How Modi turned global media’s scepticism into optimism, then lost the plot

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Mukesh Adhikary

The developments in the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in the past two weeks have drawn considerable attention of the international media on the growing grip of Hindutva forces on public discourse in India.

Many have accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of lending a veiled support to such voices and these claims haven’t gone unnoticed in the media of several world capitals.

Newspapers in the US, France and Pakistan have published editorials over the JNU issue, and these have a strange sense of déjà vu. Several world papers such as The Economist and The Guardian took an open stand against his candidacy for PM in 2014.

But many, like The Economist, acknowledged his resounding win and decided to respect the mandate. In the first year of his government, the discourse on economics took precedence and the focus largely shifted to whether he would be able to pull off the much-needed reforms.

“This newspaper chose not to back Mr Modi in last year’s elections because of his record on handling religious strife. Though he fails to control the Hindu-extremist bullies who back him, we are happy that our fears of grave communal violence have so far not been realised,”

The Economist wrote in May 2015. But the optimism, however thin it was, seems to be waning fast. His landslide win had made even his harshest critics accept the public mandate. His first speech on the Independence Day in 2014 won admirers. But two years later, that speech seems like a fading memory.

Modi’s unravelling started with his party’s defeat in the crucial Bihar state elections. The intolerance debate took the centre stage during Bihar election in October-November. A man was lynched just a month before the polls over rumours that he had consumed and stored beef, and the PM remained silent.

He spoke when it was too late. His silence was already accepted as His tacit approval to the so-called fringe Hindutva groups, who have been on rampage in smaller Indian towns and cities ever since. So unlike many others, I wasn’t surprised with the JNU row.

The past two weeks seem to be the culmination of the dangerous freedom Hindutva elements were given under his watch. His party’s drubbing in Bihar coincided with his toughest press conference as prime minister when the UK media tested him with difficult questions in London. The BBC’s South Asia correspondent Justin Rowlatt pointedly asked him why India was becoming intolerant.

The Guardian’s Nicholas Watt made Modi uncomfortable by inquiring if David Cameron was doing the right thing by welcoming a man who was not allowed to visit the UK for 10 years. Now, the events that have unfolded in JNU have added to his miseries. Global news outlets have expressed concern that the Modi government was curbing free speech and actively pushing a Hindu nationalist agenda of its parent organisation, the RSS.

These publications have condemned the arrest of JNU student Kanhaiya Kumar under the colonial-era law of sedition and high-handling of a case of sloganeering in a university campus. The New York Times published an editorial criticizing Modi and his ministers for trying to “silence dissent”.

The daily also blamed the government for the “chaos” in the Patiala House court where lawyers beat up Kumar, journalists and JNU students. “Responsibility for this lynch-mob mentality lies squarely with Mr. Modi’s government…Mr. Modi must rein in his ministers and his party, and defuse the current crisis, or risk sabotaging both economic progress and India’s democracy,” the paper said.

French newspaper Le Monde, meanwhile, said the “authoritarian drift of a Hindu nationalist government” was evident with the arrest of Kumar and former Delhi University SAR Geelani. Both these papers also cited the economic fallout of the issue amid the debate over free speech.

The NYT said that the “confrontation raises serious concerns about Mr. Modi’s governance and may further stall any progress in Parliament on economic reforms”. While Le monde, in their editorial titled ‘In India, the worrisome nationalism of Modi’, critically noted that the French government had given priority to “economic diplomacy” over human rights issue in dealing with India.

Doha-based Al Jazeera which has also covered the protests in detail has looked into the issue in an article titled ‘Why India’s student protests keep growing’, in which it said: “The official reaction of the police and judiciary to the protests at JNU is feeding a growing perception in India of a rise in intolerance in India since BJP under Modi’s leadership came to power in 2014.”

Interestingly, a considerable amount of reaction has also come from neighbouring Pakistan, where observers have said Indian intellectuals, artistes, writers and the civil society must fight to protect freedom of speech. A section of the Pakistan’s English-language media, which includes newspapers such as the Dawn, the Nation and the News International daily are known to have a liberal outlook and are critical of communal elements in their own country.

So it is no surprise that some of them have suggested India should learn a lesson from Pakistan where hardline communal forces have compromised the democratic values of the country in the past. Parallels have been drawn between the RSS-BJP actions to the hardline approach of former President Zia-ul-Haq who is considered responsible for the “Islamization” of Pakistan.

An article by Mahir Ali in the Dawn newspaper compared the ABVP, students wing of the RSS, to the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba, an Islamist youth organization in Pakistan.

The Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba which is the youth wing of political party Jamaat-e-Islami is known to carry out nationalist protests against separatist issues such as Balochistan. “The Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the right-wing student organisation instrumental in provoking the JNU kerfuffle, is exerting on campuses pernicious pressures of the kind associated with the Islami Jamiat-i-Talaba, particularly during the Zia (former Pakistan President Zia-ul-Haq) years,” he wrote. An editorial in the same paper said that the JNU row was “yet another example of India’s lurch towards the hard right”.

The daily cautioned that the right-wing nationalism stands in conflict with India’s democratic values. “These toxic levels of ultranationalism are diametrically opposed to democratic values; as we in Pakistan know all too well that if space is ceded to the hard right, very soon democratic principles come under attack,” the paper said. The News International echoed: “The BJP government has shown it has no respect for India’s secularist traditions.”

An op-ed by Kunwar Khuldune Shahid in The Nation, meanwhile, said that the JNU issue hinged on a “very basic question of freedom of expression, which the Indian Constitution — like all democratic states — vows to protect.” Shahid went on to explain that both India and Pakistan lacked a “culture of dissent”. He wrote that in India the situation had been “exacerbated by the rise of the Saffron tide and hyper-nationalism.”

He suggested: “Whether it’s India or Pakistan the only way forward is to embrace dissent, especially at university campuses, which should be hubs of multitudinous ideas and debates.” Messages of solidarity with the JNU students are also visible. Writer Farhad Mirza urged university students in Pakistan to stand with JNU.

“The JNU row is a watershed moment for solidarity networks on both sides, who have been given a rare opportunity to reinvigorate a much needed dialogue between young people in India and Pakistan,” he wrote in the Dawn. Mukesh Adhikary, formerly with the BBC, is a Delhi based journalist

Featured image: Reuters

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