As he wrote this, television channels were broadcasting images of President Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the glitzy “Howdy, Modi!” event in Texas, attended by thousands of Indian Americans. Trump compared Modi’s popularity with that of Elvis Presley and referred to Modi as “the father of India” — in the same year that marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Mahatma Gandhi.
Indian television channels beamed in pride, calling it a moment of great honor for the country, while celebrities congratulated the prime minister for receiving the “Global Goalkeeper” award from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As this all took place, 8 million Kashmiris are trapped in what seems like an endless limbo, as the curfew and lockdown India imposed last month largely continues. But Indian democracy has developed uncomfortable amnesia, as if Kashmir has ceased to exist in our imagination.
This is not the only recent story to expose the moral vacuum in India. The government has just announced the construction of one of the country’s biggest detention centers for migrants in the financial capital of Mumbai. The decision was made after India declared 2 million people from the northeastern state of Assam — many of whom are Muslim — to be “migrants,” who are potentially subject to deportation or detention. Home Minister Amit Shah, the second-in-command to Modi, has infamously referred to migrants as “termites” and has promised to implement this exercise throughout the country.
India’s Muslims understand this messaging loud and clear. Mosques around the country have started asking the community to keep their documentation in order. During the Friday prayers, my local mosque in Mumbai recently asked Muslims to look out for their birth certificates and affidavits to prove their domicile. At least 30 percent of India’s Muslim population lives below the poverty line; many have been excluded from education and jobs. These Muslims are struggling to make sense of the migrant paranoia and anxiety that has been unleashed by the Modi government.
Assam, Kashmir and the detention camp in Mumbai are early indicators of India’s future under Modi and his Hindu nationalist ideals. The Modi-led government also plans to revise the foundations of the secular constitution. It is mulling over a law to prevent citizens from converting to another religion. A similar bill was introduced in the state of Gujarat during Modi’s term as head of the government there, one that was also tainted by the 2002 anti-Muslim riots that killed 1,000 people.
One of the rights guaranteed by the Indian constitution is the right to freedom of religion. In a robust democracy, inhabited by citizens who once venerated Gandhi as the father of a glorious nation, this religious fearmongering ought to be anathema to the legacy they claim to celebrate. But India is failing to live up to its founding ideals.
It stands in contradiction with the democracies it claims to compete with in greatness. Though the United States and Britain have elected Trump and Boris Johnson, the societies they lead are at least attesting to the great test of truth by holding their leaders accountable. Unlike the journalists, artists and activists of the West, their Indian counterparts use their social media and public platforms to sing the glory of the prime minister. Some of India’s leading filmmakers are even queuing up to make hagiographies of Modi, reimagining him as the next Gandhi. Indian commentators have even taken aim at Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai, viewing her through the prism of our convenient nationalism and ridiculing her for protesting human rights abuses in Kashmir. The same people look the other way when asked to condemn hate crimes and the lynching of minorities.
Those who dissent are either silenced or isolated. There are virtual lynch mobs who troll or silence any opinion or view that is critical of the Modi regime. Journalists face the prospect of either losing their jobs or being forced to become cheerleaders for the government. “Where do you find these reporters?” Trump asked Modi with envy at a joint Tuesday news conference.
A country that is celebrating the greatness of the Mahatma on the 150th anniversary of his birth should be embarrassed by the distorted morality and cowardice that has become all to prevalent — attitudes that Gandhi detested and combated, sacrificing his own life in the process. It is time India resets its moral compass.
Thursday, as Modi takes to the podium of the United Nations to proclaim his message to the world, he would be well advised to acknowledge this uncomfortable truth.