Three-quarters of a century has passed now since India broke free from British rule, but there is just as much to criticize as to celebrate. Below, some of India’s finest contemporary writers warn us about their own country’s dire reflection of current global trends of democratic backsliding and the rise of the far-right, and how India can—and should—fight for a future for all its people.
Excerpted from a larger feature presented by PEN America.
I am writing this as an act of love. I was born in India, and I love India with all my being. But this country that I love is facing the gravest threat to its democracy since its founding.
Indian democracy is one of the 20th century’s greatest achievements. Over 75 years, we built, against great odds, a nation that for the first time in its 5000-year history empowered women and the Dalits, people formerly known as untouchables. We largely abolished famine. We kept the army out of politics. After independence, many people predicted that we would become Balkanized. Yugoslavia became Balkanized, but India stayed together. No small feat.
But I write this today to tell you: things in India are more dire than you realize. India is a country that is majority Hindu, but it is not officially a Hindu state. The people who are in power in India today want to change this. They want India to be a Hindu ethnocratic state, where all other religions live by Hindu sufferance. This has practical consequences: people of other religions are actively harassed, even lynched on the streets; their freedom to practice their religion in their own way is circumscribed. And when they protest, they are jailed and their houses bulldozed. Most worrying, much of the judiciary seems to be sympathetic to the Hindu nationalist agenda, and issues its verdicts accordingly.
There is also sustained and systematic harassment of writers, journalists, artists, activists, religious figures—anyone who questions the official narrative. We who have attached our names here are taking great personal risk in writing this: our citizenship of India could be revoked, we could be banned from the country, our property in India seized, our relatives harassed. There are many others who think like we do but have told us they can’t speak out, for fear of the consequences. I never thought I’d use the word ‘dissident’ in describing myself and my friends who’ve compiled this document; I thought that word only applied to the Soviet Union, North Korea, China.
It is crucial that India remains a democracy for all its citizens. India is not Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan. Not yet. A lot of India’s standing in the world—the reason we’re included in the respectable nations, the reason our people and our tech companies are welcome all over the world—is that we’re seen, unlike, say, China, as being a multiethnic democracy that protects its minorities.
With over 200 million Indian Muslims, India is the third largest Muslim country in the world. There are 30 million Indian Christians. There are Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Atheists. They are as Indian as I am—a Hindu who’s proud of being a Hindu, but not a Hindu as Narendra Modi and the BJP seek to define me.
When countries safeguard the rights of their minorities, they also safeguard, as a happy side effect, the rights and wellbeing of their majorities. If a judiciary forbids discrimination against, say, Muslims, it is also much more likely to forbid discrimination against, say, LGBT people. The obverse is also true: when they don’t safeguard the rights of their minorities, every other citizen’s rights are in peril.
The alienation of Indian Muslims would be catastrophic, for India and the world. They are being told: you are invaders, this is not your country, go back to where you came from. But Indian Muslims did not come from elsewhere; they were in the country all along, and chose which God to worship. After the Partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, they voted with their feet; they chose to stay, and build a nation.
The challenges facing India in the next 75 years are colossal, perhaps even greater than the first 75 years. This year, northern India saw the hottest temperatures in history, reaching 49 degrees Celsius (120F). Next year looks to be even hotter. By the middle of the century, New Delhi could become uninhabitable.
The country also has an enormous, restive, and largely unemployed youth population—half of its population is under 25. But only 36% of the working-age population has a job. To meet these challenges, it is crucial that the country stay united, and not fracture along religious lines, spend its energies building a brighter future instead of darkly contemplating past invasions.
In this time when country after country is turning its back on democracy, India has to be an example to countries around the world, this beautiful dream of nationhood expressed in the Hindu scriptures as “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”—the whole earth is a family. We should all be rooting for this incredible experiment in multiplicity to work. As goes India, so goes democracy.
Suketu Mehta is the author of Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, a Pulitzer Prize Finalist, and This Land is Our Land: An Immigrant’s Manifesto. He teaches journalism at New York University.
On February 23, 2020, riots erupted in Delhi. The homes and shops owned by Muslims in northeast Delhi went up in flames after a ruling party politician, irked by those protesting discriminatory citizenship laws, whipped fanatical fury among his followers. There is a story that I wrote down in my notebook from one of the news-reports I had read: “A Muslim resident of Shiv Vihar kept pet pigeons. The mob burned down his home and then killed the pigeons by wringing their necks.” Were they Muslim pigeons?
