INDIA DOWNGRADED: “PARTLY FREE!”

coverstory image Cedric Prakash
15 Mar 2021
Weekly Magazine In India

It comes as no surprise! The way democracy in India has been battered on all fronts by a fascist regime since 2014 (blatantly in the last couple of years) would make every concerned and patriotic Indian to hang one’s head down in shame! 

Never has the country been so disgraced and downgraded on every parameter of human development, democratic mores and for that matter, even in economic growth. Now, the US-based think-tank  ‘Freedom House’  in its latest Report  ‘Freedom in the World Report 2021‘  has downgraded India’s status from a ‘free’ country to a ‘partly free’ country for the first time. 

The Report in its India ‘Status’ says, “India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters”.

The ’Overview’ is more direct, “While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (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, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized”.

The Report then goes on to highlight some ‘Key Developments in 2020’

•    In February, more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, were killed amid communal and protest-related violence in Delhi that followed weeks of demonstrations against discriminatory changes to the country’s citizenship law.

•    Authorities filed criminal charges against journalists, students, and private citizens under colonial-era sedition laws as well as the 2000 Information Technology (IT) Act in response to speech perceived as critical of the government, notably including expressions of opposition to the new citizenship legislation and discussion of the official response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

•    India’s internal migrant population endured significant hardships as a result of the government’s pandemic-related lockdown, which was imposed in March and gradually eased beginning in May. Many migrant laborers were unable to access basic supplies and services in cities, forcing millions to travel hundreds of miles—often on foot—to their home villages. Harsh restrictions on movement were violently enforced by police and citizen vigilantes, with Muslims often scapegoated as potential spreaders of the virus.

•    In September, several BJP leaders who were credibly accused of orchestrating the demolition of a historic mosque in 1992 were acquitted by a special court. Modi the previous month had signaled his support for the construction of a Hindu temple on the contested site

‘Freedom House’ is a prestigious think-tank, with a high -degree of accuracy; most thinking Governments and citizens take its Annual Report very seriously as an authentic barometer of ‘freedom’ in a particular country. With the help of about 125 highly professional and competent analysts and more than 40 consultants, it assesses each country or territory on the basis of two main parameters: political rights and civil liberties, which are then further divided into various categories. The categories are then sub-divided into questions and a country is then given a score out of four on each question, based on its performance. The political rights category has 10 such questions, while civil liberties carry 15. This year based on the categories related questions; India was given a score of 67/100. India has thus fallen by four points since last year when it was still in the ‘free’ category. 

In analysing the ground realities of India, the Report minces no words, “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 “antinational” 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.”

Further adding, “In 2020, dozens of journalists whose reporting was critical of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic were arrested, and media outlets faced pressure to praise the government’s response. In a March video conference with the heads of India’s largest newspapers, Prime Minister Modi called on media to help prevent the spread of “pessimism, negativity, and rumor mongering,” which many perceived to be a warning not to criticize officials’ management of the pandemic. Journalists risk harassment, death threats, and physical violence in the course of their work.” The Report also highlights the way the Judiciary in India has been compromised in recent years.

On expected lines, the official reaction from the Government of India was not only knee-jerk but a whole bag of lies. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting(I&B) both reacted strongly to the Freedom House’s report downgrading India’s status to a ‘partly free” country. While the response of the MEA spokesperson was a terse one, the I&B ministry issued a long press statement saying among other things, that, “the Government of India treats all its citizens with equality as enshrined under the Constitution of the country and all laws are applied without discrimination. Due process of law is followed in matters relating to law and order, irrespective of the identity of the alleged instigator”. It also claimed that “proportionate and appropriate action” was taken during the northeast Delhi riots and that, “necessary legal and preventive actions were taken by the law enforcement machinery on all complaints/calls received, as per law and procedures.” Further, it also denied the claims of the Report that academics and journalists were intimidated, saying that “discussion, debate and dissent is part of Indian democracy.”

Unfortunately, the Government really thinks that most people are ‘blind bhakts’ or simply morons – who are unable to see or perceive the Indian reality. Their infantile denial of the way democracy is being dismantled in the country today, would be something to be laughed at, were it not for the seriousness of the situation. There are hundreds of examples day-in and day-out to call out the ‘official’ lies!

Minorities in India are constantly denigrated, demonised and attacked; there is the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A in Kashmir; of how freedom of speech and expression and dissent is being crushed (the case of Disha Ravi and others, are so conveniently forgotten); of how human rights defenders are falsely imprisoned (Fr Stan Swamy’s bail order was once again adjourned yesterday-11 March-by almost another week); of how politicians of another party are either blackmailed or bought up to cross the floor. It was there for all to see of how the migrant workers were treated in the wake of the lockdown. The farmers protest, demanding the repeal of the three anti-farmer laws, after more than hundred days is still on, with many more joining in (and of course the ‘godified’ media does not have the honesty to cover it). Then we have the three labour codes and the Citizenship Amendment Act. There are the anti-Constitutional so-called ‘Love Jihad’ laws. The economy is in shambles: fuel has risen to an all-time high. The poor have become poorer and the crony capitalists’ friends of the ruling regime have become multi-millionaires by looting the nation. The fact that corruption and communalism, hate and violence are the DNA of the ruling regime and their goons. The Judiciary is far from independent and Constitutional(independent) bodies be it the Election Commission of India (ECI) or the Central Bureau of Investigation or that natter the National Investigation Agency (NIA) are caged parrots. The list is endless! India indeed has never had it so bad!
The point is that, by their own admission in Parliament, the Government said that as many as 5,128 cases under the stringent UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and 229 on charges of sedition have been lodged across the country in a five-year period from 2015-2019. This means a phenomenal rise of 72%; many more were arrested last year and in the first two months of this year. Further, according to the official data, 30 cases were lodged on charges of sedition in 2015 followed by 35 in 2016, 51 in 2017, 70 in 2018 and 93 in 2019. The Government does not have the honesty to reveal that their so-called ‘official’ figures are also terribly underplayed; take for example, in just one case in Chhattisgarh 120 people were arrested. Then in Maharashtra, no mention is found of those arrested in the Bhima-Koregaon conspiracy case in 2018 and 2019! It is there for all to see who are the ones who are imprisoned under these draconian laws: minorities, Adivasis, Dalits, human rights defenders, academics and others who take a stand for justice, truth and for democracy!

