Global Ethics Weekly: Citizenship, Social Media, & the Indian Election, with Kavitha Rajagopalan
May 1, 2019
ALEX WOODSON: Welcome to Global Ethics Weekly. I'm Alex Woodson from Carnegie Council in New York City.
Today I spoke with Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Kavitha Rajagopalan about the ongoing Indian election. Kavitha has written and lectured extensively on global migration and urban immigrant communities. She has worked as a journalist in the United States, India, and Germany. Kavitha is also the author of Muslims of Metropolis: The Stories of Three Immigrant Families in the West.
In our previous podcasts Kavitha and I have focused mainly on migration, refugees, and asylum laws. You can find all of those on carnegiecouncil.org, including our most recent ones touching on the Christchurch attack and the crisis in Venezuela.
Before we start, I want to give some quick background on the elections in India: There are 900 million eligible voters. The election began on April 11 and will end on May 19, the votes counted on May 23. Voters will be electing a new Lok Sabha, the Lower House of Parliament. There are 543 seats in that body.
India has a parliamentary system, so our talk today will focus mostly on the race for prime minister. In the simplest terms, the race is between Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the current prime minister elected in 2014, and Rahul Gandhi, president of the Indian National Congress. Gandhi is not related to Mahatma Gandhi, but he is the great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first and longest serving prime minister, and his grandmother and father also both served as prime minister.
With that background, here's my talk with Kavitha Rajagopalan.
Kavitha, thank you for coming back today. It's always good to see you.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's my pleasure. I love being back here.
ALEX WOODSON: We're going to talk about the ongoing Indian elections today. They started on April 11 and will end on May 19, so we're right in the middle of them now.
What are the stakes in this election? It looks very clear that Narendra Modi is going to win another term as prime minister. So what are the stakes in this election and what in essence are the Indian people really voting for in 2019?
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: I think this is going to be the consolidation of India as a Hindu state. I think we've already seen a lot of laws that are kind of leading up to this and we've seen a lot of changes, social and political changes, leading up to this that encompass not only economic and social rights but also citizenship rights and the concept of what India is as a nation. I think ever since 1947 and India's independence alongside Pakistan's there has been the ongoing question of what the bright line around "Indianness" is.
Certainly with the rise of the BJP, and most aggressively under the Modi regime, we have seen this very clear and very forceful statement emerge from the Indian electorate and also from the highest levels to the lowest levels of government that that bright line is Hinduism. India is a Hindu state and you either are going to be a kind of a satellite resident with a lower status if you are not a Hindu or you are welcome to leave or you will be forced out. This has been, I think, the highest set of stakes here.
There are also a lot of economic issues at play. Modi was elected to power on a very clear and significant economic mandate in 2016, and I think that continues to be the case.
I recently saw a survey of some 273,000 Indians. Now, of course, we haven't been able to verify that survey, where these people were polled from. I think they were polled from pretty much every electoral district, but we don't know what their education status is or otherwise who those people really are. But 273,000 people is a reasonable sample size. The top concern continues to be employment. Really, the top three concerns are all economic concerns—access to health care, access to jobs, clean drinking water—safe and repaired roads, infrastructure issues, not dissimilar from the United States.
So Modi was brought into power with the concept that he was going to lead to the economic resurgence of India and also its solidification as a global superpower that is also a Hindu superpower.
Now, if he is elected again, which it does seem very clear that he will be, if his party is elected and he is declared prime minister again, I think it's very clear at this point that what we are seeing is that the Indian electoral population has completely accepted that story and that there's really very little questioning of it, which is very interesting.
If you look at Indian press coverage now, in the last decade or so there has been a proliferation of online non-traditional Indian media outlets, like Scroll or to a certain extent Quartz India. A number of these online outlets are advancing a more critical voice, a more secularist voice, a voice that's calling for an India that encapsulates Gandhi's and Nehru's vision of India, which is secular, egalitarian, maybe a little bit socialist if not outright communist. It's very clear that that voice does not represent the majority view in India.
Now, again, this question of majority is also very much at stake here. What is the majority and how do we define the majority?
