Preparations at the international media centre on the eve of the two-day G20 summit in New Delhi, 8 September. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images
Over the last few months, billboards across India, especially in the capital, New Delhi, have been plastered with images of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The hoardings welcome international delegates to the G20 summit with the words “Mother of Democracy to host G20”. On the eve of the summit, which begins on Saturday, the prime minister has penned an article citing the diversity of the Indian democracy. He writes: “For India, the G20 presidency is not merely a high-level diplomatic endeavour. As the mother of democracy, and a model of diversity, we opened the doors of this experience to the world.”
Over the past year, through his much-publicised state visit to the United States and through his much talked-about international trips, including the G7 meetings, Modi has extolled the virtues of democracy, of a secular and inclusive nation, paying obeisance to Mahatma Gandhi at every available opportunity. But this grandstanding is, in fact, a diabolic facade. The ugly reality of present-day India is that minorities are under relentless attack, reports The Guardian.
Let me tell you just some of what has happened in India this year alone. On 31 July, a railway police constable, Chetan Kumar Singh, opened fire on board a long-distance train, first killing his senior officer then proceeding to kill three Muslim passengers. After shooting them, he stood by a profusely bleeding corpse and invoked Modi and his Hindu nationalist ally, Yogi Adityanath, in a rant during which he said: “If you want to live and vote in Hindustan [India], I am telling you, it’s only Modi and Yogi, these two people.”
To those who are not familiar with the everyday reality of India, this might feel like an aberration, but for many, it is simply a gruesome expression of a new reality in a country where hatred against Muslims is the easy route to win elections, and gain popularity and acceptability in a society suffering from an imagined victimhood.
Singh went on a shooting spree, venting his rage against Muslims against the backdrop of hate rallies organised by far-right organisations across the country. His terror was unleashed within days of the chief minister of the north-eastern state of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, blaming Muslim vegetable vendors for inflation in the state.
Through the first week of August, against the hum of G20 preparations, communal riots took place an hour from Delhi, in which a Hindu mob burned down a mosque. As foreign delegates across the world travelled to India to meet their counterparts in the run-up to the G20 summit, calls for a social and economic boycott of Muslims were made in Gurgaon, the satellite city of Delhi, by far-right Hindu nationalist organisations.
When they are not being lynched over the accusation of eating beef or smuggling cows, Muslims are accused of waging a war against their Hindu counterparts through a fantastical conspiracy called “love jihad”, whereby men are accused of seducing Hindu women into marriage and then abandoning them.
Earlier this year, dozens of rallies took place across the state of Maharashtra, attended by leaders from Modi’s BJP, demanding laws against inter-religious marriages. As I went around the city, reporting and documenting these rallies, I witnessed the same hostility towards Muslims that I witnessed in Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the state’s chief minister and more than 800 Muslims were killed under his watch. At the rallies, I witnessed young children holding placardscalling for the elimination of traitors, showing the “Abduls” their place, asking for young women to watch out for the trap laid out by the ones wearing beards and skull caps.
Muslims in India are not just humiliated on the streets, they are being demonised and vilified on the big screen. Modi has praised and defended two films that have been criticised as deeply Islamophobic, The Kashmir Files and The Kerala Story, in his election rallies. Some state governments even exempted the films from certain entertainment taxes.
With the culture saturated with imagery that portrays Muslims as anti-Indian traitors, it is little surprise that a day after India’s feted moon-landing, the country found itself watching a teacher in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh asking her pupils to take turns in slapping a seven-year-old Muslim student in front of the class. In the video, which went viral, the boy stands there, crying, waiting for a comforting hand, isolated in a room full of hate and indifference.
The teacher was eventually booked by police under “non-cognisable offences”, which cannot lead to an arrest without further judicial processes. Controversially, local police also charged a Muslim journalist, Mohammed Zubair, for allegedly disclosing the child’s identity by sharing the video online.
What of accountability? During Modi’s visit to the US earlier this year, he took part in his first proper press conference. When he was asked about India’s human rights record, he resorted to using the word “democracy” more than a dozen times in his unconvincing answer. A day later, his question was answered for the world. The Wall Street Journal reporter who had posed the question to the prime minister was brutally trolled on the internet by the Indian right wing and shamed for her Muslim-ness, forcing the White House to issue a statement in solidarity with the journalist.
Modi has two languages: speaking eloquently and inclusively of Gandhi and democracy when the world is watching; and another language of silence as his country descends into violent, Hindu-nationalist majoritarianism. I have closely followed Modi and his political style over the last 15 years, and the most striking feature is what you might term the art of looking away. But what happens now that Modi is actively courting the world’s gaze to felicitate his country’s achievements?
The prime minister is projecting himself as a vishwaguru (global leader) through India’s hosting of the G20. The craven mainstream news channels in India project him as the only leader with the solution to the Ukraine crisis and other global issues – without questioning his inability to fix the civil unrest in India. In the week of the G20 summit, when India needs to project itself as an inclusive plural democracy, the discussions are now focused on renaming it “Bharat”, to allegedly break free of colonial chains. The undercurrent to this discussion is, of course, the political right’s desire to restore “Hindu glory” to the nation.
Foreign nations that buy into the PR blitzkrieg calling India the world’s largest democracy out of commercial and geostrategic interests, or lazy naivety, are complicit in the accelerating decline of democratic values in India. For now, the host of the G20 summit is reeling under one of the most un-democratic periods in its history.
Writer: Rana Ayyub is a columnist for the Washington Post. She is the author of Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover-up