Lately reports by independent and reputed agencies batting for democracy and civil rights have downgraded India’s status claiming it is gradually turning into an illiberal democracy and can be counted among the 10 autocratising countries! While the BJP-led NDA government, under fire, has rubbished all such reports, its actions as brought out by these reports and other authorities only heighten the growing concern over blatant attempts to stifle dissent in the country. Rather than ignoring or discounting criticism, the government would do well to view it as ‘constructive criticism’ and work earnestly towards changing its image.
The V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute, an independent research organisation based in Sweden, says in ‘Autocratisation Turns Viral: Democracy Report 2021’, the ‘world’s largest democracy has turned into an electoral autocracy. India’s autocratisation process has largely followed the typical pattern for countries in the “Third Wave” over the 10 years: a gradual deterioration where freedom of media, academia, and civil society were curtailed first and to the greatest extent India has turned into an “electoral autocracy.”
Narendra Modi-led BJP to victory in India’s 2014 elections and most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory and promotion of a Hindu-nationalist agenda, says the report, released last month in the presence of Sweden’s Deputy Foreign Minister Robert Rydberg. ‘India’s level of liberal democracy registered at 0.34 by 2020-end after a steep decline since its high at 0.57 in 2013. This makes it one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years, alongside autocratising countries like Brazil, Hungary, and Turkey.’
While it said that the ‘overall freedom and fairness of elections also was hard hit, with the last elections held under Modi’s reign in 2019, yet, the diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society have gone the furthest.’ 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 as is Pakistan, and worse than both its neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal.
In general, it says, the Modi-led government has used laws on sedition, defamation, and counter-terrorism to silence critics. 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.’ The law on defamation has been used frequently to silence journalists and news outlets that take exception to the government’s policies, punishments for which range from two years in prison to life imprisonment for “words, spoken or written, or signs or visible representation that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection” toward the government.
“Modi and his party have also placed constraints on civil society and have gone against the constitution’s commitment to secularism. Recently, the UAPA is being used to harass, intimidate, and imprison political opponents, as well as people mobilising to protest government policies.” In addition it is being used to “silence dissent in academia. Universities and authorities have also punished students and activists in universities engaging in protests against the CAA. Civil society is also being muzzled in the autocratization process.”
The development comes just after democracy watchdog, Freedom House, mostly funded by the US government, dropped India from the list of ‘free’ countries and designated it as ‘partly free’. It said: “While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population. The Constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, NGOs, and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi.”
The private media, it said are vigorous and diverse, and investigations and scrutiny of politicians do occur. However, attacks on press freedom have escalated dramatically under the Modi government, and reporting has become significantly less ambitious in recent years. Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to quiet critical voices in the media. Hindu nationalist campaigns aimed at discouraging forms of expression deemed “anti-national” have exacerbated self-censorship. Online disinformation from inauthentic sources is ubiquitous in the run-up to elections. Separately, revelations of close relationships between politicians, business executives, and lobbyists, on one hand, and leading media personalities and owners of media outlets, on the other, have dented public confidence in the press.”
A wide variety of NGOs operate, says the report but some, particularly those involved in the investigation of human rights abuses, continue to face threats, legal harassment, excessive police force, and occasionally lethal violence. Since 2015, the government has deregistered nearly 15,000 associations under the FCRA, amendments to which were passed in 2020, without consulting civil society groups and tightened restrictions on foreign funding.
It also said “Academic freedom has significantly weakened in recent years, as intimidation of professors, students, and institutions over political and religious issues has increased. Members of student wing of RSS have engaged in violence on campuses across the country, including attacks on students/professors. Academics face pressure not to discuss topics deemed sensitive by the BJP government, etc.
Again, India was derided as the ‘world’s largest illiberal democracy’ under Modi during a festival of ideas organised by The Financial Times in London, watched in over 100 countries. The comment was made during an exchange between Edward Luce once the FT’s South Asian Bureau Chief and author and journalist Fareed Zakaria, recipient of Padma Bhushan in 2010. Luce said the world’s 10 leading liberal democracies, including the US, “would have to criticise it (Modi government) for turning non-Hindu citizens gradually into second class citizens.” Zakaria pointed out: “what we’re mostly seeing is the degradation of democracy from within – what is happening in Hungary, what is happening in Turkey, what happened in Russia…And what do you do in India (when it) is one of the key perpetrators of the problem rather than a solution to it?”
To a certain extent, the judiciary has been somewhat been critical of government decisions. Recently, the Supreme Court, while quashing the FIR registered against The Shillong Times Editor Patricia Mukhim, stated that free speech cannot be stifled by implicating people in criminal cases. Further, it observed: “Disapprobation of governmental inaction cannot be branded as an attempt to promote hatred between the different communities”, and noted that “India is a plural and multicultural society. The promise of liberty, enunciated in the Preamble, manifests itself in various provisions which outline each citizen’s rights”.
In the academic realm, the situation is far more distressing as has been manifest by the resignation of two renowned scholars — Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Arvind Subramanian, from Ashoka University. “My public writing in support of a politics that tries to honour constitutional values of freedom and equal respect for all citizens, is perceived to carry risks for the university,” said Mehta in his resignation letter. Adding “It is clear it is time for me to leave Ashoka. A liberal university will need a liberal political and social context to flourish. I hope the university will play a role in securing that environment. Nietzsche once said that ‘no living for truth is possible in a university.’ I hope that prophecy does not come true.” It is understood that around 90 faculty members expressed solidarity. Worse, 150 academics from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, LSE, MIT questioned Ashoka’s commitment to freedom.
Recall a report way back in 2017 of Pew Research Centre survey which showed 55% Indians support a ‘strongman’ unchecked by Parliament and judiciary and almost half i.e. 53% said military rule would be a good thing. Today, as seen various factors are creating even more apathy towards democracy. When populist nationalism reigns supreme and rulers shower sops and freebies at election time, who cares about democracy and holding leaders accountable? Also when public life is intensely polarised, it is almost impossible to build a consensus on what constitutes danger to freedom.
Unfortunately, Indians don’t usually punish political parties for violating democratic rights. In 1977 elections after Emergency, Indira Gandhi was defeated in North but she got 34.5% vote share in the south. Likewise, Modi government’s crackdown on dissent scarcely seems to influence voters. A national lockdown, announced at 4-hour notice, forcing millions of migrant workers to walk hundreds of miles home, did not affect the BJP’s electoral prospects, as Bihar Assembly elections showed. In such a precarious situation, while political parties need to think of the country, various stakeholders such as academics, civil society organisations should put additional pressure on the government, both internally and globally. Unless the situation changes, the character, strength of India’s democracy and its social bonding and stratification will get further eroded.—