India, as we know, is a new state born in 1947. Its constitution really only came into effect in 1950. At that time this concept of citizenship was still being contested. In fact, until 1955 Indian residents in this new state were still largely subjects of the British Empire; they were considered British subjects.
There are a lot of citizenship scholars to this day who ask us to really interrogate what we mean by citizenship, and India is a perfect case study of this. Citizenship is supposed to be about belonging and about the values of advancement towards a more egalitarian view of the self in relation to the world. But in reality, citizenship in a place like India, a postcolonial state, very much orients itself to this imperial subject mentality.
There is a scholar named Gianfranco Poggi, who is a scholar of citizenship, and he uses this concept to frame citizenship where he says that really what we need to look at is the vantage point of the state. In a state like India, especially now, with the ascendance of religious nationalism and the economic nationalism that is also very much oriented to this very clearly high-caste, almost Romanic, vision of Hinduism, I think it's very clear that that vantage point does have more in common with the relationship of empire to subject than of citizen to other citizen. Entering into a citizenship contract with a state that has that vantage point means accepting that view of power and your place as subject. I think that's really what's at stake here.
India is very much at this point becoming a Hindu nationalist state, and those people who don't fall within that identity—whether you are a secularist or a communist or an organizer or a caste activist or a Muslim or someone from a religious minority group, and now increasingly a person whose immigration status is irregular—I think you are going to have to find your way through the margins.
ALEX WOODSON: Speaking about these questions of citizenship, how does that play out in terms of voter disenfranchisement? We always hear that India is the world's largest democracy. I believe there are 900 million eligible voters.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes.
ALEX WOODSON: But I know that in the state of Assam there are some voter laws.
What does this look like in this election, this question of voter disenfranchisement, for the Indian people?
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: In a place like India there's always a gap between the ideal, the letter of the law, and to what extent a person can access rights.
There are so many different barriers to accessing a right that's constitutionally enshrined. The biggest barrier, of course, is just poverty, education—if you are not a literate person, then it's very difficult to access your voting rights. This is an issue that has been manipulated a lot in Indian elections. A very large percentage of Indian voters are in fact illiterate or extremely impoverished or low-income, and so there's a lot of manipulation of that.
Throughout the history of Indian elections—local, municipal, all the way up to the highest levels—there has been a pretty clear effort to buy votes with cash handouts or with other types of access to opportunities, which in an economy that is characterized by a high degree of scarcity and lack of access is very compelling. So, in a place like India you have this challenge in general, just sort of baked into the system.
It's a huge, huge country. I think it's very difficult for us here, of a country of 300 million with the amount of space that we have, to fully understand what it feels like to be in a country of 1.3 billion people in a size that's one-third the size of America. So the concept of scarcity and jockeying for access is very much a part of daily life in India.
Against that backdrop there have been a number of efforts that have been undertaken by various regimes, not just by the BJP regime, to deal with this problem of corruption, bribery, and fraud that's rampant in any society that has this number of people and this level of competition for scarce resources.
And also, there are some pretty significant gaps in infrastructure and services. There are so many people competing, there are all kinds of systems of bribery and corruption that are in place.
Against that backdrop, in 2009 there was a voluntary program that was introduced that basically created what has now become the largest biometric database in the world. It's called the Aadhaar database. It's a voluntary ID, I think a 10- or 12-digit ID, that you can get by submitting biographic and demographic data. It's supposed to be voluntary, but a lot of people have gone for it.
Over the last decade since it was introduced—it was really introduced as a way to reduce fraud and corruption; and false pretense certainly in welfare situations where people were getting access to services at a greater rate and to the exclusion of people who rightfully deserved them. It was meant to combat corruption.
Now, in the last decade, this database is being increasingly being used in a very forceful way. I think there is, I think, something like 22 different welfare programs that now require the use of this biometric data.
What's difficult is that a very large percentage of India's population does not have residency that's fixed. There's a lot of people who are cyclical migrants, internal migrants; there are a lot of people who live in informal settlements or slums. While there are some places that are like legal registered slums, if you are legally registered in a legal registered slum in certain cities, then you have access to municipal registration, you have access to social services and benefits. But if you are in an informal settlement or an informal slum, which happens a lot in places with bursting populations in cities across India, then you don't have access to this; then you can't register for a municipal ID, you can't register for Aadhaar, and increasingly you can't register for voter registration.
