In December last, in his customary address before the start of Winter Parliament session, PM Modi referred to India’s assuming presidency of the G20 group and said that the G20 was an opportunity for the world to know India, ‘‘the mother of democracy, with its diversity and courage’’ and for India to showcase its resilience and strength. We are not going for details of various black facades of this much-adored ‘‘mother of democracy’’ title. Only we like to highlight how freedom of expression is ‘glittering’ in India.
Spread of fascist autocratic rule masqueraded as ‘democracy’ has been having tangible adverse effects on human life and security. These autocratic rulers frequently resort to military force to resolve political disputes and gag voice of dissent. ‘Freedom in the World 2021’ index showed that India had dropped from Free to Partly Free status. ‘‘PM Modi and state-level allies of his party continued to crack down on critics during the year, and their response to COVID-19 included a ham-fisted lockdown that resulted in the dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers. The ruling Hindu nationalist movement also encouraged the scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs. Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism’’, observed Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world, in its report titled ‘Democracy under Siege’. According to the 2022 survey of ‘Reporters Without Borders’, a Paris-based independent organization working to defend press freedom, India fell to the 150th position, its lowest ever, out of 180 countries in ‘Press Freedom Index’. The ranking is based on the country’s political-economic-socio-cultural contexts, legal framework and safety of journalists. Of the five, India’s ranking was lowest in the ‘safety of journalists’ category (163). India also fell 26 places to rank 105th among 162 countries on a global economic freedom index released by the Fraser Institute in Canada in September 2020. In November 2020, an international network of higher education institutions called on authorities in India to ‘‘ensure the autonomy and functioning of higher education institutions’’. It highlighted ‘‘fears that the space for ideas and dialogue in India is being constricted, and dissent punished, endangering scholars and students whose views are disfavoured by the ruling government’’. In December 2020, India was ranked 111th out of 162 countries in the ‘Cato Institute’s Human Freedom Index 2020’. Three years after the government revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional autonomous status and split it into two federally governed territories, the government continued to restrict free expression, peaceful assembly, and other basic rights there. The authorities invoked ‘the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act’, as well as the ‘Unlawful Activities Prevention Act’ (UAPA), to conduct raids on and arbitrarily detain journalists and activists. In June 2020, the Jammu and Kashmir government enacted a new media policy that set up mandatory background checks of newspaper publishers, editors, and key staff before the publication could receive government advertisements. Six months after the new policy was in force, 34 newspapers had been delisted and advertisements were restricted for 13 publications. Notices were also sent to 17 publications for ‘‘fake news, plagiarism, or unethical content’’. With individuals arrested for stories that may be over a decade old, newspapers have also removed archives online to escape retribution for past reporting. These high-handed measures prevented local media from chronicling the suffocating situation and information void in Kashmir. But that is only one part of the tragedy: along the way, an entire people have been deprived of a voice and their narrative. Their suffering, their grievances, and their aspirations have gone begging for a medium of expression. It is now a one-way discourse, from the government to the people.
In its this year’s report titled ‘Autocratization Turns Viral’, Sweden-based V Dem, an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, said that India is among the countries leading the ‘third wave of autocratization’. V Dem says autocratization ‘‘typically follows a similar pattern across very different contexts’’. It begins with ruling Indian government attacking the media and civil society, followed by polarization of the society by ‘‘disrespecting opponents and spreading false information’’ and culminates in elections being undermined. The report has dedicated a chapter to India, titled ‘Democracy Broken Down: India’. The chapter concluded that the ‘‘world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy’’. India’s autocratization process has seen gradual deterioration where freedom of the media, academia, and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent, it added. ‘‘Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to victory in India’s 2014 elections and most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory and their promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda. India’s level of liberal democracy registered at 0.34 by the end of 2020 after a steep decline since its high at 0.57 in 2013. That represents a 23-percentage point drop on the 0 to 1 LDI [Liberal Democracy Index] scale, making it one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years….The Indian government rarely, if ever, used to exercise censorship as evidenced by its score of 3.5 out of 4 before Modi became prime minister. By 2020, this score is close to 1.5 meaning that censorship efforts are becoming routine and no longer even restricted to sensitive (to the government) issues. India is, in this aspect, now as autocratic’’, the report noted. It also says there are ‘alarming reports’ of harassment of journalists covering pandemic situation in India when at least 55 Indian journalists faced police action or threats for reporting on the country’s response to the Covid-19 crisis. The report has also criticized the government’s use of sedition, defamation and counter-terrorism laws such as the UAPA. “For example, over 7,000 people have been charged with sedition after the BJP assumed power and most of the accused are critics of the ruling party,’’ it observed. The report also notes that civil society organizations are being ‘‘muzzled’’ in the autocratization process, specifically through the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act, which was amended in September 2020 to ‘‘constrain foreign contributions to NGOs within India’’. ‘‘These developments are among the instances contributing to the descent into electoral authoritarianism in what used to be the world’s largest democracy,’’ the chapter on India concludes. India’s slide in these reports only mirrors its decline in indices, as pointed out above, compiled by independent bodies which monitor democratic freedoms over the past few years. India ranks at 125th position out of 136 countries in World Happiness Report 2023, making it one of least happy countries behind war-ravaged Ukraine and even Pakistan.
And we know how the eminent people criticizing government’s policies are either detained in jail without trial or even murdered by ‘unknown assailants’ branding them as ‘urban Naxals’, ‘tukde tukde gang’ or ‘conspirators against the nation’. The crackdown on political and public dissent against the government has been countless over the past four years. Peaceful protests are a hallmark of any free and civilized democratic country. Protests, dissent, and dialogue run parallel to and are complementary forces within a democracy. They help strike a balance between the majority rule and minority rights. But over the last few years, India has witnessed a contrasting and constrictive approach when facing peaceful protests and dissenting viewpoints. The historic farmers’ protest on the borders of the capital New Delhi is the most recent example of how the BJP government handles legitimate peaceful protests.
The BJP government let loose armed police on unarmed marching farmers trying to enter into the national capital and then stopped them by barricading, installing nails, and digging trenches on the roads to restrict movement and basic necessities at the protest site. International organizations such as Amnesty International and the United Nations have voiced concerns over India’s hostile approach towards protesters and dissenters of government policies and actions. One of the major concerns of these organizations lies in the fact that India as a nation is moving away from constitutionally-guaranteed rights and freedoms to an authoritarian state with little-to-no room for public opinion. The government has also adopted laws and policies like cow vigilantism that glaringly discriminate against religious minorities especially Muslims. This coupled with vilification of Muslims by the RSS-BJP leaders, police failure to take action against culprit BJP leaders and supporters who commit violence, undertake hate campaigns with alacrity do bolster the arch communal Hindutva groups to attack Muslims, Christians and government critics with impunity.
Authoritarianism is thus on display in every respect. Surely, this attitude of the Modi government does not match with India’s pluralist character and the freedom of expression of an individual and hence flagrantly violates every canon of democracy. Is this kind of fascist autocracy championed by our honourable PM as ‘‘mother of democracy’’ wants the whole world to take note of?
(Source: The Wire-11-03-21, Human Rights Pulse 16-06-21, The Hindu-05-05-22, South Asian Voice-25-08-22,
Hindustan Times 07-12-22, Freedom House Report, ABP 12-03-23, Human Rights Word 2021 report, Human Rights Watch