“Everyone’s experience with democracy is different.”
Thus begins Basharat Peer’s A Question of Order: India, Turkey, and the Return of Strongmen (Columbia Global Reports, 2017). The new book by the Indian political journalist, currently an editor for the opinion section of the New York Times, is an incredibly timely, slim volume exploring how the democratic countries of India and Turkey have come under authoritarian leadership from Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, respectively.
This is Peer’s second book. His first, Curfewed Night, recounted his adolescence in Kashmir in the 1990s, a period of violence between the Indian military and a militant insurgency. Much of Peer’s writing as a political journalist has focused on the intersection of the general populace and evolving political manifestations and social debates, including the Babri masjid debate, Hindu majoritarianism, and sexual violence. In this sense, A Question of Order can be seen as a continuation of Peer’s body of work in questioning the realities of “democracy” for minority citizens.
Central to Peer’s study of India and Turkey are their current leaders. Peer defines his strongmen: “They embrace militant nationalism, exude an aura of personal menace and strength, persecute political opponents, and seek to control media coverage.” Peer makes it clear that he had no shortage of choices for coverage, as authoritarians have been popularly elected in Hungary (Victor Orbán), Egypt (Abdel Fattah el-Sisi), Belarus (Alexander Lukashenko), Russia (Vladimir Putin) and Cambodia (Hun Sen)–and the elephant in the room, at least for anxious American readers: the authoritarian persuasion of President Donald Trump.
TACIT APPROVAL IN INDIA
The India section begins with the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat–one of the worst instances of religiously-motivated violence in modern India. In February and March of 2002, mobs targeted Muslims, their homes, businesses, and bodies, and the riots resulted in over 1,000 deaths. At the time, Narendra Modi, who built his career within the Hindu nationalist organization known as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was the new Chief Minister, a position akin to a governor. Whether or not the riots were state-sanctioned, or merely state-ignored, has tarnished Modi’s record as Chief Minister, and for many Indians and global citizens, long made the prospect of Modi as Prime Minister of a secular India verboten. Questions remain with regard to Modi’s knowledge of the incident and lack of a strong response from the state to stop the violence. This is familiar ground to anyone curious about the Gujarat riots, thus Peer does not delve into Modi’s culpability in this massacre. Those looking for the precise details of Modi’s involvement in the Gujarat horror of 2002 will need to look elsewhere. (On the Further Reading page, Peer recommends Manoj Mitta’s The Fiction of Fact-Finding.) In his characteristically declarative prose, Peer writes: “Multiple human rights organizations reported that Modi’s government and police officials were complicit in the carnage…Over the years, Modi has stubbornly refused to show any regret about the carnage on his watch.”
Instead, Peer presents a portrait of India under Modi as one in which long-held norms of a pluralistic society are under fire, and many ordinary citizens feel compelled to be nationalistic. There is a fascinating profile of a young man who did social media for Modi’s 2014 campaign; this type of profile displays Peer’s talent as a journalist and his point of view: finding citizens to manifest national political stories. Peer moves from the repercussions of the 2002 riots in the lives of Ahmedabad residents today, through Indian society under the new government, in which religious freedom and secularism are undermined, through religious conversions, mob lynching of suspected beef-eaters (i.e. Muslims), clashes between student protesters and the police, and the role of a press more concerned with shouting down, literally, than promoting free speech. The India half ends with the suicide of Rohith Vemula in February 2016, an event that signaled to many the persistent discrimination Dalit, or low-caste, students face in Indian universities. While highlighting the lengths Modi’s government representatives will go to overlook prejudice against Dalits, Peer doesn’t fully delve into the contradictions of how this government was voted into power (and continues to win elections) on the basis of bringing Dalit people, historically excluded from both religious and secular institutions by upper-caste Hindus, into the fold.
ERDOGAN’S AUTHORITARIAN RISE
The second section of the book, focusing on Turkey, is a more laborious, short history of Erdogan’s rise to power. This includes how Erdogan defeated his political opponents and his once-allies. Another important aspect of Turkey under Erdogan’s “Justice and Development Party,” the AKP, is how long-held traditions of Kemalist secularism rolled over to a more public presence of Islam in public and political life. Here, Peer examines another interpretation of “secular” democracy, and the tensions that produce. Kemalist secularism can be seen as the overt non-practicing of Islam, and a side effect of rigid adherence to this philosophy was the banishment of women who wear the hijab from the public sphere. A government adhering to Kemalist secularism was hardly a society of free expression.
Perhaps predictably for a journalist, Peer’s window into Turkish society is primarily through media, and his narrative is heavily preoccupied with happenings within media institutions, using media repression as a canary in the mine—symbolic of the larger domination of civil society.
For those of us living under the tyranny of the media’s unrelenting obsession with tweets, Peer’s description of the Turkish government’s control of Twitter is a chilling contrast:
“In the first half of 2015, more than 50 percent of the requests Twitter received for removal of content from its site came from the Turkish government. On Facebook, only Modi’s India, with 15 times the population, had more content removal requests than Erdogan’s Turkey.”
Peer’s journey into the Kurdish region of Turkey becomes personal. He writes of a protest in Istanbul, where many of the marchers were Kurds:
“I couldn’t understand most of what was said but I caught the words azadi (freedom), shaheed (martyr), and katil (murderer). The injury and rage were too familiar. One changes the names of places but the wounds remain the same. It felt like home, like being in Kashmir in the 1990s.”
Peer highlights the contradiction of Erdogan’s policies in the Kurdish region of Turkey: while his current policies are repressive, Erdogan is also the cause of much of the region’s development. Not coincidentally, Modi has built a massively successful nationwide election campaign–one that has destroyed opposition parties–around his promises of “development.”
As loathsome as authoritarian and majoritarian politics are—particularly to the minorities and aspects of civil society who are victimized—both Narendra Modi and Recep Tayyip Erdogan are likely to remain in power as long as they can convince voters that they are the best means of ensuring economic prosperity and development.
As Peer’s book was released in late March 2017, the recent election of Trump is barely acknowledged. However, the public’s collective attention is greatly behooved by a narrative which is able to stand outside of the shadow of American dominance in global media to examine important cross-national trends.
Although one of this book’s most admirable qualities is its short length and succinct, hard-hitting prose, Peer has such a unique voice and reporting style that one wishes for more, especially in the more gripping and more varied section on India. At least in pacing, the Turkey half of the book is dragged down by the linear description of the political history of Erdogan and the AKP, Peer’s reliance on media institutions for his reporting, and the focus on the Kurdish conflict. Still, Peer’s voice and journalistic style is an important contribution to international current affairs publishing. Everyone who wants to discuss the cross-national trend of embracing authoritarianism would benefit from reading this book.