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India Expands Ban On What Politicians May Not Say To Attract Voters

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

President Trump has a phone call with India's prime minister today - Narendra Modi. India has been going through a political reckoning when it comes to its political parties and how they target voters. Now that country's Supreme Court has weighed in on the issue. Here's NPR's Julie McCarthy.

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: Here's what the court set down - it banned India's politicians from using religion or caste as a way of appealing to voters. The law has previously disallowed it, but the court expanded the ban. Now, not only is a candidate prohibited from invoking their own religion...

GAUTAM BHATIA: I am a Hindu, and therefore vote for me.

MCCARTHY: ...They are also prohibited from invoking the religion of their intended audience.

BHATIA: I can represent your interests as Hindus, therefore vote for me.

MCCARTHY: That's Gautam Bhatia, a lawyer who writes on free speech. He says the majority reasoned that once you enter public life in a secular state such as India, you consent to participate on terms that leave aside divisive issues such as religion or caste. Bhatia says the court's ideal of the abstract universal citizen who leaves messy personal identity at the door was shared by Mahatma Gandhi, the father of modern India.

BHATIA: The independence movement was fought on the basis of a universal citizen.

MCCARTHY: But the dissent argued there's no such thing, that no one can be separated from their social context. Moreover, the very identities of religion and caste used to discriminate against people are the same identities around which marginalized groups have organized to end their exclusion. Sunil Khilnani of King's College London says Dalits, who were denied their dignity for centuries as so-called untouchables, ultimately mobilized.

SUNIL KHILNANI: To win certain rights, to win - to change policy to improve the conditions of those at the bottom of the social order. Anything that stops that kind of political party mobilization - one, it's not very realistic, and two, it's certainly not something that we want to see happen.

MCCARTHY: The court's edict narrowing political speech has come as India gears up for elections in key states. Already there are politicians who are alleged to have violated the ruling. For example, Parliamentarian Sakshi Maharaj from the ruling BJP party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, recently blamed Muslims for India's population growth by.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SAKSHI MAHARAJ: (Foreign language spoken).

MCCARTHY: Hindus are not responsible for that, he says. Then in a veiled reference to Islam, the BJP politician adds, those people who talk about four wives and 40 children are the ones responsible. Maharaj was booked under a provision that bans language that hurts religious sentiments. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta says such speech is exactly what the court intended to quiet.

DIPANKAR GUPTA: This is the main intention. I mean, the intentions are good, you might say.

MCCARTHY: Gupta says the court was restating a long-held principle against hateful speech that incites. He says different political parties have loose cannons who...

GUPTA: Shoot off their mouth and say awful things about other communities, and the court wants to stop that.

MCCARTHY: Gupta says not everything politicians say has to be completely rational, but it has to be respectful of groups that are not their own. He says the question is, how can Indians function as equals while still maintaining what makes them distinct?

GUPTA: I think that is the crux of democracy and the kernel of citizenship, you might say.

MCCARTHY: Sunil Khilnani says as India grapples with what is and is not allowable political discourse, so too are older democracies. He says recent voting in the United States, Britain as well as India, illustrate the disappearance of a more general language that can appeal across identities.

KHILNANI: The whole notion of citizenship has broken down or is breaking down.

MCCARTHY: And what is increasingly filling that gap, he says, is a kind of nationalistic rhetoric and a more strident nationalistic vision. Julie McCarthy, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.