There is another brief, heartbreaking detail that I recorded in my notebook: “A man returned to a street corner to sift with his hands through a pile of black and gray ash searching for his brother’s bones. He had seen his brother on fire as he tried to flee the mob. He found charred bits that he was going to bury in a cemetery when peace returned.”
I believe we should remember what was done by our fellow human beings. We ought to fight for justice on behalf of those so grievously wronged. What is the central conceit of art? That someone reading you will be moved, that your work will leave someone altered or changed. I cannot say I have bought into that worldview completely. But I do want to remember, and my words or art to keep alive a memory. Many lovers of Urdu poetry remember Bashir Badr’s lines: “Log toot jaate hain ek ghar banane mein / Tum taras nahin khaate bastiyan jalaane mein.” (People go broke in building a home / And you remain unmoved as you burn down whole neighborhoods.) The poet was speaking from experience. His own home in Meerut was gutted and reduced to rubble in the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1987. Like Bashir Badr, I am saying that I remember, I remember.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist. He is the author of several works of fiction and non-fiction, and, most recently, a book of drawings. Kumar was born in Ara, Bihar, and teaches at Vassar College in the United States.
Our Old Delhi garden was once a pleasant place to sleep on summer nights, but the summer I was ten years old was different: we could see the smoke and flames of fires burning in the Old City; our parents and neighbors awake and watchful. When school reopened, the classrooms were half empty, so many students had “crossed the borders,” we were told. Refugee camps teemed everywhere.
Yet out of that nightmare, the flag of an independent India was raised, a new constitution written that was fair and free of the sectarianism that had caused the agitation and its violence, a testament to the survival of the people’s hopes and idealism. Briefly, we held our heads high.
Seventy five years on, what do we see? All the riches of the many cultures we had inherited coldly and deliberately destroyed, so many vibrant and valuable voices silenced, even the natural world of forests, rivers and wildlife desecrated, leaving us with the dust and ashes of hate and falsehoods.
Anita Desai is the author of 18 works of fiction including In Custody and Clear Light of Day. She is a professor emerita at MIT, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Among her honors are a Padma Bhushan.
I only met my great grand uncle, Pandit Hridaynath Kunzru, in the last year of his life. By that time he was completely blind, and I, a child of eight, was brought to him so he could “see” me, which he did by brushing his fingers, very gently, all over my face.
Later, I discovered that this former freedom fighter with the fluttering papery touch had, as a member of the Constituent Assembly, been one of the framers of the Indian constitution. He believed in an India that was tolerant, pluralist, and ruthlessly committed to the freedom of its citizens. He built civil society organizations because in a democracy there should be a counterweight to government power. He declined the Bharat Ratna because he thought such honors had no place in a Republic. On this seventy-fifth anniversary of Independence, I honor his principles, and his memory.
Hari Kunzru was born in London and lives in New York. His latest novel is Red Pill.
Because I was born and raised outside of India, India, in its absence, took on even greater significance in my mind. I grew up with parents who, in missing India, sought out other Indians, and so my notion of an Indian community was always diverse.
When they invited other Indian families to our home, in the small Rhode Island town where I was raised, I realized that India was an elastic container of individuals who spoke, ate, dressed, and prayed in different ways. These differences did not “enrich” an otherwise homogeneous India; they were India.
In that sense, India seemed light years ahead of the United States, which was a melting pot in name but alienating and provincial in practice, at least from my perspective. Visits to Kolkata, a city that, as my mother liked to point out, welcomed all of India’s populations, only confirmed my perception that India’s relationship with The Other was built into its very fabric. The plurilingual aspect of India, in particular, both inspired and consoled me, for it insisted on the need for ongoing communication and translation.
The co-existence of more than one language generates curiosity, calls for interpretation, and subverts any notion of absolute power. Unravel certain threads, or snip some strands away, and the conversation is lost; we are left with a frayed society, with imposed silence, with banal and baleful notions of nationhood.
Jhumpa Lahiri was born in London and grew up in the United States to Bengali parents. She won the Pulitzer Prize for her debut short story collection, Interpreter of Maladies, and is the author of three novels, including, most recently, Whereabouts, and two collections of short stories. She writes in English and Italian.
