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Australia’s Woeful Response to Rising Authoritarianism in India

02 Jun 2022
By Dr Nisha Thapliyal and Dr Priya Chacko
84-year old Jesuit priest and indigenous human rights activist Stan Swamy died in prison in 2021 after being denied medical bail.  Source: Khetfield59, Wikimedia,

Australia’s response to India’s deepening authoritarianism has been characterised by silence, pandering, and obfuscation. It is time for Australia to speak up.

Martin Luther King famously said: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” In January this year, Professor Gregory Stanton, founder of Genocide Watch, used these words to call on the international community to take steps to halt India’s slide into authoritarianism and genocide. Sadly, Australia’s response continues to be characterised by silence, pandering and obfuscation.

The election of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government in 2014 was welcomed by Australian leaders. Then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott welcomed Modi to Australia as a brother, hailing their shared democratic values.

 It was soon clear however, that Modi would assert his strong authoritarian tendencies, previously on display during his reign in the state of Gujarat, on the national stage. In 2014, the Modi administration initiated a campaign to intimidate and cancel the licenses of as many as 20,000 foreign-funded charities working on issues of human rights and environmental justice. By 2016, his government had invoked colonial era-sedition laws to repress university student protests.

As Modi was hailed and feted internationally, Hindu nationalists trained by the BJP’s partner, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, National Service Corp) – a hundred-year old organisation modelled on the strategies deployed by Mussolini and Hitler – waged love jihads against inter-religious relationships and mob lynchings of Muslims and Dalits suspected of consuming or selling beef. Modi maintained a studied public silence about assaults on religious and cultural minorities and rapes of Dalit girls and women. The bureaucracy, judiciary, and police were deployed to intimidate, arrest, and imprison civil rights and indigenous activists, journalists, academics, and public intellectuals on grounds of terrorism.

On winning re-election in 2019, Modi revoked constitutional protections that granted autonomous status to Kashmir, shutdown the Internet, and placed politicians and political activists in detention or house arrest for more than seven months. This was followed by anti-constitutional amendments to deny the rights of citizenship to Indian Muslims. The Citizenship Amendment Act 2020 and the National Register of Citizens, have both discriminatory and coercive implications for Muslims in particular because they codify the use of religion as criteria for Indian citizenship. The CAA states that Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis, and Christians from selected neighbouring countries will be granted citizenship on grounds of religious persecution, but not Muslims. The NRC has already been used in the BJP-ruled state of Assam to imprison tens of thousands of impoverished Bengali women and men in inhumane conditions in detention camps because they cannot provide the voluminous documentation required to prove Indian citizenship.

Again, protests were met with violence and imprisonment using sedition laws. The majority of sedition cases have been filed in states ruled by the BJP. Charges have been filed against individuals for holding posters, social media posts and private communications. When Indian farmers braved the COVID-19 pandemic to protest against pro-corporate agricultural legislation, the Modi administration responded with brute force.

In 2021, the Modi government introduced new rules for digital media, intermediaries, and online streaming platforms, which allow the government to issue take-down orders and prosecute media organisations for claims that it considers “insulting,” “libellous,” or “inconsistent.” These rules have been used to issue take-down orders against social media posts, including from verified accounts belonging to opposition politicians, criticising the government’s pandemic response.

The 2022 report of the Varieties of Democracy Institute now classifies India as an electoral autocracy predominantly due to the Indian government’s increased use of sedition charges, police powers, internet blackouts, and new laws to curb dissent and freedom of expression. India’s ranking on the 2022 edition of the World Press Freedom Index fell to its lowest yet – 150 out of 180 countries. Earlier this year, the US Holocaust Memorial Museum warned that, after Pakistan, India is the second most likely country for a genocide to happen in the coming year. What has been the Australian response?

Silence, Pandering and Obfuscation

The Australian government has maintained a studious silence on these developments since 2014 avoiding any criticism of India while trading blows with China about each nation’s human rights record. In March 2020, Australia’s Trade Minister Simon Birmingham led a large trade delegation to the country at the same time as Hindu mobs rioted in Muslim neighbourhoods in the capital city of New Delhi leaving 40 dead and hundreds injured. The violence was instigated by public hate speech against Muslims by a BJP leader. Minister Birmingham had nothing to say at the time.

Other official responses may be aptly described as some combination of pandering and obfuscation. In November 2020, Australian High Commissioner Barry O’ Farrell made a high-profile visit to RSS headquarters to meet with its leaders, ironically following the lead of the German Ambassador. Around the same time, former Prime Minister Scott Morrison began a series of social media-friendly exchanges about samosa and curry recipes with Prime Minister Modi presumably to curry favour with the 700,000 strong Indian – Australian diaspora.

Questioned by an Indian newspaper in 2021 about rising authoritarianism in India, and despite extensive evidence to the contrary, Ambassador O’Farrell launched a perplexing defence of the robustness of Indian democracy: “India has strong institutions that I think support the free and openness here… I’m not aware of there being additional laws that might be described as coercive having been introduced…”

This tendency to obfuscate extends to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which in its 2020 India country report puzzlingly found that Muslims face a low risk of official discrimination and face low levels of societal discrimination and violence.

Similarly, in 2022, as BJP state governments unlawfully bull-dozed Muslim homes as collective punishment to quell dissent and intimidate, former Australian Labor Senator, now the head of the Australia-India Institute, Lisa Singh suggested that she believed that as the “world’s largest democracy” the Indian government is committed to dealing with human rights abuses against Muslims in India. At home too, the majority of Australian leaders have pandered to conservative elements of the Indian diaspora, despite growing reports of hate speech in the online communities affiliated with these organisations.

On the campaign trail in the 2022 federal election, Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese happily posed for photos in the saffron scarves of the Hindu nationalist organisation the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) while visiting conservative diaspora Hindu organisations. Morrison and Albanese’s smiles indicated a blissful lack of understanding that this saffron scarf is synonymous with hate and violence for many Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Adivasis, and Dalits in India and the Indian diaspora.

Last week, the Australia-India Youth Dialogue (AIYD) announced that Tejasvi Surya, RSS member and a rising star in the BJP, was to be a delegate to its 2022 Conference in Australia. In his brief political career, Surya has gained notoriety for his misogynistic, Islamophobic, and ultra-nationalist comments.  His inclusion as a youth leader in a forum which has always demonstrated respect for diversity and inclusion is baffling to say the least.

Fortunately, the entire Australian political establishment cannot be said to have its head stuck in the sand like the proverbial ostrich. Efforts to raise awareness have been spearheaded by Indian diaspora community members: artists, community organisations, and progressive ethnic news media outlets. In response, members of state and federal Greens have worked with some of these activists and Amnesty International Australia to hold two Parliamentary hearings on human rights violations in India in October and November 2020. Also due to the increase in community activism, local councillors and mainstream Australian news media reports on India are now paying more attention to the assaults on religious, press and civic freedoms in India, their impact on Australia, and the response of the Australian government (or lack thereof). We hope that members of the newly elected federal parliament will respond to these initiatives and speak up for human rights and democracy as a true friend to the people of India.

Nisha Thapliyal is Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle. Her areas of research and teaching include comparative education, international development, and peace studies.

Priya Chacko is Senior Lecturer at the University of Adelaide. Her areas of research and teaching include authoritarian populism, neoliberalism, economic nationalism and foreign policy with a focus on India, Australia and the Asia-Pacific region.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.