India's reputation as the world's largest democracy and a country that upholds secular values has been eroded ever since the right-wing Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept into power in 2014. Several moves by the BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi seem designed to change the secular and democratic fabric of India into that of a purely right-wing Hindu nation.
After the BJP received an even bigger mandate in 2019, its Hindutva agenda became more visible. Moreover, a number of groups affiliated to the ruling party have started to threaten India's Muslims, the country's largest minority community, and their institutions. The latest manifestation of this is the ban on popular Malayalam-language MediaOne television channel, citing "national security".
MediaOne is based in the southern Indian state of Kerala and has millions of viewers both within and beyond India, especially in the Middle East. It was launched in February 2013 and is known for its bold news reporting and criticism of the government's communal and neo-fascist agendas, which is probably why the government has revoked its broadcast licence. The government order was upheld by the state's high court, but has drawn widespread criticism from all walks of life. Many opposition members in parliament have slammed the government for curbing free speech as enshrined in the Indian Constitution.
A petition by the MediaOne management was dismissed by the court, which said that, based on input from various intelligence agencies, the Home Ministry found that security clearance should not be renewed for the channel. However, both the ministry and the court have declined to reveal the reason for the ban except the so-called "security concerns". The government, though, is duty-bound to explain why it has banned the channel. This is an example of the intolerance nursed by the right-wing regime towards news that it finds unpalatable.
Article 19 of India's Constitution provides for freedom of speech, defined as the right to express one's opinion freely without any fear. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that this is not breached.
"The voices of the people, media, and civil society are to be heard in a democracy," tweeted opposition MP Kanimozhi Karunanidhi. "Silencing dissent, debate and dialogue is very unhealthy for a democracy."
This is not the first time that Modi's government has made efforts to stop MediaOne from broadcasting. The channel was at the forefront of media coverage of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed in December, 2019. Under this act, for the first time in India, religion became a basis for granting citizenship. Furthermore, the law specifically fast-tracks asylum applications by non-Muslim irregular immigrants from the neighbouring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
MediaOne also reported extensively on the horrendous anti-Muslim riots in the Indian capital New Delhi in February 2020 when Hindu groups terrorised Muslims who were protesting against the CAA. In the aftermath of the Delhi riots that claimed at least 53 lives, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry banned the station for 48 hours along with another channel, Asianet. While the latter apologised, MediaOne was adamant that it had not committed any crime. The government was forced to lift the suspension within hours.
The channel's Muslim background is said to be another reason for the ban by the openly Hindu government. It is the only Muslim-owned television news channel in India, and has extensive coverage of local, national and international issues.
Despite constitutional protection since Indian independence in 1947, the Muslim community has faced discrimination over many years. More recently, there has been a spike in hate crimes and mob lynching. In December last year, right-wing Hindu groups affiliated to the BJP made an open call, during a religious conclave in Haridwar, for the genocide of Muslims in north India. These groups have stepped up their incitement of communal hatred against Muslims at a time when five Indian states are going to the polls next month. The BJP has repeatedly used the communal card to benefit electorally from the polarisation of local and national communities.
Muslim journalists are being threatened and in some cases draconian laws are inflicted on them. Siddique Kappan, for example, has been languishing in jail since 2020 after being picked up by police in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh while on his way to the site of an alleged gang rape and murder of a young Dalit woman in a village called Hathras. He is facing charges that include sedition, conspiracy to incite violence, outraging religious feelings and sundry terrorism charges.
Rana Ayyub, who has over 1.5 million followers on Twitter and 320K followers on Instagram, has been a staunch critic of the BJP-led government and right-wing organisations. Her book, Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a cover up, is Ayyub's account of an eight-month investigation into the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the western Indian state, with the tacit support of then chief minister Narendra Modi, before he became India's prime minister.
Modi and his BJP are pursuing a Hindu majoritarian, anti-Muslim agenda that threatens the country's status as an officially secular republic and violates international human rights norms. It is clear that this government is working towards a purely Hindu totalitarian state. In August 2019, the ruling party amended the Constitution to strip Muslim-majority Kashmir of its autonomy. Then, in November, the Supreme Court issued a ruling enabling the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a 16th-century mosque demolished more than two decades ago by Hindu communalist forces in the northern city of Ayodhya. The irony is that the court admitted the existence of a mosque but decided to give the Waqf (religious endowment) land to Hindus citing "majority sentiments".
The anti-Muslim policies of the right-wing Hindutva rulers now target schools and colleges, and the hijab (head covering) row is escalating. The banning of the hijab in the BJP-ruled southern Indian Karnataka state has prompted strong protests, with students barred from attending classes if they insist on wearing one. This is happening in a country where Hindus sport the tilaka on their foreheads, Christian nuns wear their veils and Sikhs wear their turbans.
A video of Bibi Muskan has gone viral after she was heckled outside her college for wearing the hijab and niqab (face covering). The young Muslim woman is seen walking towards the college before shouting "Allahu Akbar" (God is Great) in response to aggressive chants by Hindu extremists.
"I was going to college to submit an assignment," she told India Today TV. "There were some people who were not allowing me to enter the college because I was wearing a burqa. They were telling me to remove it and then go inside."
After days of disagreement on the hijab issue, one school allowed girls wearing a veil to enter the building, but on the condition that they must sit in a separate room. This symbolises what the Modi government has been working for: segregation based on religious belief and practice, ironically in a country which professes to be both democratic and secular. Is there any wonder that India's 200 million Muslims feel alienated and marginalised in their own country?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.