On India’s 75th, I find myself worried for my country. The fascist takeover of all aspects of public life is well-documented; but what is even more disheartening is the complicity of the majority. India is fast becoming a country of people who shout about their nation’s greatness even as it is laid to waste by pollution, corruption, disease, environmental degradation, overcrowding, violence. To wake to reality is too painful; it is far easier to lash out at minorities. On India’s 75th, I wish the people of India a clearer vision, and a sense of what they will lose if they refuse to see.
Karan Mahajan is the author of Family Planning, a finalist for the International Dylan Thomas Prize, and The Association of Small Bombs, which was shortlisted for the National Book Award, won the Muse India Young Writer Award, and was named one of the New York Times Book Review’s 10 Best Books of 2016. Raised in New Delhi, Mahajan is an associate professor in Literary Arts at Brown University.
My ancestors came from Baluchistan to settle in Chennai and Vellore. During Partition, my mother’s family moved to the kingdom of Hyderabad and my father’s family went to Karachi. I was born in England and raised in Canada. Is a human a fixed point in time and space? Are we never meant to move? Or grow?
Anyhow, I am Indian, influenced by its culture, language, and spiritual systems. How did I, as a Muslim, choose to study yoga and Vedanta so deeply? Yoga has always been transnational and cosmopolitan: its origins are ancient, but its flowering came in 14th century Kashmir, when the Shaivite sages were engaged in deep interchange with the Persian and Arab world. Ideas from Islam and Vedanta cross-pollinated. Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan, had the ancient yogic texts translated into Persian and Arabic and distributed across the Muslim world. Lal Ded and Kabir, one of them Hindu (itself a Persian word) and the other claimed by both Muslim and Hindu communities, wrote a poetry of spiritual humanism equally influenced by philosophies of both religions.
Did the poses of the surya namaskar come from the poses of the salaat or was it the other way around? Did the devotional kirtan transform into qawwali or did qawwali give shape to the musical elements of Vedic chanting? Does it matter?
What matters is that these spiritual practices and these peoples have been bound together and have been feeding one another for countless generations, bound together by language, by culture, by belief, and by blood.
Kazim Ali was born in the UK to Indian parents and lives in San Diego. He has published six volumes of verse and five works of fiction, besides non-fiction, translations, and edited an anthology. His new and selected poems will be released in the US and Canada in 2023.
“My parents called me their good luck baby,” my mother tells me. She was born in May of 1947, passed from person to person in the triumphant march toward Chowpatty that August. The rest of the details—the thousands of shining faces, the singing, her fat body buoyed by so many strangers—are not as much memories as her inheritance of a dream, one she folded into neat squares and brought to America. But now. But now.
“What is happening?” she whispers. We feel it rising through the silences on the phone calls back home, the panic tucked into banalities. But what else can they say? What can any of us say? We look outside and find the dark and rising tide our own horizon. Our questions come with it, urgent and useless. Where is the safer ground? What turns a dream back into the body’s memory? What else will it take for us to remember how to cradle each other’s children, to carry them toward a brighter future?
Mira Jacob is a bestselling author, illustrator and cultural critic. Her memoir, Good Talk was shortlisted for the National Book Critics Circle award, longlisted for the PEN Open Book Award, and named a New York Times Notable Book. Her novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing, was a finalist for India’s Tata First Literature Award.
Then, in the First Age of Hindustan Hamara, our India, we celebrated one another’s festivals, and believed, or almost believed, that all of the land’s multifariousness belonged to all of us. Now that dream of fellowship and liberty is dead, or close to death. A shadow lies upon the country we loved so deeply. Hindustan isn’t hamara any more. The Ruling Ring—one might say—has been forged in the fire of an Indian Mount Doom. Can any new fellowship be created to stand against it?
Salman Rushdie was born in Bombay and lives in New York. He is the author of 20 books, including Midnight’s Children. His many international honors include the Booker Prize, the Best of Booker Prize, Companion of honor (UK), PEN Pinter Prize, PEN/Allen Lifetime Achievement Award, US), and EU’s Aristeion Prize, among others.
I am not allowed to say the name of the person who told me, years ago: “India is not a nation. It is a prisonhouse of all possible nations.” Now this person is incarcerated, but I can’t describe the specifics of their suffering. What if these words are read somewhere in the command tower of that vast, subcontinent-sized prisonhouse also known as India, and orders are then passed demanding more suffering. As Colonel Joll puts it in J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, “First I get lies, you see…first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure, then the break, then more pressure, then the truth.”
