Politics at home are immediately arresting. That this year is election year in India only heightens the stakes—and the drama. As an American citizen who mostly grew up abroad, I feel prompted by the impending Indian election to compare my political experiences in both places.
In India, neither of the two main prime ministerial candidates inspires much faith. Most people believe in Narendra Modi of the BJP (Indian People’s Party) over Rahul Gandhi, the scion of the reigning, nepotistic Congress party. Modi’s anti-secular mentality puts me off completely. Last summer, I was caught in a BJP demonstration. Modi’s head creepily swung on banners around me, with the words, “I am Patriot. I am Nationalist. I am Born Hindu,” emblazoned next to his face.
Modi’s slogan was hardly the right branding for the potential leader of the world’s largest democracy. The overall consensus appears to be that if Modi, who has recently toned down his rhetoric, wins, people will rally to prevent him from enacting any anti-secular policies.
Will they, though? With any luck, yes. Hopefully what happened following the death of right-wing politician Bal Thackeray, a far more extreme character, is some indication of what we can do.
Thackeray is attributed with inciting the 1992-1993 communal riots in Mumbai, in which close to a thousand people are, at least officially, reported to have been killed. The memory of this brief period of anarchy runs deep; it is one of Mumbai’s many ghosts.
I was in an auto rickshaw on Station Road, Mumbai, when Thackeray died. Suddenly there was a palpable fear in the air. In about two minutes, thousands were swarming around the traffic on both sides of the road, desperate to get home as soon as possible.
I would not have blamed my rickshaw driver if he had wanted to join the throngs of people outside.
I did not expect him, however, to turn around and tell me that he would make sure to get me home, and to duck down and cover my head in case things started turning violent.
He rallied. Later that day, the whole city also rallied to maintain the peace, despite its teetering sense of foreboding.
What parallel exists between my experiences in Mumbai and Claremont?
India is the world’s biggest democracy; America is arguably the most influential. From my position in Claremont, I feel distanced from political goings-on, perhaps because there is a lower chance of being caught in demonstrations on my way to buy stationery.
Then again, we do have the potential to act as a political conscience, to also rally and do what is right amid the stakes and the drama of politics. America has an extraordinary responsibility for what happens in the rest of the world.
Politics, at least in my limited experience, are missing from the streets here. All the same, we have politics in the classrooms, politics in BLOC’s “Consent Isn’t Sexy, It’s Mandatory” shirts, in Nerdfighters for Obama laptop stickers. Politics are necessitated by the diversity on the 5C campuses; dialogue is just enacted differently.
India and America certainly share a powerful commitment to free speech. This commitment allowed Vladimir Putin to pen an editorial for The New York Times about Syria, allowed us to criticize the U.S. government’s shutdown, to slam Gandhi, Modi, and the entire myopic bastion of Patriotic Nationalist Born Hindus in India. It gives us, the people, the impetus to live up to what a secular democracy can and should be, and to rally when required.
Sana Khan PO ’17 is from Mumbai, India. She rues the fact that she can’t vote in India, which is partly why she wrote this article.