External Affairs

Australia, Like the Rest of the World, Is Watching the Rise of Authoritarianism in India

The Australian government is soft-pedalling this issue, but some legislators and citizens are speaking up.

For now, Australia’s official line on India and China hides a contradiction: while successive Australian governments have critiqued China’s human rights abuses, the “official line” from the Morrison government is mute about the growing authoritarianism and erosion of democracy in India. 

Australian government minister Simon Birmingham on an official trade mission to Delhi last year touted India’s rule of law as one of the nation’s strengths. These comments were made within days of the shocking attacks on the Delhi Muslim community. Birmingham stated that “the violence is a matter for India”, adding that “Australia continues to think that one of the things most valuable about India has been tolerance … to religious diversity”.

In November last year, the Australian High Commissioner, Barry O’Farrell travelled to Nagpur in Maharashtra to meet with the head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Mohan Bhagwat, at the organisation’s headquarters. This visit surprised many as O’Farrell is only the second senior diplomat to make such a visit. The other visitor was German ambassador  to India, Walter Lindner. 

Also read: The Cruel Irony of the German Ambassador’s Visit to the RSS Headquarters

During the visit, O’Farrell was photographed in front of photos of RSS leaders, including M.S. Golwalkar. Golwalkar has praised Nazi Germany for “purging the country of the Semitic races – the Jews”. Considering the track record of this organisation, it is understandable why many interpreted the visit of this leading diplomat as condoning the RSS and, by association, Hindu nationalism.

Australian High Commissioner Barry O’Farrell with Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh head Mohan Bhagwat. Photo: Twitter/@AusHCIndia

However, whatever the official line be, not all Australians are blind to the fact that the reality for Indians is that elements of fascism are thriving within BJP’s version of democracy. Awareness is growing within Australia, led by nongovernment members of parliament and members of civil society. Following the Delhi pogrom some Australian Indians circulated a petition that calls on India’s High Commissioner to Australia to stand against communal violence. Community organisations are working with MPs to hold roundtable discussions on human rights abuses in India in Australian parliaments. 

The latest round table on “Is India Becoming a Fascist State?”, held in New South Wales parliament was organised by a broad international coalition comprising the Australia-based The Humanism Project, the Indian American Muslim Council, Hindus for Human Rights, and Amnesty International Australia. The forum, hosted by Australian state and federal MPs, attracted speakers and parliamentarians from the US, Britain, and India. 

State and federal MPs from the Greens party have spoken in their parliaments about the crimes of the Modi government, including the takeover of Kashmir and ending its special status. Also motions have been tabled for debate in these parliaments, that urge the Australian government to call on the Indian government to revoke the citizenship laws and to treat all of its citizens equally. 

The dangers principled Australians are seeing are numerous. Since Modi’s 2019 election win the BJP have stepped up their pursuit of a Hindu nationalist agenda. During this time there has been an increase in anti-Muslim attacks. Most Indian Muslims face great hardship. The Modi regime has sought to restrict Muslims’ rights, particularly through recent changes to citizenship laws.  

The fair and just foundation that India’s judiciary, parliamentary, and education systems were built on is being extensively eroded. The development of a fascist-like infrastructure – in terms of passing discriminatory laws, neutralising judges and cultivating a BJP-controlled police force – is at an advanced stage in India. Legislation similar to the 1930s discriminatory Nuremberg laws on issues of citizenship and marriage have been passed by state and federal parliaments where the BJP dominates. 

The Modi regime is also under fire for exacerbating the oppression and discrimination of Dalits, Adivasi and other marginalised groups. Many forest dwellers are losing their homes and livelihoods in a series of land grabs by mining and forestry companies that have given funds to the BJP are backers of the Modi regime. BJP forces are also embroiled in state-based conflicts, particularly in Kashmir. 

Security personnel place a barricade on a street during the restrictions imposed on the first anniversary of revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, in Srinagar, Wednesday, Aug 5, 2020. Photo: PTI,

People are rising up in protest 

These kinds of tendencies in Indian politics look set to worsen as the BJP has such a solid hold on power. The party’s strategists know all the tricks of modern electioneering and have a particular penchant for fake news to discredit opponents. The BJP is now the richest political party in India by a massive margin and have the resources to pull off huge wins. 

