Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's policies are alarming some Western observers. Photo: AFP / Anton Raharjo / Anadolu Agency

Amid the economic crisis triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic and the military standoff at the Sino-Indian border in Ladakh, more bad news is coming for India. As it has failed to comply with the “norms” and “values” necessary to forge partnerships with the Western powers, India may not be able to count on crucial support extended by “the West” in the future.

An article published recently in The Print, one of India’s more credible and less jingoist digital media outlet, based on a report published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington-based think-tank, suggests that Western governments will not be eager to support India if it fails to reset its current course on domestic and neighborhood policies.

Ashley J Tellis, the author of the article, writes, “In fact, the United States and many other Western powers jumped at the prospect of aiding India’s ascent, presuming that it would not misuse its power against its own citizens or its neighbors.”

The report says the policies of the Hindu nationalist BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi have divided India internally and fostered intolerance in society, dismaying Western powers.

After Modi came to power in 2014, “the West” reckoned that India, as a democratic country with similar values to its own, would outpace China’s economic and military capability and play a crucial role as a counterbalance to China in the Asian region.

“The West” expected that the Modi government would adhere to liberal values, promote diversity, be committed to human rights, protect minorities’ rights, and deepen secularism and pluralism.

The Western powers also expected that the Modi administration would be committed to ensuring the civil and political liberties that are guaranteed by the Indian constitution. They also hoped that it would promote the multiculturalism and heterogeneity of thought and expression long cherished in India.

As these principles conform with their own norms and values, the Western powers consider them “moral imperatives” in democratic governance. Western thinkers believe that Western values are superior to any other system of government. They believe these values are the bedrock for friendship and partnership with all other powers.

Additionally, the article pointed out that contrary to the Western expectations that India would fulfill its responsibility as a regional power in South Asia, it has strained its relations with all its immediate neighbors except Bhutan through its muscular diplomacy.

However, the Modi government has achieved neither the economic growth nor the military and strategic advancement required to outpace China. Instead, India misused Western support and goodwill as an opportunity to oppress its own citizens and promote jingoist nationalism and suppress its immediate neighbors.

Meanwhile in India itself, the Modi government’s domestic priorities divided society and promoted hatred and intolerance.

The BJP and its affiliate organizations’ vigilante groups have allegedly instigated several mob lynchings of alleged cow slaughterers and beef eaters since 2015. These vigilantes killed about 100 people from 2015 to 2019. A minister in Modi’s cabinet, Jayanta Sinha, garlanded eight men convicted for mob lynching who were released on bail on July 8, 2018.

Similarly, there is systemic persecution of the Muslim minority and Dalits – the lowest stratum of India’s caste system – who have been discriminated against, harassed, and even killed by so-called upper-caste people allegedly backed by the BJP and right-wing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Likewise, the Modi-led government launched several campaigns to suppress India’s leftist movement by suppressing progressive and liberal student leaders in federal government-funded universities and campuses in 2016. The government targeted students because they opposed the ruling party’s Hindutva policy.

A case in point is the brutal suppression of protests at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2016 and the arrest of student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and, subsequently, his being charged with sedition. The government, and BJP spokesmen and leaders, portrayed these student leaders as traitors.

Prominent social activists and intellectuals Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha have been arrested amid the lockdown for their alleged Maoist links and several other charges following the violence at Koregaon Bhima village in Pune district on January 1, 2018. Uttar Pradesh Police summoned the prominent Indian journalist Siddharth Varadarajan for his protest against the government’s attempt to claim the Muslim minority are spreading the pandemic and the opaque manner in which the health crisis was being handled.

Nine other prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves, and Varavara Rao – have been detained in the Bhima Koregaon case without trial since 2018.

One policy after another is widely perceived as diluting India’s seven-decades-long liberal characteristics. The Modi government’s decisions and legislation such as the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, and the possibility of implementing a National Register of Citizens are taken as factual evidence of the dismantling of long-cherished Indian liberalism.

The government has been using the pandemic as a cover to trample on media freedom and to mute the few people who still dare to ask questions about government wrongdoing. It uses the Covid-19 pandemic as a pretext for the imposition of a de facto political emergency.

The government has been systematically cracking down on the Muslim minority, blaming it as the super spreader of Covid-19 in India.

The government uses its police, law-enforcement agencies, and investigation agencies to suppress opposition parties, dissidents, civil-society activists, journalists, and human-rights defenders.

India is notorious for extrajudicial killing. But Indian police forces celebrate such incidents.

In July last year, the Modi regime introduced a bill to amend the right to information to make it more difficult for citizens to question government wrongdoings.

India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index is continuously sliding. It is ranked 142nd out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ annual report released on April 22, 2020.

Citizens’ right to privacy was recently curtailed. For example, after an investigation into the suicide of Bollywood actor Sushant Singh Rajput, a highly significant media trial has been taking place in India. The personal chats on WhatsApp and mobile phone messages of citizens such as actress Rhea Chakraborty, Deepika Padukone and others are being made public on the television news channels, before the police and investigating agencies, or the courts.

The concepts of separation of power and checks and balance have been almost destroyed in India. The notion of an independent judiciary has been almost dismantled since Modi came to power. The independent democratic institutions, including the judiciary, fear the government.

Because of the increasing critiques from Western media, academia and think-tanks, there is a clear indication that “the West” no longer overlooks the BJP government’s misuse of power against its people. The Western powers will no longer support India if it continues its current behavior.

Western media, civil-society organizations, and human-rights defenders have been raising the issue vigorously. In July 2019, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights published an update on its 2018 report raising serious concerns about abuses.  Human Rights Watch has also pointed out gross violations of human rights in India.

Western governments, media, academia, think-tanks, business communities, and human-rights defenders have been taking India’s illiberal and intolerant behavior seriously. If India fails to reverse course, it may be seen as unfit for liberal internationalism in the future. It is a serious wake-up call for India.

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Bhim Bhurtel

Bhim Bhurtel is visiting faculty for a master's in international relations and diplomacy, Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, and faculty for a master's program of Development Economics, Nepal Open University. He was the executive director of the Nepal South Asia Center (2009-14), a Kathmandu-based South Asian development think-tank. Bhurtel can be reached at bhim.bhurtel@gmail.com.