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India’s Faltering Secularism

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It has been more than a month since the lockdown in Kashmir. For more than a month, families, relatives and friends have lived in fear and dread of the unknown as reports of violence, injustice and oppression have emanated from the occupied valley.

On August 22, Genocide Watch issued two alerts against the Indian government for their mistreatment of people living in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and Assam. To say that India’s status as a secular democracy is in peril is an understatement.

The Indian government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been labeled time and time again as a Hindu populist government with little regard for minority rights. The current situation in J&K is a testament to this fact where people have been shot with pellet guns, communications have been cut off creating a media blackout and the opposition political party leader, Rahul Gandhi, has been barred from entering occupied Kashmir by the Indian authorities present there.

The way that this government has dealt with the Kashmir issue really calls to question India’s status as a secular democracy. It is not an unknown fact that although India’s voter participation has been extremely strong throughout its democratic history, it’s liberal freedoms, which make a democracy stronger, have always fared poorly as shown by the annual Varieties of democracy (V-Dem) 2018 report.

The current government has further suppressed these liberal freedoms and violated human rights in the process to an extent where the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, even went as far as comparing Modi to Adolf Hitler in his strongly worded op-ed published by The New York Times.

With Indian oppression continuing in different states like Nagaland and J&K coupled with media crackdown, the Indian government’s policies point towards a faltering secularity. However, even those institutions including free media, which otherwise strengthens a democracy has also played its role in weakening India’s secular status.

An Al-Jazeera article published right after Modi’s win in 2019 elections lamented that, “The role of the media as a watchdog of democracy in India has also been eroded. Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory was a victory of consent manufactured through propaganda by a pliable mainstream media and fake news. It was aided by journalistic complacency and failure to push for self-regulation and come up with technological and regulatory solutions to defeat lies”.

In a free democracy, media plays the role of providing feedback from the population to its government. If the public disagrees with a policy or any government action, then one can pen down their thoughts in the print media, post those online or protest such policies.

Usually, the media represents these protests against the government in a neutral fashion to inform its audience about dissenting views in the country. However, some factions of the Indian media apparatus have taken up a different role in connection with the Kashmir debate.

On September 5, there was a protest held in Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) against the Indian atrocities in Kashmir where students of the university chanted slogans of “Freedom for Kashmir” in the streets of Aligarh. Rather than presenting this as a protest against the government, an anchor on a news channel labeled these students as “traitors” and called the university as pro-Pakistan.

In such cases where students are called traitors by the media sends a very dangerous message to the population at large. The way that reporting has been conducted is irresponsible as it states that people who decide to go up against the government would be condemned as traitors. Media of a secular state cannot and should not support such a mode of thinking. It is not the role of the media to label protestors in this manner and it should not assume that responsibility.

With discriminatory policies and an emerging hostile faction within the media apparatus, the image of India’s secularity and democracy is on the decline. If India cares about its status in the international community, it must consider its oppression of the liberal freedoms that are enshrined in its own constitution.

India must not forget that the world is watching it commit atrocities in its backyard. India was built by true advocates of secularism and democracy, namely Gandhi and Nehru. This is not the India they built and this is not the India that Indians should stand for.

Waleed Nasir is a Brown University graduate working in Washington DC. He reads, writes and tries to make sense of the Pakistani political sphere.

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