In Depth

Can Indians counter the ethical collapse of their country?

India is facing an unprecedented national crisis ahead of upcoming general election

Mass protests are being staged across India and in London following the rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl and the separate alleged rape of a teenager by a ruling party politician.

Both cases have “put pressure on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who opponents accuse of defending the men implicated in both cases”, says CNN.

The Indian PM was met by angry demonstrators after arriving in London this week for trade talks with Theresa May. Critics are furious that that no action was taken against the politician accused of raping a 16-year-old girl in the state of Uttar Pradesh until the girl threatened to set herself on fire earlier this month. 

Her father died soon after from injuries he sustained while in police custody following his arrest when he tried to file a complaint.

The latest protests follow demonstrations across India over the rape and murder of eight-year-old Muslim girl Asifa Bano in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, allegedly by a group of eight men that included a retired government official and four police officers. 

The girl is believed to have been targeted in order to terrorise the nomadic Muslim Bakarwal community to which she belonged and drive them out of the region.

While the crime was reported in January, it only came to nationwide attention earlier this month after a group of lawyers and right-wing Hindu activists forcibly attempted to block investigators from filing charges against the accused men.

These protesters, who were backed by state BJP ministers, alleged that the investigation into the attack “was biased, because some of the officers involved were also Muslim”, reports The Guardian.

Modi eventually broke his silence on both rape cases, but refused to mention the sectarian issue, merely saying: “Incidents being discussed in the past two days cannot be part of a civilised society. As a country, as a society, we all are ashamed of it.”

Modi’s operandi

The Indian PM swept into power in 2014, following an energetic, presidential-style election campaign. Promising achhe din, or “the good days”, Modi took the reins amid enormous expectations.

Four years later, many who voted for Modi based on his economic promises “are disappointed by his failure to deliver, and impatient with his deliberate silences around sectarian violence”, says Indian journalist Mitali Saran in The New York Times.

Intimidation and violence against religious minorities has increased since Modi took power. India’s religious minorities - especially Muslims, who form an estimated 13% of the population - “have felt increasingly isolated... as attacks by Hindu extremist groups have risen”, says ABC News.

This week an open letter to Modi signed by retired civil servants strongly protested “the agenda of division and hate your party… insidiously introduced into the grammar of our politics, our social and cultural life and even our daily discourse”, and held him directly responsible for “this terrifying state of affairs”.

The juncture between the state and the judiciary also appears to have been slowly eroded, say observers.

Police and courts, for instance, “have all too often proven slow to follow up potentially embarrassing leads, or quick to absolve BJP bigwigs of wrongdoing”, says The Economist.

The invincible BJP

Instead of uniting India in horror, the rape cases “have deepened religious, political and ethical divides”, says The New York Times’ Saran. “It has also made clear that there is no automatic political cost to crime or falsehood if it furthers the hegemonic political narrative,” she adds.

“The thread that binds these crimes is the sense of invincibility that a majoritarian regime has granted its personnel and supporters,” agrees Anuradha Roy in The Guardian.

But despite the criticisms, Modi remains the most popular politician in the country, enjoying huge levels of unwavering support among India’s Hindu majority.

Ahead of the next election, slated for late 2018 or early next year, Modi’s administration has had success in burnishing “its pro-poor credentials by doubling down on major welfare schemes - such as granting every household a bank account, initiating free cooking gas connections to families below the poverty line, and ensuring universal affordable housing”, says political scientist Milan Vaishnav, of US-based think tank the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Although the upcoming election has “gone from a cakewalk to a contest”, it remains the case that “Modi would be the clear favourite if the election were held today”, adds Vaishnav.

This all adds up to a “sense of national crisis” that exists “because Indians feel a rising urgency to either counter this ethical collapse or to capitalise on it” in the run-up to the vote, says Saran.

“It will be up to the citizens of India to fight for a tolerant, pluralist country and stop the degeneration of its civic and political life,” Saran concludes.

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