“India is on the verge of genocide”
Rita Manchanda is an author, human rights activist, and Consultant Research Director at South Asia Forum for Human Rights. She lives in New Delhi. Here she tells NADJA what the recent elections mean for India’s democracy, women’s rights and human rights overall.
NADJA: What are the most pressing issues that need to be resolved in the region where you live in India?
Rita Manchanda: One of the major issues confronting India at the moment is the polarisation of the country – the deepening of the fault lines and the ascendancy of a majoritarian, very aggressive, very masculine ethno-religious nationalism, which is what the ruling party represents. It is in fact today the dominant ideology of the majority of Indians, as reflected in the elections.
This has huge implications for women. One of the crises facing us, particularly in one southern state, is the issue of the legal ban on wearing a hijab to school. If you want to go into school, and sit for your exams, you have to remove your hijab. This is a selective discriminatory policy, part of a whole slew of new policies and laws that reflect the issue of minority gender identity politics.
There are constraints on women’s rights as a result of the joining of patriarchal forces with this rise of religious fundamentalism, and the tolerance of violence overall, but especially towards women, the mobilisation of religious politics and gendered politics in the context of religion to marginalise the minorities even further.
India is listed by Genocide Watch as one of the countries that is very likely to have a genocide, and it would be along religious lines. Gender will be very central to that. We know how misogyny overlays so much of these extremist fundamentalist politics – our neighbour in Afghanistan is a good example.
NADJA: What do the results of the latest elections mean for rights issues?
RM: They have reinforced the singular importance of the emergence of the women’s vote, and how crucial the women’s vote has been, not in terms of representation, but how crucial it has been in terms of electoral politics – Bihar state was the leader in this. Whether you look at the Delhi elections in 2020, whether you look at West Bengal elections in 2021, women’s vote has been crucial.
And now there is a recognition of the importance of the women’s vote, as reflected in some of the manifestos and some of the slogans that have become very popular. One is that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is to do with, ‘Save the girl child. Make her learn’ – very much within a protective patriarchal frame. Whereas Priyanka Gandhi, the Uttar Pradesh Congress Party leader, said they were going to give 40% of seats to women, because otherwise, women are just not seen as winnable candidates. Their slogan was ‘ladki hoon lad sakti hoon’ [I am a girl and can fight]’. It’s a much more empowering slogan.
Without the consolidation of the women’s vote, you would have not have had such huge electoral majorities. Which of course is reflected in manifestos, but also in the way that politics and elections are being perceived. No longer is it [citizens] asserting their rights in elections, but people asking, “Okay, what can you give us? You’re going to give us one gas cylinder, oh, they’re promising two”. It’s become about these welfare measures, nothing substantive in terms of women’s rights, or women’s equality.
NADJA: There has been a pattern around the world in the last decade or so of weakened democracies and restrictions on the right to protest, for example Hungary’s newly entrenched authoritarian government and Donald Trump in the US. Do you think this will reach a tipping point?
RM: It is true, this phenomenon is getting reinforced rather than reduced. I would say the same for India – you are getting highly authoritarian politics reinforced by the Covid pandemic, because it was very difficult to challenge these highly authoritarian policies because they were all in the name of “public health”’.
In these elections, and particularly the way that the ruling party and what the ruling party represents, Uttar Pradesh (UP) is a state that is crucial in terms of overall electoral majorities in the country, and an overwhelming majority of people there have chosen someone who has the highest record of anti-terror laws, particularly against women defending human rights. In places like UP there is just no counter-narrative. If you stand up to speak, soon enough there’ll be a knock on your door, and you will be in jail tomorrow, often under non-bailable offences.
I see a reinforcement of that. The model UP represents is a highly authoritarian, extremely anti-minority model, that’s very selective with doling out welfare. It is reducing the citizen into a beneficiary, rather than a citizen voting for policies and asserting their rights. But even the Muslims have voted for this party, partly because they want to be among the beneficiaries if anything is being doled out.
The weakening of democracy is central, because as we are seeing the hollowing out of our constitutional values and the constriction of civil society, we’re also finding that the ability to counter the state narrative has become extremely weak. In fact, I can list at least 20 of my friends or people I work with who are in jail, under anti-terrorist laws. So it’s become extremely difficult to counter the state policies which are, frankly, harmful, and negative towards vulnerable communities, particularly the minorities. We are seeing the disenfranchisement of a great many people being made stateless.
Some of our finest political analysts have said that this election would be the barometer, to be able to see if things can be pushed back, or ifl the juggernaut will roll on and destroy more and more of our constitutional institutions.
What is so disappointing is that the struggle is not at the level of the organised political parties, it’s at the level of the street. The two most important struggles that we have had, and in which women have been very significant, are the farmers’ struggle and the struggle against the Citizenship Amendment Act. The latter was actually led by poor, often illiterate Muslim women, because they stood to lose the most.
Women dominate agriculture – I think more than 70% of workers on the farms are women because men have migrated to the urban centres. But these women don’t own land. They were part of these very conspicuous struggles, but political parties were not involved, they were deliberately kept out. The organised political opposition has been disregarded, because more and more of the states of India are under the control of the BJP. Struggle is fortunately taking place on the street, but without any organised political structure.