That is the sort of truth that has led to thousands in Indian prisons at the same time as India supposedly celebrates 75 years of freedom. “Ignorance is Strength.” “War is Peace.” And, of course, “Freedom is Slavery.” But still there are some names that can be said, should be said, in case we forget these prisoner citizens whose crimes include being opposed to Hindu majoritarianism and to capitalism and wanting justice for the most immiserated, marginalized sections of India’s vastly unequal society.
I can say the name of Stan Swamy, incarcerated and, eventually, killed by the Indian state on July 5, 2021. I can say his name because his life, if not his memory, is beyond the reach of the prisonhouse. Father Stan, dead at 84 because those running India are terrified of a Jesuit priest whose life was dedicated to working with indigenous people brutalized by Hindutva, the state, and the market. Father Stan, suffering from Parkinson’s, but denied bail by “His honor The Special Judge Dinesh E. Kothalikar,” who called it an “alleged sickness.” Say Father Stan’s name. Say it.
I can say the name of Arun Ferreira, who writes about his incarceration in his memoir, Colors of the Cage: A Memoir of an Indian Prison and who was back behind bars before I had time to write the foreword to the American edition of his book. Say his name. Say it.
And say the names of Umar Khaled and Rona Wilson. Say the names of Anand Teltumbde and Surendra Gadling, of Sudhir Dhawale and Shoma Sen, of Mahesh Raut and Jyoti Jagtap, of Gautam Navlakha and Hany Babu and Sagar Gorkhe and Ramesh Gaichor.
Say the names, known, unknown, of thousands of political detainees in India’s prison system. Say the names of the people of Kashmir.
Say the names of the half a million people in prison for non-political crimes, among which being poor, being Dalit, and being Muslim rank the highest. Even if we don’t know the names, say them all.
Say the names of those not yet in prison but on this list or that list, those in the cross-wires of the National Investigative Agency, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and the Uttar Pradesh police, those who give the political leaders of the Hindu right indigestion and bad dreams.
Finally, say your own name because you sometimes worry that one day they will come for you as well. Say your name because you think, late at night, that you might be reported for what you wrote, for what you said, for what you thought. Say your name because you can’t help wondering if they will come for you, if they will stop you from flying out, or if they will stop you when you are coming in. This is how you know that you may be against prisonhouses posing as nations, but that you are always on the side of the many worlds that are possible.
Siddhartha Deb was born in Northeast India and lives in Harlem. He is the author of two novels and one work of nonfiction.
Memory, Delhi, 2014:
We were on the lawn. It was warm, though winter. You turned, in your light blue sari, and said, All the trouble in the world today has been started by Muslims, hadn’t I noticed? And then: We just want them to sign a piece of paper to say they will abide by our laws—this is a Hindu country—we are the majority—and if they don’t, they can leave.
How could you utter such words so casually? In front of your grandchildren, who are part Muslim? In broad daylight. When you know my last name. Do you not see that I am shaking now? I am so terrified, I cannot speak. Do you even believe these words? Or are they the words of a Mrs. Jones, the Joneses, said almost amiably, without consequence? Are we in Rwanda? When did it become permissible to speak this way? I must say something. But where are my words? I cannot find them. It’s an old position from childhood. That is not true, I say, feebly. I am still shaking. I don’t hear what she says next…In this moment, though I identify with my mother’s side of the family, culturally, which is Hindu, I am Muslim. I am Muslim.
The lawn, the light, the people—they feel sinister now. I seek out a familiar face. Or perhaps his eyes find mine. Her in-law. It feels conspiratorial. What’s wrong? he says. I explain. How do you stand it? I ask. He shakes his head softly. We just agree to disagree. We try not to speak of such things at family gatherings.
In the car, I cannot stop speaking. Someone says, she means, those other Muslims. The religious ones.
Who is “our”? Who is “they”? Who is “we”?
I am reminded that in Rwanda, people were “primed” for genocide. There were phases, over the years, in which it became possible to kill. The radio, the media, helped. Will today be my day to die? So that when it came, the negotiation was not about the fact, but about the manner of death. How well will you kill me? Will you kill me well?
Zia Jaffrey is the author of The Invisibles, a book about the hijras of India. She has written cover stories, features, and reviews for many publications. Her work has most recently been anthologized in Toni Morrison: The Last Interview. She has covered Israel/Palestine, South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings, and AIDS. She is writing a book about Palestinian-Americans. She teaches in The New School’s MFA program.