NEW YORK – The Muslim-majority valley of Kashmir has been under curfew since July 8, when Indian security forces killed a popular young separatist named Burhan Muzaffar Wani. Since then, security forces have killed nearly 50 demonstrators and injured thousands more. They’re accused of attacking even ambulances and hospitals, while Indian authorities have cut off most cellular, landline and internet connections. Police raided local newspaper offices last week and banned publication for three days.
Kashmir has long been subject to the draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which grants security forces broad-ranging powers to arrest, shoot to kill, and occupy or destroy property. The policeman who confessed last week to executing more than 100 suspected insurgents in the Indian state of Manipur no doubt has counterparts in Kashmir.
But the latest crackdown hints at an ominous escalation, symbolized by the pellet cartridges fired at demonstrators, which explode to scatter hundreds of metal pieces across a wide area. First used during large anti-India protests in 2010, the projectiles, originally round, are now sharp-edged, capable of inflicting deeper damage on the human body. More than 100 victims, many of them children playing near their homes, have been hit in the eyes and now face blindness.
A lynch-mob hysteria in significant parts of the Indian public sphere has fully backed the actions of security forces in Kashmir. This is especially true on social media, where foam-at-the-mouth Hindu nationalists dominate, but the Indian press has long covered Kashmir with a heavy patriotic gloss. Kashmiris in India, accustomed to discrimination in finding jobs and housing, have recently found themselves exposed to random assaults. Last week, a mob in Hyderabad brutally beat a Sikh student mistaken for a Kashmiri.
An increasingly common sentiment in even mainstream news and talk shows holds that Kashmiri Muslims are traitors, who deserve every bit of brutality they’ve suffered, and a lot more. Commenting on the explosion of hate, a Kashmiri officer of the prestigious Indian Administrative Service was moved to write (at considerable risk to his career) that some of country’s most watched television channels “are at the vanguard of a movement that will take India from a dialogical civilization to a dumb, illogical civilization.”
He’s right, of course, but India is hardly alone in this. In all too many countries, the media has mutated into the rabid Rottweiler of majoritarianism. This is part of a larger rejection of a politics based on reason and dialogue, which should disturb us as much if not more than the murderous rampages of deranged individuals. The philosophy of majoritarianism states that a majority of a population, say in religion or race, etc., is entitled to a primacy in that society.
Even as Indian nationalists were working up hatred of Kashmiri Muslims, vengeful mobs, both real and virtual, unleashed by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were calling for a return of the death penalty in Turkey and the execution of traitors. Responding to a clumsy coup attempt, Erdogan has declared a state of emergency, detaining 9,000 military officers and purging tens of thousands of bureaucrats, soldiers, police officers, judges, teachers and intelligence officials.
Both Indian and Turkish hardliners claim to enact the democratic mandate of the majority as they abandon laws and procedures in their persecution of alleged enemies of the state. Moreover, this us-versus-them extremism is hardly confined to authoritarian democracies such as India and Turkey, or indeed to certified demagogues like Donald Trump.
During London’s mayoral campaign this year, leading members of the British elite, including then-Prime Minister David Cameron and new Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, denounced Sadiq Khan, the Labour Party’s candidate, as a terrorist sympathizer. A British member of Parliament was assassinated last month by a man shouting “Britain First” amid the venomous campaign for Brexit, whose success incited an exponential rise in hate crimes against immigrants and minorities.
Last week, the former co-chairman of the Conservative Party, Sayeeda Warsi, called on Britain’s new prime minister, Theresa May, to set a different tone, arguing that “this concept of the enemy within and fifth columnists,” invented by the far right, “has now started to creep into mainstream politics.” However, May seems in no hurry to calm things down. In a parliamentary debate on Britain’s nuclear arsenal last week, she chose to accuse opposition MPs of being “the first to defend the country’s enemies.”
Such rhetoric, as the vote for Brexit proved, can reap electoral benefits. But it threatens to destroy the politics of reason in the world’s oldest democracies, Britain as much as the U.S. Certainly, the politics of absolute enmity already seems to enjoy wide support in India, the world’s largest democracy.
In the roll call of atrocities that constitutes news these days, the killing and maiming in Kashmir, and the upsurge of anti-Kashmiri hatred in India, has barely been noticed. But they reveal most clearly that the impulse to identify, ostracize and eliminate various supposed enemies is increasingly licensed everywhere by popular sentiment. The tyrannies of our age, it seems, may be as much consolidated from below as dictated from the top.
Pankaj Mishra is the author of “Temptations of the West: How to be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” among other books.