On September 5 2017, Gauri Lankesh, a firebrand activist-journalist, was shot dead in the southern Indian city of Bangalore. Just forty-eight hours later, Pankaj Mishra, another renowned activist-journalist, was shot in the northern Indian state of Bihar. A preliminary glance at their work reveals the stark difference between the two. They spoke different languages, were occupied by dissimilar local issues, and targeted varying audiences. However, despite habiting different journalistic planets, Indian news outlets like the Hindu and Times of India were quick to notice that the two were ardent critics of Prime Minister Modi, his political party and its Hindu nationalist following. In an increasingly majoritarian and aggressive India, that is a mistake few citizens dare to commit.
Astonishingly, few hours after Gauri’s cold-blooded murder, Hindu nationalists who despise the secular fabric of India’s media (often labeling them as sickulars or presstitutes) swamped social media with messages applauding this gruesome crime. According to them, her killing was justified because she was a communist, an apparent terrorist-sympathizer, an anti-national, and a feminist. Some fanatics used Gauri’s murder as an opportunity to openly threaten other secular journalists. In an independent investigation conducted by the Wire, it was revealed that a majority of these posts came from individuals who were closely affiliated to the BJP, India’s current ruling party. To top it all, a Twitter account followed by Prime Minister Modi posted a tweet openly celebrating Gauri’s assassination.
These murders and the despicable response by India’s right-wing demonstrates the volatility of democratic institutions in India. It has showcased that democratic India’s biggest enemy is not an autocratic leader or a foreign power, but the Indian people themselves. Instead of asking tough questions to the establishment, a majority of Indians have channeled their anger towards the press for flirting with ‘radical’ ideas. Therefore, in the near future, self-censoring induced by a fear of the majority will be a greater threat for independent media than an actual bullet.
India is definitely not an anomaly. History is unfortunately ripe with cases of democracies capitulating to majoritarian pressure. In April, as reported by BBC, Turks voted in favor of a constitutional referendum that greatly expanded the powers of the President and weakened checks and balances on the executive. Brexit, Trump’s election, collapse of Weimar Germany, Charles De Gaulle’s France are just few famous examples of democracies partially surrendering to the will of their own people. In each of these cases, national, ethnic, racial, and religious fundamentalism effectively clouded the moral judgment of the majority, and pushed it towards making a decision against its own interests.
Therefore, to protect democratic culture worldwide, we need to increase our focus on the sources of these contagious and disastrous ideologies. Throughout history, we have chosen to focus on the threat posed by a single individual. Trump, Modi, Erdogan, and Putin are seen as the problem, and removing them is viewed as the solution. For instance, right here in America, liberals have often committed the grave mistake of highlighting Trump as a one-off problem, while ignoring the structural defects that permitted his rise in the first place. Similarly in India, Modi is viewed as the cause of religious fundamentalism, when in fact he is its product. It is high time that we start recognizing the role of the corruptible majority. Only by being honest to ourselves and our fellow citizens can we save democratic culture worldwide.