India’s Elections are Happening Right Now — Here’s What you Need to Know

bjp, congress

Deemed as one of the largest democratic exercises in the world, the Indian elections began on April 11, and with about 900 million Indians eligible to vote the polling will take several weeks to complete. While India’s democracy has numerous parties, two prominent parties are the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), who will be seeking reelection, and Congress, the main opposition party to the BJP.

In this segment, we will break down the history and current stances of these two parties. This will be followed by another piece examining the key issues in the election as well as a quick primer on the structure of elections in India.

Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)

by Hera Ashraf

In the 2014 elections, the BJP won by a landslide and Narendra Modi was elected as prime minister after running a campaign on anti-corruption and economic growth — promising a ‘Shining India.’

The BJP is a right-winged political party rooted in cultural nationalism, it is also the country’s largest political party in terms of representation and party membership and enjoys close ideological and organizational ties to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu paramilitary organization.

In the early 2000s, Modi and the BJP came under fire for initiating violence against Muslims in the state of Gujarat. Modi, the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, and other government officials were accused of condoning the violence and giving lists of Muslim-owned properties to violent rioters.

Approximately 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed, 20,000 Muslim homes and businesses were destroyed, and about 150,000 people were displaced. Despite getting worldwide criticism for the handling of the riots, Modi was re-elected as the chief minister of Gujarat. The United States then imposed a visa ban on Modi, which wasn’t lifted until 2014 when he became a candidate for prime minister of India.

[Read More: An Open Letter to Indian Prime Minister Modi on His Donald Trump Comments]

The BJP runs on Hindutva – the ideology that nationalism means favoring Indian culture over Western cultural influences. The ideology also attempts to redefine India as a Hindu country, excluding all other religions. A notion that has been prominently on display in the last few years of the party, especially in regards to the renaming of cities across the country. The BJP also opposed migration from Bangladesh and supported Section 377, a law that criminalized homosexuality.

One of the biggest and most criticized policies that Modi implemented during his first term as prime minister was demonetization. In November 2016, the government demonetized 500 and 1000 rupee notes, intending to stop counterfeit currency and stop the use of black money. However, this move mostly harmed middle and lower-class Indians and led to severe cash shortages. The move sparked protests across the country and long lines at the bank in the heat to exchange money, even some hospitals refused the old currency — which led to many deaths.

Under BJP and Modi rule, India started to face an increase in intolerance towards minority groups in India, specifically Muslims. Modi and other BJP leaders continually use Islamophobic rhetoric to incite fear against religious minorities. The number of lynch mobs and hate crimes against Muslims increased under the BJP’s pandering to Hindu nationalism. While the BJP did receive a boost in support after their aggressive stance against Pakistan after the attacks in Kashmir in February, this election is shaping up to be a tight race.

Indian National Congress (INC)

by Priyanka Gulati

A post shared by Congress (@incindia) on

The other of the two main parties in India is the Indian National Congress (INC), the oldest political party in the country. Formed in 1855, INC was created as a platform for civic engagement and dialogue amongst educated Indians. It took the better part of 50 years for the voice of dissent and calls for home rule to become prevalent in the party and the push for independence expanded once the party opened itself to the public after World War I.

INC came to official power for the first time during the provincial elections of 1937, taking eight of the 11 elections. In the move for independence that followed, INC found itself at odds with itself as loyalists, traditionalists, reformers, and activists within the party attempted to establish a collective stance.

The echoes of this exist even today as the party sticks to its slightly center-left positioning while the voter base is split between young urban activists, particularly women, calling for change and rural voters, who may have left the BJP after feeling left out of Modi’s politics.

[Read More: Women are Rising in Politics — So Why Don’t More Brown Girls Run for Office?]

INC became the dominant political party in the country after sweeping elections on a national and state level in 1952. It held national power until 1977 when it was defeated by the Janata coalition. They returned briefly to power in 1980 for another nine years before being defeated again. In 1991, INC began to form and rule in the coalition—strategy repeated in 2004 and again in 2009 as the head of the United Progressive Alliance.

Under Jawaharlal Nehru’s leadership from 1951-64, the party-oriented itself around a series of policies promoting a mixed economy of thriving public and private sectors. His death in 1964 and the quick succession and death of Lal Bahadur Shastri in 1966 demonstrated a split that would haunt the reign of Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi.

Indira spent the first five years of her prime ministership in various disagreements with members of the old guard and her cabinet over her abrupt nationalization of 14 Indian banks and her endorsement of V.V. Giri for the post of President. She was later expelled from the party but retaliated by launching her own faction of the party, called simply Congress (I), which soon had its first taste of power in 1971 during the mid-parliamentary elections. However, this result was contested by the High Court of Allahabad, which declared her election to the Lok Sabha void on the grounds of electoral malpractice.

Four days later, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency that would span 19 months of restlessness, suspension of civil liberties and abuse of power by her son Sanjay Gandhi. The press was censored and political opponents were thrown into jail. Sanjay himself spearheaded a sterilization campaign, that was voluntary on paper but was dodged by stories of violence and trickery, forcing sterilization on the susceptible.  