Anyone who is 18 years of age and hasn't committed crimes meant to disturb electoral processes or commit fraud in the intent of disturbing elections—I think there are two categories of crime that discount you from accessing your voting rights in India, and as far as I understand they are all involved with whether you've committed a crime against the election system. But everybody else should theoretically be able to vote.
Now, the main problem here is you're supposed to get a voter registration in the city of your residence. India is a country that is profoundly on the move.
I just recently was reading some article—again this is polling surveys. I don't know how accurate this is, but it said something like 45 percent of people under the age of, I think, 35 or something like that are living outside of their city of registration.
And it's expensive to travel within India. The train systems are extremely crowded, overburdened, so most business travelers use air travel now inside India. It's expensive. I mean it's not affordable for a lot of people. Traveling inside India is exhausting, it is costly. There are a lot of air options, but they are expensive. And the roads are congested, traffic is a challenge.
So I'm fairly certain that even among the higher-educated population of business travelers, we can count on a lot of people just not making it back to their city of registration to vote.
Now we also have a large number of people who are seasonal migrants and otherwise marginalized people who are not going to be able to register in the first place.
On top of that, in 2015 the election commission, in order to reduce the risk of fraud, undertook this whole process to kind of purify and authenticate voter rolls. Now here's the kicker: as it turns out, the election commission used Aadhaar to verify and authenticate voters.
Now, this is a voluntary system. The Supreme Court has ruled in a number of different cases that this is voluntary and Aadhaar should not be used, biometrics should not be used, to exclude people. But it's there, it's this ID. It has been pushed very much, certainly by the BJP and the Modi government, to very clearly draw again a bright line around who is a "legitimate" person in the country.
So this ID, this voluntary ID, kind of like a driver's license really—you can't travel across international borders with it—but this ID was used to purge millions and millions of people from voter rolls.
When partition happened, when the British ended their rule on the subcontinent, India and Pakistan were both created. Pakistan was basically separated by a couple thousand miles of India; there was an East Pakistan and a West Pakistan. East Pakistan fought for its independence and eventually became Bangladesh.
During that war there were millions of refugees fleeing over the border into India. At that time India opened up itself to many of these refugees who were fleeing starvation and extreme violence. There has been an ongoing challenge in Indian society around how to deal with the descendants of refugees who fled there.
There is also a number of refugees, Hindu citizens of Pakistan, who during partition fled into India. All of these different populations struggle to some extent with statelessness.
As I mentioned, the Indian Citizenship Act was created in 1955. There have been several amendments over the years.
In 2004—this is again long before the Modi regime—there was an amendment to the Citizenship Act. There had been a slow and steady move in India towards citizenship being a blood citizenship rather than a birthright. So in that 2004 amendment, which I think is now fully law, in order to be born a citizen India both of your parents have to be citizens. So if one of your parents is declared an illegal immigrant or an illegal alien, then you are essentially born stateless; you are born an illegal immigrant.
Now, what has been happening over the last 10 or 15 years is a growing effort to expand the number of people who are defined as illegal in India and to basically correlate and conflate illegality with Islam.
In 2016 there was another proposed amendment to the Citizenship Act. I think there has been a full-on new law that was proposed, I think, maybe in November of 2018, under the Modi regime, that really duplicates this 2016 amendment.
The 2016 amendment has not yet been adopted. But essentially that amendment was saying that people who are illegal migrants may now have a path to citizenship unless they are Muslim. If you are an undocumented or an illegal immigrant in India, then you can have access to a path to citizenship if you are a Jain, if you are a Buddhist, if you are a Hindu, even if you're Christian, but not if you're Muslim. It's literally written in the amendment.
ALEX WOODSON: How does that work? It seems pretty blatant.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: It's pretty blatant. But that's what it is. It's there in the law.
ALEX WOODSON: I guess a better way to ask that is, what's the justification for that?
