as complicit in what amounted to an anti-Muslim pogrom.7

Even before Modi came to power in May 2014, Hindu nationalists were growing increasingly assertive. In February, complaints lodged by an RSS member under a section of the Penal Code that bans “deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings of any class of citizens” forced Penguin Press India to withdraw University of Chicago scholar Wendy Doniger’s 2009 book The Hindus: An Alternative History. Settling out of court, Penguin agreed to recall all copies from Indian bookstores, and to pulp all that remained in the country.8 A book in which political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot analyzes Modi’s policies in Gujarat was to have been published in India well before the election, only to be delayed without explanation.9

Some of Modi’s early appointments and policy initiatives had Hindu-majoritarian implications. He ensured that his close associate and fellow RSS member Amit Shah, whom police charged before the campaign with “promoting enmity between classes in connection with an election,” became the BJP’s president. More troubling still have been BJP attempts to alter state and national school curricula. In June 2014, Gujarat adopted textbooks written by Dinanath Batra, the RSS activist who lodged the complaint against Doniger’s work. Batra’s texts advise students to draw maps of an “Akhand Bharat” (“Greater India”) that includes Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. Batra now has his eyes on national textbooks and is said to be in talks with the federal cabinet minister in...


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pp. 128-140
Launched on MUSE
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