The biggest stain on Indira and the party’s reputation, however, was Operation Blue Star and all that followed. Her rule also saw an increasing call for Sikh separatism under the Khalistani movement, most prominently articulated in the Anandpur Sahib Resolution.

In June 1984, she ordered a regiment of troops to storm the Harmandir Sahib in Amritsar in order to capture Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, leader of the Damdami Taksal, with whom Congress (I) was at odds with before and after 1971 — and went as far to deem him a terrorist after realizing that he could not be controlled.  

Conducted over three days, Blue Star required a media and electrical blackout in the state of Punjab and included a direct attack and firing upon the Harmandir Sahib complex as well as civilians inside. Bhindranwale, along with about 500 others was killed. This number is highly disputed globally, with estimates going upwards of 1,000 to include innocent pilgrims at Harmandir Sahib, there to commemorate Guru Arjan Dev Ji’s Shaheedi Diwas (day of martyrdom). This move was widely criticized by the Sikh community as an attack on the religion itself—which has a longstanding history of struggle with the government.

Gandhi was assassinated in October by her two bodyguards, Beant Singh, and Satwant Singh in retaliation. The assassination sent the party and much of the country into turmoil as prominent members of the media, government and film fraternity went on air calling for “revenge” and “insaaf.”

Rajiv Gandhi was abruptly sworn in and swift, debilitating violence against Sikhs in Delhi and several other North Indian cities began within hours. Large mobs comprised of Hindus gathered around the AIIMS hospital where Indira died, before taking the streets armed with any and everything they could find.

Over the course of three days, Delhi experienced an influx of horrific rapes, murders, mutilated corpses — some were even burnt alive. One of the most infamous incidents took place over the course 72 hours in a Trilokpuri colony, where 300 Sikhs were butchered as block 32 went up in flames. The Delhi police imposed a lax, unenforced curfew standing by as mobs raped, murdered and looted Sikhs across the capital — in some cases jumping directly into the violence themselves, in others deliberately showing up late to the site of crime. The 1984 Anti-Sikh Riots claimed the lives of more than 3,000 Sikhs, and INC is internationally held as responsible for the violence because they too did little to control the raging masses.

The Delhi High Court gave a verdict on a 1984 related case in 2009 and in their ruling stated:

Though we boast of being the world’s largest democracy and the Delhi being its national capital, the sheer mention of the incidents of 1984 anti-Sikh riots in general and the role played by Delhi Police and state machinery, in particular, makes our heads hang in shame in the eyes of the world polity.

The riots themselves are recognized as a genocide by the Akal Takht and the Human Rights Watch.

INC has neither acknowledged nor apologized for what happened.

Rajiv Gandhi, who was suddenly sworn in in the aftermath, faced many other difficult decisions. He was later implicated alongside other officials in the Indian and Swiss government as receiving illegal kickbacks from Bofors AB, a Swedish Bank owned by the Wallenberg family in order to receive a Rs 1500 crore arms contract—resulting in a big defeat for INC in the 1989 election.

He was later assassinated by an LTTE suicide bomber in 1991.

His widow Sonia Gandhi would go on to assume the role of INC president in 1998, but her Italian origin was a sore spot for some in the party. Her administration, with Manmohan Singh as prime minister, was characterized by strict adherence to the center-left of the political spectrum, pushing the “Aam Admi” slogan asking “Who India is For?”

Her son Rahul Gandhi was seen as the likely successor, and the family’s direct political legacy became a rallying cry for the opposition.

With such a storied history of family lineage, mired by scandal and controversy, it is difficult to pinpoint the heartbeat of INC. It has spawned an array of political leanings and figureheads, and with such a varied reception from vitriol, to loyalist voting, leaves many unable to predict the outcome of this election cycle.

For better or worse, many see Congress as the BJP alternative, but certain skeletons explain why many cannot find it in themselves to give the party their vote.

In this election cycle, Congress is doing its best to revitalize its youth wing, paint itself as a more progressive party and denounce the vitriol of the opposition. Their emphasis is on a return to civic involvement and a fresh start with Rahul. How they get there and how much of their past they address will continue to be critical.

By Brown Girl Magazine

Brown Girl Magazine was created by and for South Asian womxn who believe in the power of storytelling as a … Read more ›

Oak Creek: A Story of Hate, Hope and Healing

Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting. 

[Read Related: Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre’s 4th Anniversary: Young Sikhs Express Optimism for the Continued Struggle Against Hate and Ignorance]

In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance event centered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.

In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships. 

Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality. SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.

[Read Related: Anti-Sikh Hate is on the Rise: Here’s What we can Do]

While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.

Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular

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By Kiran Kaur Gill

Kiran Kaur Gill is an accomplished professional with exemplary executive experience. In her role as Executive Director, she is responsible … Read more ›

Op-Ed: An Open Letter to President Biden in Light of Prime Minister Modi’s Visit to the States

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.

Dear President Biden,

As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.

Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.

Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law. 

India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Indexwhich examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi. 

Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. 

Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.

As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.

— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).