Although it is important that India moves towards a fair electoral system, with limits on political donations and election expenditure,  electoral politics is not the solution to stopping the crimes against humanity and human rights abuses that are occurring in many parts of India on a daily basis. 

The good news is that people’s movements are on the rise, including the world’s largest strike of 250 million workers and farmers, supported by their allies from civil society including numerous student and women’s groups. These pose a huge challenge for the BJP.

Also read: Farmers Are Still Focused on the Real Issues. We Shouldn’t Be Distracted Either.

So far, the claim that India is a great secular democracy has become a cloak to conceal the extent of the injustice. Most people’s view of India would be much closer to the benign Incredible India promotions than to Arundhati Roy’s assessment: “We’re up against a fascist regime in India.” But the world is waking up.

As in Australia, in Britain, too, human rights abuses of Indian minorities are gaining greater attention. In early January British MPs from a number of parties debated the persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minority groups. They are also recommending that any future trade deals between Britain and India include human rights provisions. 

At the same time, however, proponents of right-wing extremism are taking encouragement and lessons from the paths chosen by Modi and Trump. The Australian-born terrorist who slaughtered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand prior to the killings praised Trump as “a symbol of renewed white identity and common purpose”. 

The Norwegian terrorist and mass killer, Anders Breivik, listed the websites of the Bharatiya Janata Party and associated organisations in his public declarations on how to go about destroying democratically elected governments. For Breivik the Hindu nationalist movement is a significant ally in the fight to achieve this outcome.

The attempted coup at the Capitol has amplified the global dangers of far-right extremism. It is now more widely recognised that elements of fascism are having a significant impact on US politics. Former California governor, Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger, in a moving speech about the effect Nazism had on his Austrian family, compared the events at the Capitol to the 1938 Kristallnacht attacks on Jewish homes, businesses, and places of worship. He also described the Proud Boys, a far-right American extremist group, as Nazis.

Also read: Remember Kristallnacht: Schwarzenegger Reminds Americans to Consider the Dark Lessons of History

India has its own dark history of elements of fascism. In his early twenties Modi joined the RSS, as did many of his BJP associates. Founders of the RSS, the parent body to the BJP, admired Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. The BJP has never broken with the RSS’s primary aim of defining India according to the Hindu faith.

The Delhi riots that occurred while Trump was visiting Delhi in 2020 has similarities to the Kristallnacht that Schwarzenegger spoke about so movingly. The Delhi Police, which reports directly to the Home Minister Amit Shah, allegedly facilitated and perpetrated numerous crimes. Their actions were widely condemned. 

Delhi riots

Security personnel walk past Bhagirathi Vihar area of the riot-affected northeast Delhi, February 26, 2020. Photo: PTI

There are examples where the police escorted the attackers and did not intervene to stop violent criminal acts. They broke CCTV cameras, beat Muslim men and bullied young Muslims to chant nationalist slogans. 

 As violence in Delhi was still unfolding, Modi and Trump hugged, held hands and heaped excessive praise on each other, in front of a 1,00,000 strong Ahmedabad crowd. Now, Trump has been ousted and impeached for a historical second time for inciting an insurrection. In the US, this puts the spotlight on how the President and parts of his administration encouraged white supremacists and rampant nationalists to commit acts of domestic terrorism.

In contrast to Trump, Modi on the global stage presents as a reasonable elder statesman. But politics is about change and events in the US show that even the most powerful world leaders can be held to account for the abuse of their power. 

For now, the Australian government is soft pedalling on issues in India, but attempts are ongoing to change this, and none too soon. After all, global scrutiny of BJP and RSS activities will be critical to ending human rights abuses and the rise of an increasingly authoritarian government in India.

Lee Rhiannon is a former Australian Greens Senator. Over the past five decades she has worked on a range of social justice, environmental and industrial campaigns.