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Can India’s global ambitions survive the deepening chasms in their country?


At a sprawling golf resort south of New Delhi, diplomats were busy finalizing preparations for a fast approaching world summit. The road outside was freshly graded and dotted with police. Posters bearing the image of Prime Minister Narendra Modi bore the slogan he had chosen for the occasion: One Land, One Family, One Future.

Not far away, however, were the remnants of bitter divisions: grieving families, charred vehicles and the rubble of bulldozed shops and homes. A few weeks earlier, deadly religious violence erupted in Nuh district, where the station is located. Internet was cut and thousands of soldiers were dispatched. The clashes quickly spread to the gates of Gurugram, a hub of tech start-ups just outside New Delhi, which India touts as a city of the future.

These scenes encapsulate India’s contradictions as it rejoices in its moment as host of the Group of 20 this weekend: its drive towards a greater role in a chaotic world order rests on more ground more combustible and unequal at the national level.

Mr Modi, India’s most powerful leader in decades, is attempting nothing less than a transformation that will define the legacy of this nation of 1.4 billion people.

On the one hand, it attempts to make India a developed nation and a beacon for those who have no voice in a Western-dominated world. The country, now the most populous in the world, is the fastest growing major economy, digitally savvy and awash with enthusiastic young workers. It is also a rising diplomatic power that seeks to capitalize on the friction of superpower competition between the United States and China.

On the other hand, Mr Modi is deepening the fault lines within Indian society as he steps up his campaign to reshape a highly diverse country, delicately held together by a secular constitution, into a Hindu state. His party’s efforts to rally and uplift Hindus — both a lifelong ideological project and a powerful lure for votes — have marginalized hundreds of millions of Muslims and other minorities by turning them into second-class citizens. area.

The question for India, as Mr Modi looks set to extend his reign for another decade in elections early next year, is to what extent the instability caused by his religious nationalism will hamper his ambitions. economic.

The sectarian clashes in Muslim-majority Nuh were sparked by a religious march organized by a right-wing Hindu organization that falls under the same Hindu nationalist umbrella as Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP.

This is just the latest flare-up in what has become a seemingly constant state of tension.

The audacity of right-wing vigilantes and the aggressive, Hindu messages of BJP politicians have left the country’s Muslims and Christians in a perpetual state of fear and alienation.

The northeastern state of Manipur, where its most senior leader used the majority BJP model, has been embroiled in ethnic conflict for months, with around 200 people killed and regions effectively divided along lines. ethnic lines.

In the restive Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, the government has suspended democracy for four years and is responding to any grievances with a tougher crackdown.

BJP politicians continue their divisive rhetoric even when Mr Modi is on the world stage. In 2020, for example, as Mr. Modi and President Donald J. Trump addressed a stadium in Gujarat, the prime minister’s home state, large swaths of New Delhi were on fire in deadly violence. instigated in part by BJP leaders.

Gurcharan Das, a scholar who backed Mr Modi in his first term for his pledge to focus on development, said he grew disillusioned as the damage wrought by the ruling party’s Hindu nationalism overshadowed his progress economic.

In a public lecture this week, he said that even though Mr Modi’s government had failed to create the jobs it had promised, it had nevertheless undertaken key reforms, ranging from streamlining taxes to help unify the Indian market, to the introduction of a digital revolution which has brought more people into the formal economy.

But he said he saw a danger in the BJP’s rejection of pluralism as a way to appease minorities. He reiterated a warning that has become frequent: India is on the path to religious fundamentalism similar to that which plunged neighboring Pakistan into catastrophe.

“While dreaming of a great civilizational state, Hindu nationalists are in reality trying to create a narrow-minded, identity-based 19th century European nation-state – a sort of Hindu Pakistan,” he said. he declares.

While India’s economic growth vastly enriches the wealthy, the masses are still waiting for the promised prosperity. While India is now the world’s fifth-largest economy, ahead of Britain and France, its average income – a key indicator of living standards – remains in the bottom third of the world, alongside countries like Congo.

For Mr. Modi, a policy of polarization fills the void.

Ajai Sahni, director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi, said what distinguished India’s recent violence from its long history of much bloodier sectarian clashes was the attitude of the government.

“The state has always theoretically distanced itself from such violence. There has always been a reaffirmation, at least verbally, of the constitutional order and the secular order,” Sahni said. Under Mr Modi, “there is, shall we say, clear evidence of state support or endorsement of extremist positions”.

“The violence remains episodic,” he added. “One kill here, two kills there, then some outbreak,” he said. “But the threat persists.” He attributed much of this to the “virality” around the current violence – social media is “tapped” to spread a local episode nationally, with chilling effect.

Rajeev Chandrasekhar, India’s minister of state for electronics and technology, said the government was trying to tackle potential “misinformation and incitement” online while stepping up its digital efforts.

In the case of the Nuh violence, online threats and counter-threats in the days leading up to the march made clear the possibility of an impending spiral, which residents said they ignored by police. The Muslim side was also armed and ready to face the arrival of the Hindu walkers.

Five of the six people killed were Hindus, a mix of day laborers who appeared caught up in the violence and members of the right-wing group. Residents of the Hindu minority are now vulnerable in a district where they say they have survived smoothly even the worst phases of India’s earlier sectarian tensions.

The government, after its initial lax response, responded to the clashes with full force, applying what has become a system of extrajudicial sanctions. Bulldozers were brought in to raze homes and shops – mostly those of Muslims – without legal process and with images broadcast across the country.

The economic consequences of the clashes were immediate and palpable even a month later.

As the violence spread to Gurugram, many offices quickly forced their employees to work from home. City business leaders spoke of a fear they had never felt before.

About 500 families, Hindus and Muslims, had settled in the shadow of the skyscrapers of Gurugram in search of a better life. Today, the majority of Muslims have left.

“It’s fear,” said Sourav Kumar, who works as a security guard.

Other families had piled their belongings – an attached mattress, a few tin boxes, a single bed – outside as they considered their options.

Just days before diplomats arrived in Nuh for the final preparations for the G20, the Hindu group that had organized the march in late July threatened to hold another, even though the state’s BJP government had denied it permission. ‘authorisation.

As the organization continued its efforts, the government reached a characteristic compromise: it escorted the group’s leaders in vans so they could offer prayer at a temple, thus averting another confrontation for now so that the G20 parade can continue.

Suhasini Raj contributed reports.