By Dr Jumma Khan Marri
The liberal, secular India of Nehru and Gandhi is no more. Under the Modi-led BJP government, India is fast becoming a racist and fascist Hindu nationalist society in which there is no democratic dissent. The Hindutva brigade is especially targeting Muslims and other minorities in order to reduce them to the status of second-class citizens.
According to the latest global survey, India has become one of the world’s least free democracies. The Freedom in the World 2020 report ranks India at the 83rd position, along with Timor-Leste and Senegal. This is near the bottom of the list of countries categorised as “Free”, with only Tunisia receiving a lower score. India’s score fell by four points to 71, the worst decline among the world’s 25 largest democracies this year.
The analysis contains a warning about the Indian government’s alarming departures from democratic norms under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. The annulment of autonomy and the subsequent shutdown of Kashmir, the National Register of Citizens and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, as well as the crackdown on mass protests have been listed as the main signs of declining freedom in the report, released by Freedom House, a US-based watchdog, which has been tracking global political and civil liberties for almost half a century.
To quote the report, “These three actions have shaken the rule of law in India and threatened the secular and inclusive nature of its political system. While India continues to earn a ‘Free’ rating and held successful elections last spring, the BJP has distanced itself from the country’s founding commitment to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive.”
Narendra Modi, who is known as the Butcher of Gujarat, has cavalierly rejected criticism of his racist Hindu nationalist policies, which include a series of new measures that threaten to disenfranchise India’s Muslim population. The report has slammed the internet blackout in Kashmir, terming it the longest shutdown ever imposed by a democracy. The freedom of expression is under threat in India, with journalists, academics and others facing harassment and intimidation for exposing the lies and transgressions of BJP government.
The findings of the global survey are based on the principles enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. It covers 195 countries, awarding scores based on political rights indicators such as the electoral process, political pluralism and participation and government functioning, as well as civil liberties indicators related to freedom of expression, religious rights, the rule of law and personal autonomy.
India scored 34 out of 40 points in the political rights category, but only 37 out of 60 in the civil liberties category, for a total score of 71, a drop from last year’s score of 75. The report treats Indian Illegally Occupied Kashmir as a separate territory, which saw its total score drop steeply from 49 to 28 this year, moving it from the status of “Partly Free” to “Not Free”.
The findings of the Freedom Index are endorsed by another report released by The Economist magazine of London. Each year the Economist Intelligence Unit compiles a “Democracy Index”, which shows the state of democracy around the world. In the Economist 2020 report, India was ranked 51st in 2019, with an overall score of 6.9 which has dropped to 6.61. The report observes that there has been significant “democratic backsliding” by India in the past year, due to which it has been categorised as a “flawed democracy.” India has fallen from a global ranking of 27 in 2015 to 53. To quote the report, this is because “democratic norms have been under pressure since 2015 under the leadership of Narendra Modi”.
It is no secret that since Narendra Modi took over in 2014, there has been a steep decline in democratic freedoms and civil liberties in India. According to the magazine “by contrast, the scores for some of India’s regional neighbours, such as Bangladesh, Bhutan and Pakistan, improved marginally in 2020”. In the last few years, India has seen the increasing influence of religion under the Modi premiership, whose policies have fomented anti-Muslim feeling and religious strife.
The EIU report specially refers to the enactment in December 2019 of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 which “continued to fuel riots in 2020, with several left dead following clashes in February in the capital city, New Delhi. The act introduces a religious element to the conceptualisation of Indian citizenship, a step that many critics see as undermining the secular basis of the Indian State”.
The magazine indicts Modi for participating in the ground-breaking ceremony at the site of the destroyed Babri Masjid, and notes that the Ram Mandir’s construction will further polarise India and strengthen the aggressive Hindu nationalists.
The Economist also ran a story on India recently captioned, “India’s government is censoring people before they comment”. It quotes Idi Amin, late Ugandan dictator, who once declared he respected freedom of speech, but could not guarantee freedom after speech. The magazine says “India’s government has gained a taste for curtailing freedom before speech.”
According to The Wire, an Indian media outlet, 55 journalists were threatened, arrested and booked by the Centre and state governments for their reporting on Covid-19. FIRs have been filed against several journalists of both regional and national media. Details of the crackdown were published in a report by Delhi-based Rights and Risk Analysis Group which said that journalists were charged for “exercising freedom of opinion and expression during the national lockdown between March 25 and May 31, 2020.”