‘Our Rule of Law is Under Attack From Our Own Government, But the World Does Not See This’

Mike Herd, Investigations Editor, The Conversation: Here’s a story about an authoritarian leader of a global power who wants to bend the country in his image. He follows the populist leader “playbook” closely – non-elite outsider, religious conservative, ruthless strongman yet not afraid to cry in public. But above all, he has realized that to attain true control of his country, he needs to capture and control the legal system and its highest power, the supreme court. This in-depth feature is not about Trump, Putin or Xi, but India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi. On April 19, Modi will begin his quest to win a third consecutive term in charge of the world’s most populous country. For as long as he has been in power, legal anthropologist Sandhya Fuchs, who grew up in rural India, has been researching human rights and hate crime law in India. She has got to know many senior lawyers who say they are now terrified by the dismantling of their country’s once admired legal system – and by what further steps will be taken if, as expected, Modi triumphs in the impending election.

by Sandhya Fuchs, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam: On a crisp winter morning in February 2023, I meet one of my South Delhi neighbours, a lawyer in India’s supreme court, in a local cafe. As an avid promoter of religious minority rights, known for his commitment to the principles of equality that were enshrined in the constitution after India gained independence in 1947, I am taken aback by the gravity of the fears this lawyer reveals to me over coffee. He worries not only about the future of India’s legal system, but the country itself:

International news describes India as the world’s largest democracy – but this democracy is rotting from within. Our rule of law is under attack from our own government, and the world does not see this.

The lawyer’s pessimism had deepened with the recent news that the Indian government was pushing for a more substantial role in judicial appointments to the supreme court. Weeks earlier, it had blocked the nominations of four new judges proposed by a “collegium” made up of India’s five most senior current supreme court judges.

The lawyer explained how this collegium had been an important safeguard of Indian judicial independence for the past 25 years. Now, however, the government was claiming that, “for reasons of transparency”, it should have a bigger say in the selection of supreme court judges. A tone of despair in his voice, my coffee companion concluded:

This isn’t about transparency. This is yet another instance of this government trying to erode the rule of law from within. Soon, we will be a country run by legal mafia authoritarianism.

Eradication of democracy

India is a global power on the rise. In April 2023, the UN announced it had overtaken China as the world’s most populous nation. During his visit to the US in June 2023, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, invited world leaders to a yoga session on the White House lawn. A few months later, he hosted the G20 summit of the world’s most powerful leaders in Delhi.

Under Modi, India has worked hard to develop a global image as a nation that combines economic and technological innovation with a deep respect for ancient religious practices. This image was cemented by the inauguration of a huge new Hindu temple in the northern city of Ayodhya in January 2024. The inauguration lasted several days and saw diplomats, Bollywood actors and internationally renowned Hindu religious figures flock to pay their respects.

But behind these glossy images, a different story is unfolding within India – one that government critics say is marked by exclusion, violence, and the gradual eradication of the Indian democratic project.

Since first coming to power in 2014, Modi and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have embarked on an agenda of majoritarian Hindu nationalism. Led by the ideology of Hindutva, which perceives India’s history to be inextricably linked with Hindu religious practice, and with the help of a hand-picked committee of advisers, they have pursued a vision of India as a country run by Hindus for Hindus…

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