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Blind nationalism polarising India, displacing democracy

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Picture: AFP – Kitemaker Jagmohan Kanojia displays kites adorned with images of Indian freedom fighters before of the country’s 75th Independence Day in Amritsar on August 13, 2022.

By Rana Ayyub

To celebrate 75 years of independence, the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked people to proudly display the tricolour of the Indian flag – well, perhaps “asked” is not quite accurate.

An initiative spearheaded by Modi’s most radical nationalist minister, Amit Shah, is urging people to display flags at homes and businesses and post pictures on social media. But of course this could only lead to more polarisation in Modi’s India, where blind nationalism is displacing democracy at a rapid pace. In a viral video, daily wage workers complain about being forced to buy flags to “prove” their patriotism, when they barely have enough to buy a meal.

Modi’s Har ghar tiranga (“tricolour in every house”) campaign has become yet another a tool of distraction for what really matters. As India grapples with an economic crisis – with the rupee plunging to historic lows – and the pain of rising unemployment is felt on the streets, the Modi government decided to announce an ambitious plan: display at least 200 million flags by August 15 – India’s independence day.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures after addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort during the celebrations to mark country’s Independence Day in New Delhi on August 15, 2022. Modi’s Har ghar tiranga (“tricolour in every house”) campaign has become yet another a tool of distraction for what really matters – an economic crisis, with the rupee plunging to historic lows, the pain of rising unemployment, the writer says. Picture: Money Sharma/AFP

In the middle of serious challenges, one would have expected India’s government to use the independence celebration to call for the strengthening of the country’s founding values – democracy, inclusiveness, freedom of expression. Instead, there are ugly displays of patriotic fervour and institutional discrimination. In the state of Uttarakhand, ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, the state leader asked his supporters to take pictures of households that did not display the national flag. WhatsApp groups among relatives, colleagues and friends descended into virtual “us” versus “them” slugfests over the flag.

In India, patriotism has become a toxic performance. A Muslim friend who works in finance and lives in an exclusive neighbourhood in Mumbai found himself removed from his office WhatsApp group because he refused to change his profile picture to the national flag. “I did not change my display picture. I felt pressured. I was being singled out with every third person asking me to change it. I did not want to be coerced into proving my patriotism,” he said. In a room full of people, he was told in no uncertain terms that he was not loyal to India.

There’s little to celebrate this independence day. The past eight years have made India a global cause of alarm, as the Modi government has subverted democracy in favour of his own brand of autocratic Hindu nationalism. India has fallen to the 150th position in the World Press Freedom Index as journalists are arrested every odd day over tweets or for reporting critical stories. Hate crimes against Muslims have been normalised to the extent that news channels do not even consider them worthy of coverage any more. Freedom House downgraded India from “free” to “partially free” in its annual report over attacks and discrimination of religious minorities and the weaponising of government agencies against critics.

For the fourth consecutive year, India suffered the dubious distinction of leading the list of countries with the most internet shutdowns. For the first time in the history of India, the country faced an unprecedented diplomatic backlash by 20 countries over a government spokesperson’s insulting remarks against Islam.The country’s powerful film industry has set out to dehumanise Muslims and promote Islamophobia. And the country continues to fail many of its most vulnerable citizens. In the Global Hunger Index, India ranks 101 out of 116 countries.

On the eve of the 75th independence day, those who fought and gave their lives for India’s freedom are being derided. Gandhi’s contribution to the freedom movement is being questioned, while his assassins are glorified. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of independent India, is being excluded and his legacy besmirched. There have been no references to him in official communications. Nehru’s iconic speech on the eve of independence, “Tryst With Destiny”, laid the foundation for an inclusive India. Clearly there’s no room for that in Modi’s vision.

This Independence Day , the Indian government asked only one thing of its citizens: Let’s raise up our flags. Let’s raise the tricolour everywhere – to cover up the injustice, the poverty and desperation, the vindictive and pervasive cruelty of a government that has only succeeded in making us less independent and more narrow-minded.

Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up”.

The article was first published in The Washington Post.