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: I think this goes back to—there was a book called Paper Citizens that did a really great job of disentangling this concept of citizenship and documentedness.
In a place like India, in many countries in the world, you can be documented and still not be a citizen. You can have a certain type of ID that has limited access. That's actually true here as well. Unless you have full citizenship rights, then you have restricted rights. In India there are not very clear pathways to receiving citizenship.
I believe in the past you had to be able to demonstrate uninterrupted residency for about 11 years in order to be naturalized. That's kind of wild, right?
ALEX WOODSON: Yeah.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: And you couldn't have dual citizenship in India. But, by the same token, several years back India created—mostly at the demands of people like me who were descendants of Indian citizens who live in the United States or in Europe who are economically powerful and sending a lot of remittances—people have been advocating for a long time for the creation of dual citizenship for people who want to work in India, invest in India, buy property, all of these things. There was a category that was created—I believe it was over a decade ago—called the Persons of Indian Origin.
Then also on the heels of that there was a new category that was created called Overseas Citizenship of India. Overseas Citizens of India theoretically should not be able to vote in Indian elections, and you aren't theoretically supposed to be able to buy land with that, but you can appeal for exceptions.
So if I, as somebody over here, living here, born here, clearly American, can access an Overseas Citizenship, but somebody who was born on Indian soil to a Muslim person whose family has been there for three generations cannot access any version of citizenship, I think that's a very clear illustration that this concept of citizenship is inconsistent at best and flawed.
In this book Paper Citizens what [Kamal Sadiq] really illustrates very clearly is that this concept of citizenship has since the inception of the Indian state really been defined as in opposition to Pakistan. Since Pakistan declared itself an Islamic republic, India has slowly over the subsequent decades since the declaration of this Islamic republic moved towards declaring itself a Hindu republic.
What it means to be a Hindu republic is also a little more complicated. Hinduism is a complicated faith. There are so many different ways to be Hindu. There are so many subsects and ways of worship. The identity of Hinduism is defined in many parts of the country in the relationship between a student and a teacher. So it is really largely defined to many Hindus as whatever that teacher teaches, like that philosophical interpretation of that specific teacher. The philosophy itself, deep Vedanta philosophy, is not something that is a part of daily life for most Hindus.
So what it means to be a Hindu is—there's so much diversity within Hinduism. There are people who are atheists who consider themselves Hindu. There are people who are radical revolutionaries who consider themselves Hindu. And then there are people who are super-orthodox, traditionalist, honor violence practitioners who consider themselves Hindus.
I think a religion that's that old, that encompasses that many different philosophical schools, and schools of interpretive practice, and different articles of faith, different ways of accepting your identity or performing your relationship with the divine—I mean there are really so many different ways that you could define a Hindu state.
What has happened really is that the BJP and the Modi regime and the Bhakts who follow them and carry out their propaganda mission have created a very narrow and specific definition of Hinduism that is now being correlated with the Indian state overall.
ALEX WOODSON: Social media is also a big story in the Indian elections. Narendra Modi is a great user of social media—I mean "great" in a few different ways.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Effective, skilled.
ALEX WOODSON: Yes.
There was a Washington Post article by Joyojeet Pal recently. In relation to social media, Pal wrote that "Modi is arguably the only world leader who offers as much of a case study as President Trump. But in contrast to Trump's bombastic style, Modi's social media presence—which spans a wide array of platforms and apps—is curated and toned to perfection."
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes.
ALEX WOODSON: The article went on to say that Modi has a YouTube channel with yoga poses and all these different apps that I've never even heard of.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Modi has his own app, which I think is really fascinating. I don't know if you saw this, but I was reading another article that was talking about fake news and social media, online media. Apparently, in India there was a series of Android phones that hit the market that came preloaded with the Modi app.
ALEX WOODSON: Wow!
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: And then those phones were often free giveaways at rallies.
Remember we were talking earlier about the concept of free giveaways? It's not like a quid pro quo for buying a boat, but free giveaways are a really big part of Indian political life.
