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Indian social media is a brutal place, a window on the everyday hatred and violence that has come to colonize the country in the nine years since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power. But the images from the northeastern state of Manipur that began circulating in July were shocking even by those low standards.
A video clip showed two women being sexually assaulted as they were paraded, naked, by a crowd of men who later gang-raped one of them, according to a police complaint. The horrific scene was part of an explosion of ethnic violence since May that has turned the small state into a war zone, killing more than 150 people and displacing tens of thousands.
The state has a long history of ethnic animosities that predate Mr. Modi’s rise. But the fuse for the current unrest in Manipur was lit by the politics of Hindu supremacy, xenophobia and religious polarization championed by his Bharatiya Janata Party.
India is a diverse nation, crisscrossed by religious, ethnic, caste, regional and political fault lines. Since Mr. Modi took office in 2014, his ruling party has torn those asunder with dangerous exclusionary politics intended to charge up the party’s base and advance its goal of remaking India’s secular republic into a majoritarian Hindu state. The repugnant nature of this brand of politics has been clear for some time, but the situation in Manipur shows what’s ahead for India: The world’s most populous country is slowly degenerating into a conflict zone of sectarian violence.
Under Mr. Modi’s government, the state monopoly on violence is being surrendered to extremists and vigilantes. Those targeted by the kind of mob violence that we are seeing in India may conclude that equal rights are no longer guaranteed, that political differences can no longer be peacefully reconciled or fairly mediated and that violence is the only way for them to resist.
The targeting of minorities — particularly Muslims — by right-wing Hindu extremists is now a way of life in many states. Vigilante mobs, who often assemble provocatively in front of mosques, regularly assault Muslims as understaffed and underequipped police fail to intervene. Lynchings and open calls for genocide are common. India now ranks among the top 10 countries at the highest risk of mass killings, according to Early Warning Project, which assesses such risks around the world.
In Manipur, Christians are bearing the brunt as the state’s B.J.P. government stokes the insecurities of the majority ethnic Meitei, who are predominantly Hindu. State leaders have branded the Kuki tribes who populate the hill districts, and who are mostly Christian, as infiltrators from Myanmar, have blamed them for poppy cultivation intended for the drug trade and evicted some of them from their forest habitats. The specific trigger for the current violence was a court ruling in the state in favor of granting the Meitei affirmative action provisions and other benefits that have long been enjoyed by the Kuki and other tribes, which sparked a protest by tribal communities opposed to the ruling. The Manipur government this year also launched a citizenship verification drive that infringes on the privacy of Kuki. A similar drive in neighboring Assam state targeting Muslims has already reportedly disenfranchised nearly two million people.
Emboldened by the state government’s rhetoric, Meitei militias in Manipur have gone on a rampage of raping, pillaging, looting police armories and burning villages. More than 250 churches have been burned down. Those were Meitei men in the horrific 26-second video, sexually assaulting two Kuki women. (The video was shot in early May but only came to light in July, possibly delayed by a government internet ban imposed in the state in response to the violence). Many similar attacks on Kuki women have been reported. Mr. Modi has called the rape incident “shameful” but has otherwise said little about the chaos in Manipur.
The violent impact of his party’s polarizing politics is acutely felt in India’s heartland, too. The area near a tech and finance hub on the outskirts of New Delhi was rocked by violence last week as Hindu supremacists staging a religious procession clashed with Muslims. Mosques were attacked, an imam was killed, businesses were burned and looted and hundreds of Muslims have fled.
As John Keane and I argue in our book “To Kill A Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism,” it’s a signature tactic of modern-day despots: tightening their grip on power by redefining who belongs to the polity, and ostracizing others. In the ultimate subversion of democracy, the government chooses the people, rather than the people choosing the government.
India is already a complex federation of regional identities, many of which consider themselves distinct from Hindi-speaking north India, the power base of Mr. Modi’s party. This federal structure is held together by delicate bonds of social and political accommodation. But they are fraying fast under Mr. Modi, who has no appetite for either, shrinking the space for nonviolent political contestation. Some regional political parties see the Bharatiya Janata Party’s centralizing and homogenizing Hindu-first thrust as a cultural imposition from outside and are assailing it with the same divisive us-versus-them vocabulary.
Due to its giant and growing population, India will only become more important to the rest of the world, both geopolitically and due to the promise of its massive market. And so Western leaders like President Biden — who staged a lavish welcome for Mr. Modi on a state visit to Washington in June — engage with the prime minister, downplaying his government’s assaults on liberalism.
But a political strategy of conspicuous humiliation and subjugation of ethnic and religious minorities that make up around one-fifth of the population is dangerously deluded. India can either be a conflict zone or an economic powerhouse — not both. It is increasingly clear which of those two destinies awaits India.