India loses ‘free democratic’ label under Hindu nationalist government

19th Mar 2021
India loses ‘free democratic’ label under Hindu nationalist government

Sajeda Haider

For the first time in its 73-year existence as a sovereign independent nation, India has lost its status as a “free” democratic country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi Government’s severe crackdown on dissent, discriminatory treatment of its huge Muslim minority and rampant human rights abuses is driving India towards “authoritarianism”, say an 80-year-old Washington-based democracy watchdog.

In its report Democracy under Siege, Freedom House has moved India from the ‘free’ to ‘partly free’ state category with the observation that as India is the world’s most populous democracy the free world has shrunk as a result of its fall and it could have a damaging impact on global democratic standards.

‘Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all, ’ said the watchdog in its 2021 report released in early March.

The non-profit NGO which is partially funded by the US government has been conducting research and advocacy on democracy, political freedom and human rights since 1941.

Explaining the reason for shifting India, Freedom House stated, ‘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.’

Freedom House findings are the latest in a line of independent international bodies, which have called out the Modi Government for its intolerance, particularly of religious minorities, human rights abuses, throttling of dissent and decline of freedoms.

‘Political rights and civil liberties in the country have deteriorated since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, with increased pressure on human rights organisations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims. The decline only accelerated after Modi’s re-election in 2019,’ the report said.

Since independence from Britain in 1947, India has very proudly held its tag as a champion of democratic practices and a member of the free world. This was particularly notable when Pakistan, the country it was born with and is often compared to, had descended into dictatorship and military rule several times in its 73-year history. Today, India finds itself in the same “partly free” category as Pakistan, a particularly irksome position for Modi, who has regularly vilified the Muslim-majority country as a failed state and a hot-bed of terrorism.

Among the reasons pointed out in the report for India losing its status are the frequent use of the sedition law to deter free speech and the restrictions on foreign-funding of NGOs forcing out bodies like the Ford Foundation and Amnesty International.

The ‘excessively harsh’ Covid-19 lockdown that triggered the displacement of millions of impoverished migrant workers has also been referenced. It took note of the ‘corona jihad’ narrative circulated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and its echo-chambers whereby ‘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’.

The Freedom House report also mentioned the severe crackdown last year on mostly Muslim women protestors of the new discriminatory citizenship law that the Modi Government wishes to introduce, which finally culminated in sectarian violence encouraged by the Bharatiya Janata Party leaving 53 people, mostly Muslims, dead in New Delhi. It also took note of another new law that Bharatiya Janata Part-ruled states like Uttar Pradesh are ushering in to curb inter-faith marriages and does not allow religious conversion away from Hinduism.

In a delayed response, the Modi Government rejected the Freedom House report as “misleading, incorrect and misplaced”, in a feeble rebuttal to the discriminatory policies against Muslims, the government insisted it “treats all its citizens with equality”.

Be it the freedom of religion, marriage, expression or protest, Indians have enjoyed their rights as enshrined in the Constitution. However, over the last seven years, they have witnessed these freedoms slowly erode as never before.
The government has dismissed many domestic academics who have long ruled India a democracy in name only as left-liberal critics, however, the same criticisms are now being vocalised by an international watchdog, based in the headquarters of capitalism cannot be discounted as easily.

“The Modi regime, which is authoritarian by instinct and belief, has used the pandemic to further undermine the processes of constitutional democracy and strengthen its hold over State and society. In pursuit of its ambitions, the regime has launched a multi-pronged attack on the Indian Parliament, Indian federalism, the Indian press and Indian civil society organisations,” said Ramachandra Guha, eminent Indian historian and biographer of Mahatma Gandhi.

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