I remember very clearly when I was little walking past local political rallies, political events, in my father's hometown of Chennai and people would just be so excited that so-and-so politician was handing out free saris, and that was kind of the rationale for voting.
I think this is very, very important for people to understand, that political organizing in India is very much a "by any means necessary" enterprise. It is effective. It is powerful. The Indian political machine—in India if a political party that has power on the national level declares a strike, like 200 million people will stay home. You cannot even imagine the scale of that machine politics here in the United States.
So how is that machine so effective? In the past there was a lot of strong-arming. Political parties had militias. They had goonda squads that would enforce. They also had freebies and giveaways. Many, many political parties have done this on all different levels.
There are canteens that are set up in the name of certain political leaders where somebody can get a free or low-cost meal. That means so much in a place like India where food prices are so incredibly high. People are spending 60 to 70 percent of their income and their wages on food. So if you can go to the Amma Canteen in downtown Madras and get yourself a nice meal for 2 rupees, that means a lot. I mean that's not just buying your loyalty, that's feeding your family.
So free giveaways, this relationship of handouts, is a really big part not only of Indian political life but of the cult of personality.
That comes down to in the old days a very big part of village life and being a leader in Indian Hindu society in the panchayats and in the villages was about charity and donation and poor feeding. To this day most people will include poor feeding as a part of their weddings. In the old days on your 80th birthday they would have a big—it was like a party and a renewal of vows. But now they do it on people's 60th birthday because a lot of people are now widowed by the age of 80. So for your wedding, you would do a poor feeding. And for the birth of your child, especially if it's a son, or if you have an illness in your family—you know, poor feeding is a very big part of patronage culture and leadership identity in Indian society and in Hindu society.
That has been a dominant feature of political life since the beginning of the Indian state. There has been a long history of political leaders who were actors, and maybe they played a religious figure or they played a god in a movie or a TV series, and somehow that infuses that person, who's just some random actor, with a divine aspect or divine qualities, and then that person would use the symbolism of that divine aspect to appeal to voters.
And then, all across main boulevards in Indian cities you'll see 200-foot-tall cut-outs of these political figures. I mean can you imagine? Now, I guess, it's becoming more believable. I can imagine driving through parts of America and seeing a 200-foot cut-out of Trump. But even 15, 20 years ago that was not a part of American political life. The cult of personality was really secondary. Even in the culture wars, your own cultural identity was more important than the identity of your political representatives. They had to speak to your identity, but it was really more about you and your own ego.
In India the cult of personality very much draws from Hindu social traditions and political traditions and Hindu forms of presenting oneself as a guru and a leader and having a divine mandate to speak and serve and lead. I don't think that's something that's going away. In fact, I think it's something that has become even more infused in political life with the ascendance of the BJP.
ALEX WOODSON: And Modi seems like he has been able to translate that to social media.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I think anyone who is active, any person of Indian descent who writes about social justice issues or women's rights, feminism, who speaks out against any kind of prejudice or discrimination—I think we've all experienced this. Online, certainly on Twitter and very much elsewhere, there are professionally employed armies of social media workers who will identify and isolate dissenting voices.
This has translated to a far-reaching propaganda campaign. Now, you know that in a place like India everyone is super-online. It's not the way that you would think about it here. I mean there's something like 230 million WhatsApp users and something like 300 million Facebook users.
ALEX WOODSON: I was just reading that one-sixth of WhatsApp users in India are on chat groups started by political parties.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, political parties start chat groups.
We may have some experience with this here in the United States with MoveOn and other online stuff, but it's very, very clear and obvious.
The propaganda is not subtle, and there's a lot of it. Just like you said, this is not that Modi is getting on there and trashing political opponents. He has IT officers who are charged with creating chat groups, who are charged with combating critics. They're on payroll. That is their job. They are on payroll by the federal government to combat critics. That's a level of complication that I don't think we can fully comprehend here.
ALEX WOODSON: It sounds a little similar to what they're doing in Russia with their Internet Research Agency.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes.
What's also extremely troubling about all of this is how effective it is.
ALEX WOODSON: Yes.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: People are very, very vulnerable to bias. People have biases, and to see someone in a position of authority speak to and inflame those biases is very, very powerful.
