The year 2021 has not been very kind to the Indian government. The country has been inching away from its status of being a democracy on many fronts for a while now and this comes across as “breaking news” for the nationalists.
Here are a few hits it took, in chronological order:
It was not a good look for India when it went down two places in the World Press Freedom Index last year in 2020. The Index, formulated by Reporters Without Borders, highlighted the shutdown of mobile internet and fixed lines for months on end in Kashmir, essentially preventing journalists from sharing reports with the world. The stifling of dissent by the police and the ruling party was also emphasised.
India fell by two places to 53rd place in the Democracy Index published annually by the Economist Intelligence Unit. It had previously dropped a whopping ten places in 2019. The country has consistently been getting lower scores since 2014 after its peak score (on a scale of 0-10; 10 being the most democratic) of 7.92 in 2014, increasing by 0.17 from 2013’s score. The year 2016 was a slight anomaly as it had gone up to a score of 7.81 after having fallen to 7.74 since 2014. The score came to a new low of 6.61 in 2020.
Going from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly free’ in Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report, the perception of India has suffered and a large part of the responsibility is said to be of the central government. An article by the organisation points out how the Prime Minister’s actions and execution of the lockdown lead to distressing internal immigration during the lockdown imposed, the suppression of dissent and criticism, discrimination and violence against Muslims while “tragically driving India towards authoritarianism”.
Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute reported India as an Electoral Autocracy, as opposed to having been an ‘Electoral Democracy’. This has received the most traction as it was surprising to see a ‘nation-state’ known for its multiethnicity being named so as it was getting more polarized with discrimination steadily increasing. One of the main factors for this has been the crackdown on journalists and the repression of freedom.
One key point to take note of is all three reports state that Prime Minister Modi and the right-wing political party he belongs to, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), have largely weakened the political state of India with their Hindu-nationalist agenda. Series of events such as the Citizenship Amendment Act that accounts religion to provide selective citizenship, and the Government’s response to those protesting it, have cumulatively impacted the present systems in the country.
The reports have also consistently shown a pattern of democratic practises and the extent of democracy in the state diminishing since 2014, the year BJP came to power, and have been ruling since. India also registered a 23% fall in the Liberal Democracy Index following its peak of 0.57 in 2013 to 0.34 in 2020 on a scale of 0-1 (1 being the best). It is said to be one of the most striking shifts.
Manipulation of law has been a brilliant way the ruling party has employed to stray India off secularism. The ‘Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act’ was mended after almost half a century which gives an extensive amount of power to the National Intelligence Agency over matters of “terrorism”. This amendment was introduced by Amit Shah, the Minister of Home Affairs, and the then BJP President. In addition to the absolute power the Act had initially provided the Central government with, the amendment made in 2019 further allows for more exploitation of the law to brand civilians, critics and political oppositions as ‘terrorists’ despite having zero connections or affiliations with any of the 36 banned terrorist organizations listed in the First Schedule of the Act. This can, and in a way already has destroyed political pluralism in India.
“India is going through an aggressive variant of McCarthyism against the media,” Prannoy Roy, co-founder of NDTV
Unfortunately, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act has not been the only law that has been craftily abused. Article 19(2) imposes exemption to the freedom of speech and expression provided by Article 19(1) (a) of Article 19 in the Indian Constitution. One of the exceptions happens to be defamation. It is an offence under civil as well as criminal law, and has been used to jail many critics and journalists. The infamous journalist cum activist Gauri Lankesh was convicted for defamation, sentenced to jail, and killed by an unidentified assailant in late 2016, for a report she had written in 2008 ‘against’ BJP leaders. The senior journalist had written about the rising discrimination and human rights violations against Muslims and what seems to have been the BJP’s role in it. Unsurprisingly, a BJP Member of Parliament along with another BJP leader were the ones who filed the two cases against her for the same. The situation has only gotten worse for journalists in the recent years: over 50 journalists were either physically assaulted, put behind bars or had cases filed against them last summer.
"For my government, the Constitution is its real holy book. And, in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights," Prime Minister Modi, 2016
Civil liberties have not come unscathed and there are a dozen reasons why. As previously mentioned, the Government’s decisions regarding the then union territory of Jammu & Kashmir in 2019 is a key event. The autonomy it had, provisioned by the constitution, being repealed certainly did not help any state or non-state actor. Placing local leaders under house arrests did not make it better. Additionally, minority groups and sections of communities such as the LGBTQIA+ people do not enjoy the same rights as the others and it can be said the situation has deteriorated.
The glory India basked in being the ‘World’s Largest Democracy’ is now a thing of the past and every individual in the ‘nation-state’ has been forced to take a deeper look at what is left of the “democratic state”. Media freedom curbing, curtailing freedom of speech and expression, crackdown on critics of the ruling party, killing political pluralism, polarizing populations, proven bias against minorities, promoting personal and/or political propaganda by abusing power and twisting law for agenda – sums up this ugly confrontation. The rosy image billions had of a country comprising civilians enjoying ‘equal’ political and civil liberties regardless of any socio-economic, ethnic or cultural differences has officially broken for the ‘Republic’ of India.
Written by Thenthamizh SS
Edited by Adi Roy & Srijaa Chatterjee
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