The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion India’s beleaguered liberals are failing to defend principle

An auto rickshaw moves past a banner of the Bollywood movie "The Kashmir Files" outside a cinema hall in Delhi on March 21. (Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images)
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Arvind Subramanian is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University and distinguished nonresident fellow at the Center for Global Development. He was chief economic adviser to the Government of India between 2014 and 2018.

In India, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, along with two domestic events — a court ruling upholding a state government prohibiting the hijab in high schools, and the release of a controversial movie depicting the ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Kashmir more than three decades ago — has uncorked a frenzied nationalism. Liberals have been in retreat globally for some time, but these events have conspired to make the predicament of the Indian variety especially dire.

India’s liberals appear unable or unwilling to defend principle in three critical areas: the inviolability of territorial sovereignty, economic engagement with the world, and preventing the state from favoring the majority religion.

Let us consider each.

India has not publicly condemned the Russian invasion. In response to international pressure spotlighting India’s awkward alignment with Russia, China and Pakistan — the latter two of which are India’s biggest security threats — influential Indian opinion has morphed into remarkably bipartisan anti-Americanism. Indian liberals who would denounce the Russian invasion are vulnerable to the charge of guilt-by-association with the historical record of Pax Americana.

The Indian left has always considered American hegemony as riddled with unilateralism and conveniently selective interventions, ranging from Vietnam to more recent fiascoes in Iraq and Afghanistan. The right, however, views it from a more nationalist perspective. Prominent intellectuals and journalists have harked back to a historical pattern of the West, and the United States in particular, acting against India’s interests: in India’s liberations of Goa in 1961 and Bangladesh in 1971 — and, of course, the continued military and financial support for Pakistan despite its own flagrant anti-Americanism.

On economic policy, the severe sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe on Russia have elicited a surprising response. One would expect the Indian government and businesses to scent opportunity: Responses to the Russian invasion will intensify already existing pressures to shift production out of Russia today and possibly China tomorrow. A democratic India should be, and see itself as, more attractive to the fleeing investors.

Instead, there is growing concern that India itself might be targeted in the future. The argument is that, if the United States can act against Iran or Venezuela or Russia for geo-strategic reasons, pretexts could be found for freezing Indian assets in the future or raising barriers to Indian goods and services. Talk has therefore begun about indigenizing payments systems to reduce reliance on the dollar-based system, diversifying foreign exchange reserves and negotiating barter agreements.

Such costly actions would be in keeping with the government’s inward turn. In the past few years, India has raised tariff barriers, implemented selective industrial policy and stayed out of integration agreements, especially in dynamic Asia. Freer trade and more intensive economic engagement with the world could now become serious casualties of recent developments.

The recently released film “The Kashmir Files” has also highlighted the vulnerability of the liberals, this time on domestic social policy. It is undeniable that the Hindu community of Kashmiri Pandits was expelled en masse from their homes in the Kashmir Valley, and that the instigators were militant Muslims, supported and armed by foreign elements, including the Pakistani government.

Perhaps most galling to the religious right was the fact that the Indian government, and public opinion more broadly, turned a blind eye to the tragedy. To the religious right, if Hindus can be the victims of cleansing in a country where they are the majority, only an unabashedly muscular Hindu government can protect them. This was also taken as evidence that liberals with their “Muslim appeasement” cannot be trusted. Liberals who failed to condemn the ethnic cleansing when it happened have seen their credibility undermined, and are unable to now push back against aggrieved Hindus weaponizing the past to demonize or incite reprisals against the minority community.

Finally, there is the ban on hijabs imposed on high schools by a state government and recently upheld by a court. In less-charged times, school authorities and religious communities could have pursued pragmatic accommodation on the issue — and the court ruling upholding the hijab ban might have been more widely contested as questionable intrusion of the state into the realm of personal choice, based on an unwarranted excursion by the judiciary into matters of religious interpretation. But, in the current mood of grievance and victimhood, the ruling is viewed as an overdue re-equilibration of the status of different religious groups.

When the author Pankaj Mishra, the scourge of muscular Indian nationalists, makes common cause with them as he has on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it signals a momentous shift. And that is not just that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is entrenching its monopoly on political power, reflected in its victory in the recent elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state.

It may well be the bells tolling for the demise on many fronts — security, economics and politics — of Indian liberalism.