I think what's interesting is in a lot of pre-election coverage there was a lot of talk about the fake news issue and how so much of what was coming out of social media—I mean, as you'll remember in the run-up to the election there have been, especially on WhatsApp and in Facebook, a lot of videos that have fomented and incited actual outright violence. I think something like two dozen people have been murdered by lynch mobs that have been incited by some fake news that was circulated on WhatsApp.
As a result, I think, after that news started coming out and making its way out into the Western world—of course nobody really cares what's happening inside India, which is so horrible—but once that started making its way out, I think WhatsApp finally put some limitations as to the size of people who could be on WhatsApp chat groups and the type of content they could share. I think they put restrictions around certain kinds of videos or images couldn't be shared to groups larger than this. But then the propaganda machine was able to respond by creating smaller chat groups or empowering its group to create smaller chat groups.
So the fake news issue is an issue. It's a challenge. People are very motivated by lies and fake news. There has been a huge proliferation of fake news.
But I think the far bigger challenge, and I think one that speaks to a lot of elections globally—certainly the Israeli election recently and here, and just in generally to ascendant nationalism and white nationalism in the West—is that we have these incredibly polarized cultures where even a true thing is freighted with so much subtext and dog whistles that someone can say a true thing, a politician can say a factually accurate thing, and incite an emotional borderline violent response just by how that thing is said.
So I think this is a true challenge for the Indian press. The Indian press is extremely powerful and inspiring. There is such a vibrant free press in India that it's beyond imagining in the United States in the age of entertainment-based news.
The number of people who access and use the free press in India and its place in the history of Indian democracy—during Indira Gandhi's Emergency and beyond, the Indian press has been a voice for reason and for investigation and for insight and information for people in a way that isn't fully comprehensible to Western audiences. And yet, at the same time, there is no way that the press can fail to be affected and altered by a politically polarized culture.
So now, for an outsider, we know that press coverage in the West of India is always very shallow, very simplistic, flawed, unable to fully capture the accuracy and the complexity of political life in India. In the past I used to be able to read the Indian press. There were certain national English-language publications that I could read and I could get a full sense of what was happening. But now, from the outside, without being on Indian soil and a part of the society and really fully absorbing the news cycle there, most of the time I have no idea what I'm actually looking at. It's like trying to compare Fox News and MSNBC. I have no idea. The content is so different. The dog whistles are so loud and so deeply buried in the content that it's very difficult to fully interpret what's actually happening if you're an outsider. So I can appreciate that.
But let's take an example. Some time back there was a very interesting incident in which two women made their way illegally into the Sabarimala temple in Kerala in the South of India in Thiruvananthapuram, which had banned women from entering into it forever basically, for many years. The Supreme Court had declared that no temple can actually bar access to women. On the basis of that Supreme Court ruling, these two women had gone in.
What was interesting is that one of the women is a pronounced atheist and a communist activist for the Communist Party. But what was really moving was that in the media coverage overseas we saw that several million women had created a human chain to protect these women as they passed.
Now, if you read a little bit deeper, the coverage was all here's this patriarchal institution that's committing honor violence, it's keeping women out, and the Supreme Court has ruled that this was illegal, so here's a human chain created by something like five miles' worth of feminist activists—actually, I think it was even longer; I think it was like 20 miles of feminist activists [Editor's note: The human chain extended for around 390 miles.]—creating a human chain to create passage for these women, historic event, blah, blah, blah.
But if you look at it on the ground, this speaks again to the power of the organizing machine. The Communist Party is extremely powerful in Kerala. A number of the women who were there were coming out of loyalty to the party, not necessarily to the feminist cause. A number of the women on the line did even support the idea of keeping women out of Sabarimala out of tradition. So there's complexity. There's nuance.
I think feminism in India is so powerful because it's extremely local, because it's very much rooted in giving local women access to economic opportunities, rights and freedoms and protections in a specific place. It doesn't fit in with these global narratives.