Close on the heels of the Freedom House Report, another well-known global organisation from Sweden ‘V-Dem’ (Varieties of Democracy) released its  fifth annual democracy report The report entitled ‘Autocratisation Goes Viral’, has downgraded India from “the world’s largest democracy” to an “electoral autocracy”, citing “muzzling” of the media, and overuse of defamation and sedition laws. V-Dem claims to produce the largest dataset on democracy with almost 30 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2020. The Report states that, “while India’s score was at an all-time high at 0.57 (on a scale of 0-1) in 2013, it had declined to 0.34 by the end of 2020 — a loss of 23 percentage points in seven years. Most of the decline occurred following BJP’s victory in 2014 and their Hindu nationalist agenda.” 

A graph illustrating the decline of democracy in South Asian nations – India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka – shows that India’s descent to becoming an electoral autocracy began in 2014, when the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) first came to power.
“Narendra Modi led the 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.” The Report goes on to add that, “India is, in this aspect (censorship, now as autocratic as is Pakistan, and worse than both its neighbors Bangladesh and Nepal. In general, the Modi-led government in India has used laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism 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,” 

In a section ‘India: Democracy Broken Down’, the report notes that the BJP-ruled nation has largely followed this trajectory, with freedom of speech, media freedom, and civil society being attacked relentlessly and routinely. “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.”     “... the Modi-led government in India has used laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism 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.”

Inspite of the Governments all-out efforts to play- down the farmers protests (which is regarded as the biggest strike in the world), other Governments and independent institutions have been voicing their concerns. Recently, in the British House of Commons, there was a fairly long debate on the farmers protests. The Indian Government of course did not take kindly to it: summoning the UK High Commissioner to India and telling him that the debate was ‘gross interference’ (so when Modi goes and campaigns for Trump in the US or if the Indian Government supports Israel against Palestine that is ‘apparently’ not interference for India). Several British MPs retorted after the summons, even more sharply with one spokeswoman saying, “what we saw in parliament was the power of democracy. What started with a petition from a local Lib Dem councillor led to ministers being held to account on their duty to stand up for human rights around the world. The Indian government should have respect for our democratic traditions and our right to scrutinise our own government. Media freedoms and the right to protest should be values our two countries share as part of a strong relationship. Many in the UK have family living in India and are rightly concerned by the treatment of peaceful protesters during the recent protests”

Since 2014 India has fared extremely badly on every major independent global study, particularly those mapping democratic freedoms. In December 2020, out of 162 countries, India occupied the 111th place in ‘The Human Freedom Index 2020’, a worldwide ranking of civil, economic and personal freedom,. India ranked 94 on the index in 2019. Last month (February 2021), India slipped two places to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index’s global ranking, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which said the “democratic backsliding” by authorities and “crackdowns” on civil liberties has led to a further decline in the country’s ranking. Adding, “With mounting pressure on India’s democratic norms, India’s score fell from a peak of 7.92 in 2014 to 6.61 in 2020 and its global ranking slipped from 27th (in 2014) to 53rd as a result of democratic backsliding” under the current regime.” In October 2020, India ranked 94 among 107 nations in the Global Hunger Index 2020 and was in the 'serious' hunger category with experts blaming poor implementation processes, lack of effective monitoring, siloed approach in tackling malnutrition and poor performance by large states behind the low ranking. Neighbouring Bangladesh, Myanmar and Pakistan too were in the 'serious' category but ranked higher than India in this year's hunger index. While Bangladesh ranked 75, Myanmar and Pakistan were in the 78th and 88th position respectively. Nepal in 73rd and Sri Lanka in 64th position was in 'moderate' hunger category, the report showed.

That India has reached, an abysmal depth, is without doubt; that we have a fascist regime which continues to spew lies and hate and destroy the country bit by bit, needs to be addressed. Thankfully, despite the shrinking democratic space, we still have in India, a robust and vibrant civil society who are ready to pay the price! They are determined to stop the downslide into total anarchy! This year as we celebrate our Nobel laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, we must take a cue from him and his immortal poem ‘Freedom’

“Freedom from fear is the freedom
I claim for you my motherland!
Freedom from the burden of the ages, bending your head,
breaking your back, blinding your eyes to the beckoning
call of the future;
Freedom from the shackles of slumber wherewith
you fasten yourself in night's stillness,
mistrusting the star that speaks of truth's adventurous paths;
freedom from the anarchy of destiny
whole sails are weakly yielded to the blind uncertain winds,
and the helm to a hand ever rigid and cold as death.
Freedom from the insult of dwelling in a puppet's world,
where movements are started through brainless wires,
repeated through mindless habits,
where figures wait with patience and obedience for the
master of show,
to be stirred into a mimicry of life”.
 

Let us rise now!!

*(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights& peace activist/writer. Contact: cedricprakash@gmail.com )
 

 

 

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