Photo: Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu (left) wi th his PS Nicholas Muraguri during the press conference at Afya House on October 30, 2016. Credit: Dennis Onsongo | Nation Media Group - Photo: 2021

India Driving Toward ‘Authoritarianism’ — Media Being Gagged

The following is a revised version of the previous report titled “India Falls from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’ in Freedom Index”

By Ditsa Bhattacharya, NewsClick and ICF Team

NEW DELHI (IDN) — India’s status fell from “free” to “partly free” in the Freedom in the World 2021 report released on March 3. India’s score in the index decreased by four points, from 71 in 2020, to 67 in 2021. The report, published by Freedom House, a US-based non-governmental organisation, measures the strength of democratic processes in countries. The report attributed the decline in India’s score to the policies of the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government.

“The government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and its state-level allies continued to crack down on critics during the year, and their response to COVID-19 included a ham-fisted lockdown that resulted in the dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers,” it added.

It also highlighted the communal nature of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as a major cause of declining freedoms in the country. It pointed out that as people and governments across the country struggled to tackle the disruption caused by COVID-19, “the ruling Hindu nationalist movement encouraged the scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs”.

“Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism,” it added.

India is the world’s most populous democracy. The decline of freedom in the country caused a very significant rise in the proportion of the world’s population who do not live in a “free” country. According to the report, with India’s decline to Partly Free status, less than 20% of the world’s population now lives in a free country, the smallest proportion since 1995.

Political rights and civil liberties corroded

Freedom House pointed out that the fall of India from the upper ranks of such nations could have a particularly damaging impact on global democratic standards. “Political rights and civil liberties in the country have deteriorated since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, with increased pressure on human rights organizations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims,” it said.

This decline accelerated further after Modi’s re-election in 2019, the report noted, pointing out that the Union Government had taken steps and implemented policies that threaten the freedoms enjoyed by India’s citizens. “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,” it said.

According to Freedom House – although freedom in the world’s better-performing countries had been in retreat for several years – in 2020 it was struggling democracies and authoritarian states that accounted for more of the global decline. The proportion of “Not Free” countries is now the highest it has been over the past 15 years.

On an average the scores of these countries have declined by about 15% during the same period. At the same time, the number of countries worldwide earning a net score improvement for 2020 was the lowest since 2005, suggesting that the prospects for a change in a global downward trend are more challenging than ever.

“As repression intensifies in already unfree environments, greater damage is done to their institutions and societies, making it increasingly difficult to fulfill public demands for freedom and prosperity under any future government,” the report said.

The Indian Cultural Forum reported on February 17 that in 2015, Reporters Without Borders had placed India at 136 out of 180 countries; five years later, it slumped to 142, trailing Myanmar by three spots and Afghanistan by twenty.

The ICF team argued: “Since shifts in a country’s global position may reflect progress and regress in other countries, this datum does not capture the true scale of the change.”

Character of the state called into question

“To grasp the deterioration of political liberty from within requires a different tapeline, one that has become hard to devise, because in India the independent gathering and verification of information are under stress as never before – to an extent that calls into question the very character of the state,” the ICF team adds.

Reckonings of state failures have become ideologically inconvenient, even inadmissible – just like the marginalised communities, says the ICF. In the bottom third of countries ranked by human development, as also in the gender gap index, India is placed among the weakest performers in the global hunger index, and the environmental index (additionally, it has 21 of the 30 most-polluted cities on the planet).

It has been slipping on the corruption perception scale, and is identified with the highest incidence of bribery in Asia. It is, on the other hand, the third-highest military spender in the world, and displays some of its starkest – also fastest-growing – wealth inequality, besides some of the poorest showings in the transfer of wealth via taxes and human-development spending.

“Together, these figures draw a thumbnail sketch of the health of our democracy. A telling departure from democratic functioning came with the closure of Amnesty International’s India office last year, after relentless harassment by the enforcement directorate, income tax authorities, and a smear campaign by the government. Unsurprisingly, the country has been slipping in the global democracy index: ranked 27 in 2014, 53 in 2020,” notes the ICE team.

“Enemies of the state”

Furthermore, elitism and cronyism would have been business as usual in a country where the parliament is a showcase of wealth and being a legislator ensures wealth appreciation even in economic downturns, but what is now unfolding is much grimmer. Those who speak up for the marginalised, whether as lawyers, academics, human rights activists or journalists, are treated as enemies of the state.

“Independent journalists find themselves in a tricky position, always at risk of turning into the very victims of abuse whose stories they seek to publicise. The Free Speech Collective’s report “Behind Bars” reveals that over the last decade 154 journalists were arrested, interrogated or served show-cause notices for their professional work, 67 of these in 2020 alone. Article 14 has set up a database on sedition cases, which shows a 28 per cent increase each year since 2014.”

The ICF team further notes: The government’s actions over these past seven years have not only grown increasingly authoritarian but divorced from any gains other than an increase of its arbitrary power. For instance, India restricted internet access more than any other country in 2020, and over half the global economic cost of such shutdowns was suffered by India alone.” [IDN-InDepthNews – 04 March 2021]

Image source: The Tribune.

IDN is the flagship agency of the Non-profit International Press Syndicate.

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