The Hindu ascetic Pragya Singh Thakur—who is out on bail, supposedly because of “health issues”—is due to stand trial on numerous grounds, including murder, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity between communities. These are not unusual charges for an Indian politician, who sometimes uses involvement in such crimes as a badge of honour.
What is unique, however, is that, for the first time in Indian history, a political party (and the prime minister, who clearly made the choice) has chosen as a parliamentary candidate a person accused of terrorism.
Thakur is among the alleged conspirators in the 2008 Malegaon blasts case, where explosives hidden in a motorcycle killed six people and injured more than 100 others in Maharashtra.
In perception and effect, terrorism is different from other organised crime. It is committed not for money or other material benefits but to intimidate a society or community. Terrorism is driven by ideology, and terrorists use violence to force submission of those they hate. It is also a misguided tool against the oppression of minorities against majorities, as India has experienced. But terrorists exist on the fringes of the communities they claim to protect or fight for, their acts rarely condoned by their people.
But in approving the candidature of Thakur, the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi have made clear that they condone terrorism and hope to mainstream its ideology. It is a signal to intimidate India’s minorities, particularly Muslims, from whom they expect supplication.
That this thinking has been embraced by ever larger numbers of Hindus is no longer in question. Whether Modi wins or loses the ongoing Lok Sabha elections, the lack of significant disapproval to Thakur’s rise—indeed she appears to have substantial support—is a sign that the law and constitution of the republic are dispensable.
When Modi took power in 2014, there were a substantial number of liberal commentators who bought into the idea that he was a symbol of a new India driven by progress, hope and equality. I was not one of these, and the signs that India was headed to overt majoritarianism were evident then: the spread of hate speech and attempts to discredit India’s post-independence past and make bigotry acceptable.
“The force of numbers never made anyone right,” I wrote in 2014. “I am not always right either, but I will not hide the fact that I am a secular, liberal—and proud—Indian, who bears no ill will to anyone.”
Two years later, as the majoritarian agenda spread, I was disconcerted.
“All over India, non-issues with bigoted, majoritarian views are not just dominating public discourse but poisoning minds. The lunatic fringe is now the Hindutva mainstream,” I wrote in 2016.
I was wrong.
Ministers, members of parliament (MPs) and members of legislative assemblies (MLAs) justify atrocities against minorities, felicitate those who murder Muslims and call for the hounding or expulsion of anyone opposed to their ideology.
Should people like Thakur win, the world’s largest democracy will stand on the threshold of abandoning its secular foundations and slip into a majoritarian Hindu rashtra (nation).
In many ways, India is already a de facto Hindu nation, its laws, administration and politics frequently bowing to majority interests. It will always be a multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation, but if it becomes a majoritarian democracy, wider dangers lie ahead.
In plural societies, majoritarian democracy can provide a context for conflict, nationalism and exclusion to thrive, a Basque political scientist, Daniele Conversi, warned with prescience in a paper published in 2011.
Majoritarian governments tend to turn to patriotism and populism as sources of legitimacy “at a time when the latter appears to be crumbling,” Conversi wrote. In the age of WhatsApp and Twitter, this degeneration is undoubtedly more rapid. It can, said Conversi, end in self-destruction.
Conversi based his paper on an older proposition made by a US sociology professor called Michael Mann, who argued that in some multicultural societies, a “rule by the people,” meaning majoritarian rule, can justify even genocide and ethnic cleansing.
Religion, used as a means of deliverance or salvation—argues Mann in his 2004 book, The Dark Side of Democracy—can combine with modern democracy to degenerate into attitudes that legitimise extreme crimes. Lynching is already commonplace in India, and many Indians feel comfortable enough to call for genocide and ethnic cleansing, some of which the nation has already experienced.
The dark side of democracy rises from the choices that majorities make. Within the minds of these majorities, resides the raw material for self-destruction, the eclipse of all that is good, lawful and right.
“Evil does not arrive from outside our civilisation, from a separate realm we are tempted to call ‘primitive,’” writes Mann. “Evil is generated by civilisation itself.”
India must recognise the evil being legitimised through its politics and think carefully about the choices it will make.