The rise of nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, came to power in India in 2014 has brought immense trouble for human rights activist, human rights defender and to those critical to government policies. The anti-human rights attitude of Modi government is reflected in the cancellation of thousands of NGO licenses and increased restrictions on NGOs, receiving foreign donations. Free expression is restricted; there is an increased hostility towards human rights defenders. Certainly, human rights are going through a crisis situation in India. Now the question is how long will this crisis continue? Does it slow human rights progress and social change in India?
Constitutionally, India is a secular country. However, a quasi-secular ideology has remained dominant in State affairs and certain privileges have been periodically made in favor of a religion and religious values. With the advent of current Indian nationalist government in power, forces of religious-cultural nationalism came out from hibernation resisting any social-political change challenging social status-quo in Indian society. This status-quo includes preservation of discriminatory Caste system and cultural hegemony of ruling classes of the Indian society. The nexus of Cast, Culture and religious fundamentalism are well entrenched in Modi government who came to power with their political clout. Human rights discourse has the potential to unsettle their nexus. Therefore, those challenging this nexus have to suffer.
To maintain social-political status-quo Modi government discourages any human rights movement of civil society and encourages religious-nationalist Hindu groups. Those whose social-political interests are jeopardized due to human rights and social change are from primarily business class, and upper/middle Caste Hindus. Thus, religious-nationalist forces are aggressively contesting and are trying to limit liberal space for those working to bring social change and promote human rights.
Anyone, questioning Hindutva’s hegemonic idea of religion and nationalism is risked being labelled as an anti-national. Religion and politics are now seemingly deeply entwined more than ever.
Religious Nationalist forces are afraid from the egalitarian discourse of human rights, as this could challenge their cultural production of myths and legend, once meant to enslave the minds of fellow countrymen known as Dalits. To control human rights thinking, one the one hand, those in power make sure no room left for alternative interpretations of History thus dissent and critiques being silenced, on the other hand, to ensure the religious-nationalist version of history and religion prevails pseudo-academics with Hindutva ideology being placed at the strategic academic positions. Appointments of Gajendra Chauhan as the Chairman of Film and Television Institute of India, Y Sudershan Rao as the Chairperson of Indian Council of Historical Research, and Lokesh Chandra as President, Indian Council for Cultural Relations are such controversial appointments done with the intention to allegedly carry forward the party ideology to publicly run institutions.
Indian civil society openly challenges unequal status-quo. Promotion and advocacy of human rights values directly hurt the political and social interest of those in power. In this scenario, those who are critical to government policies are termed as an anti-India. Associating with human rights discourse could be seen as working against nation and supporting foreign powers. Also, government to hide its inability to redress structural human issues such as Caste discrimination, Police torture, poverty and corruption simply rejects human rights discourse.
Government support of Hindutva
Indian government covertly and overtly supports religious-nationalist Hindutva groups suppressing human rights voices in society. In a bid to assert power and control over the lives of civil society, an attempt is being made to impose a religious-nationalist ideology on everyone. Intellectual differences are settled via assassinations. No wonder individuals from hard core Hindu religious groups were responsible for the murder of intellectuals like Malleshappa Kalburgi and Govind Pansare- both were rationalist thinkers, outspoken against blind religiosity and superstition were silenced by the Hindu fundamentalist.
Though Hindu religion was once synonymous with tolerance, however in the hand of nationalist, it has become hegemonic intolerant discourse. Thus, those vocal against structural human rights issues such as Caste discrimination are termed as an anti-Indian. Rohith Vemula and Kanhaiya Kumar are such examples.
In India, the discourse of human rights is still at the nascent stage. Bureaucracy works actively to discourage human rights activist from raising human rights concerns at International human rights forums such as United Nations. Amnesty International Report 2012, blamed India of “complicity” with “opportunistic alliances” in ignoring human rights violations in the region and elsewhere. Though the National Human Rights Commission of India is a silver lining of hope in such a human rights crisis, however, its limited resources and financial dependence on government blunt its efficacy.
What can we expect in the future?
Ironically, a majority of the current politicians are inward looking and lack the vision required for a society where human rights can flourish. Sadly enough, some politicians are thriving on cheap communal political theatrics pushing human rights agenda away. In addition, the majority of public intellectuals succumb to self-censorship and have been less vocal on human rights issues thus critical debate on human rights issues are limited in public spheres. Threats, intimidations and the possibility of violence by fringe religious-nationalist groups are a significant factor discouraging human rights discourse in Indian society.
Today national concern of establishing a democratic functioning, social justice, poverty alleviation, and ensuring human rights is being replaced with questions of religious identity and nationalism. Social change and promotion of human rights was never an agenda of the Modi government, forces that bring nationalist government in power seem direct in conflict with human rights because it hurts their social-political interest therefore the discourse of human rights and social change is most likely to suffer under current government, at least, as long as the Modi government is in power.