But what we have now in a country like India, which is really a global superpower, that is increasingly a Hindu nationalist state, is that these dog whistles that are happening inside Indian society are also drawing from what's happening in other parts of the world. In India for a long time citizenship and illegality and illegal citizenship has had this Islamophobic component to it. But now globally we have this dialogue in which citizenship and illegality in Europe and the United States is also infused with Islamophobic rhetoric. That then feeds into that.
So then you create these kinds of false lines between atheists and Hindu nationalists, between communists and traditionalists, between feminists and honor violence proponents. And that's not really how it looks on the ground. On the ground things are drawing from their own traumatized citizenship history as post-colonial subjects in opposition to the Pakistan experiment and the trauma of partition; and also just the challenge of the incomplete bureaucracy in a state that is overburdened and overstretched; and with population growth the way that it is, especially in the wake of very clear British policies to contribute to the mass starvation of people in order to combat population proliferation, and general Indian-inherited shame around population growth. I think there are so many different aspects of political life that are rooted in that particular experience and in the traumas of that soil.
And then, layered to that, the nature of political lift, with the guru cult, with the social and political power of Bollywood, of international dollars coming in from brain-drain citizens in Europe and in the United States, and the influence of those ideas on the creation of new media companies and alternate citizenship categories and economic power. And then, add to that the globalization of Islamophobia, the growth of international migration, the rise of refugee crises in neighboring countries.
You know, you have a very complicated place. I just don't think that our international press is doing a very good job of conveying the challenges and the triumphs and the realities of democracy in this, the world's largest democracy.
ALEX WOODSON: Yes.
I was going to ask another question, but I think that sums it up really well.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you.
I do want to mention one last thing. In that survey that we talked about before of 273,000 Indian citizens and voters, they had a ranking of people's top concerns. Only 3 percent of those surveyed said that terrorism was a major concern. Terrorism is a huge part of the Modi regime's rhetoric.
ALEX WOODSON: This leads into the question I was going to ask, which is about the Sri Lankan attack.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: It was horrible and extremely heartbreaking.
ALEX WOODSON: I believe ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] has claimed responsibility for that.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: Yes.
ALEX WOODSON: I would imagine this plays into Modi's message.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: I don't think anyone would begrudge India for dealing very strictly with terrorism. There is a lot of risk inside India of terrorist groups and jihadi groups.
But again, the picture is so complicated. A lot of the challenge we see is that in India the idea of antiterrorism strategy is being conflated with citizenship and just in general depriving Muslim citizens of rights and access, denying Muslim migrants the opportunity to access citizenship and rights; especially as we deal with the Assamese question, the statelessness question, this refugee issue and this issue of naturalization for people of Muslim descent who have been there for several generations, and now as we face this ongoing challenge of the Rohingya refugee crisis in that region. I really think there needs to be a lot more effort on the part of leaders to really understand who terrorists are aside from what their faith affiliation is.
There is no way that we can deny that Islam and Islamist identity is a big motivating factor for those who ascribe to that militant ideology. But to say that those people are representative or are embedded or being protected is one and the same as Muslim citizens of India is to say that all these white nationalists who carry out violent crimes in New Zealand or here in the United States are representative of Christianity. That's a very obvious point, but I think it bears repeating again.
ALEX WOODSON: Yes.
KAVITHA RAJAGOPALAN: And here we have a regime that is not interested in that subtlety, in making that point.
It's saying: "In order to protect the Indian state, regardless of how many of those citizens are Muslim, we are going to declare Muslims not only as outsiders but as enemies and disenfranchise them, deport them, and strip them of their citizenship, of their voting rights, in larger and larger numbers."
So it's a huge vulnerability for the Indian state, and that just feeds into jihadist/Islamist narratives. It's a measure that has been taken in the name of protecting the Indian state on behalf of the very small percentage of the voting public that really cares about that issue. I mean everybody cares about staying safe from violence and violent crime, but if that's not a priority for voters and if what you're doing is in fact destabilizing the situation further, who is actually served by that?
ALEX WOODSON: That was Carnegie Council Senior Fellow Kavitha Rajagopalan. She is the author of Muslims of Metropolis.
I'm Alex Woodson. Thanks for listening to Global Ethics Weekly.