Six (of many) reasons why PM Modi’s words on democracy in White House ring hollow

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It took a state visit to the US for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take an open question from a journalist for the first time in over eight years.

Despite many demands by members of civil society, Modi has not addressed a single press conference in the more than nine years that he has been in power. However, on June 22, 2023, Modi appeared to have relented to pressure of the US, which insisted that taking questions from the media was standard practice during White House state visits.

The Indian side agreed to take only a single question, and that was unsurprisingly related to the victimisation of Muslims in India, the country’s human rights violations, and the clampdown on dissent and criticism under Modi’s rule.

Mentioning the word ‘democracy’ 12 times in his interpreted response, prime minister still managed to deflect the specific issues raised by saying that his government’s welfare benefits are accessible to all irrespective of faith, caste, and creed. He claimed that India could not be one of the largest constitutional democracies in the world by sidelining human rights and allowing discrimination.

However, ever since Modi came to power in 2014, India has attracted global attention on a range of concerns that indicate that some of its goings on are inherently undemocratic. Modi has regularly fuelled majoritarian sentiments in the country and has maintained silence on a range of human rights abuses, even as his government had passed one discriminatory order after another.

Here are a few instances which contradict the Prime Minister’s assertions in the White House.

The Elgar Parishad case

Five years have passed but most of the 16 arrested activists, all renowned for their life-long advocacy of civil liberties and opposition to any form of discrimination against people living on the margins, are still in jail.

Slapped with charges under draconian laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, the National Investigation Agency construed a protest event into a case of conspiracy against the state. In all these years, the investigators haven’t been able to produce any credible evidence, and the trial in the case is yet to start. And yet have been successful in keeping them in prison because of the severe provisions of laws like the UAPA.

Among those arrested are four academics, three lawyers, two independent journalists, a union organiser and social activist, a poet, three performing artists, and a Jesuit priest who died in jail. Although those arrested have worked in various fields, all of them have been severely critical of the majoritarian impulses of the Modi regime.

Gagging the media

Rarely has any Indian government clamped down on free media like the Modi government.

The government has not only used indirect means to silence critical media but have also from time to time used official power to force digital platforms like YouTube, Twitter, or Facebook to take down content that is critical of the government. There is ample evidence to suggest that the Modi government has invoked various laws to pressurise these digital platforms, but more recently the trend was confirmed by none other than the former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey in an interview where he claimed that India was one of the countries that had threatened Twitter with raids on employees’ houses if it did not take down critical content.

There is more. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government also became the first Indian dispensation to give itself – through new Information Technology Rules – the power to take down media content directly, if the government deems it fit for removal. The government can now take down not just news but also entertainment content if it is perceived as “defamatory” or antithetical to “national” interests.

Over the last nine years, India has constantly slid in global press freedom rankings. Given the PM’s claims about India’s high democratic standards, it is quite ironic that the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in its latest World Press Freedom Index ranked India at 161 out of the 180 countries that were under review. India’s position slipped 11 ranks in 2023 from 150th position in 2022. Even autocracies like Pakistan and Afghanistan fared better than India in the RSF rankings.

Hundreds of journalists are facing stringent charges for mere reporting work. At least seven journalists are in prison under legal sections that are used against terrorists. Various global bodies have documented the arrests of journalists in India during the Modi regime. Even as the country was reeling under the emotional and financial stress of the COVID-19-induced lockdown, various governments in India, including those run by the BJP, arrested, booked, or threatened 55 journalists for reporting on the miseries of the lockdown.

Indian journalists who remain in jail (clockwise from top left): Rupesh Kumar Singh, Gautam Navlakha, Siddique Kappan, Fahad Shah, Aasif Sultan and Sajad Gul.

Systematic persecution of Muslims and Christians

Religious minorities have had to suffer through their persistent majoritarian politics aggressively pursued by the Modi-led BJP. Since 2014, Hindu extremist groups have enjoyed unprecedented impunity in threatening and attacking Muslims and Christians across the country. A number of lynchings of Muslims have made news global news in the last few years. In such incidents, the increasingly powerful fringe right, in the name of preventing cattle slaughter, have killed poor Muslims. Incidents of attacks on Muslims or threats against them make news almost daily in India now.

More recently, Hindutva leaders in the small hill state of Uttarakhand had given a call to boycott Muslims economically. This call is believed to have been amplified with the help of the ruling BJP.

Saffron party leaders, including Union ministers, have constantly indulged in Islamophobhic statements that also demonise the Muslim and Christian communities of India.

Such groups and individuals do not operate in a vacuum but with direct and indirect support from the government. The Modi government has been blatantly Hindu majoritarian in its posturing, which has also reflected in some of its policies. It celebrated the Supreme Court order on the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi title dispute in which the top court held the demolition of the centuries-old Babri Masjid by Hindutva groups illegal but still decided to hand over the land to the Hindu groups.

Then, the Modi government passed a controversial law – the Citizenship Amendment Act – in which it allowed citizenship rights to persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries but curiously excluded persecuted Muslims who sought refuge in India. The law fuelled widespread resentment among Indian Muslims, who believed that defining citizenship on the basis of faith, as provisioned in the new Act, was a direct attack on the Indian constitution that has accorded citizenship rights to Indians irrespective of faith, caste, and creed.

Similarly, the special status that the state of Jammu and Kashmir enjoyed because of historical reasons was abruptly withdrawn by a government diktat. The people of the state were not taken into confidence nor were they informed that their state will cease to remain one after Article 370 was diluted. The state was divided into two Union Territories and put under the Union’s rule.

Hand in hand with such decisions, the clamour for a Hindu Rashtra, as opposed to a multicultural, secular state enshrined in the Indian constitution, has been growing in India at a rapid rate – mostly because the Hindu Right feels unprecedentedly empowered in Modi’s regime. These groups, supported by various BJP governments in Indian provinces, have attacked every cultural and social tradition of Indian minorities and have attempted to pitch Hindus against them at every possible opportunity. The politics of polarisation is espoused by none other than the Prime Minister himself who has regularly fuelled majoritarian sentiments, promoted hardline Hindutva leaders, attacked Indian Muslims in his election speeches, and advanced Hindu symbolism in government affairs.

Screengrab from a video showing the public flogging of the Muslim accused in Gujarat’s Undhela village.

Large and small-scale communal riots have grown manifestly in Modi’s tenure, and conviction rate in such hate crimes have remained abysmally low.

There have, meanwhile, been sustained efforts by the Modi government to erase the Muslim contribution to Indian history. Chapters detailing the medieval era in which Muslim emperors and dynasties ruled are being systematically removed from school textbooks by BJP governments both at the Union and in states. The political philosophy behind such a purge, historians believe, is the Hindu right’s ahistorical prejudices that consider Islamic rule as “anti-Indian” and a dark period in Indian history.

Modi’s claim in the White House on Thursday that India achieved independence after “1,000 years of foreign rule” includes the Islamic rule too, apart from the 200 years of British colonial rule – a Hindutva assertion that no professional historian has ever agreed with.

The age-old bias against Muslims shows itself in the Modi’s regime too, where not even a single BJP parliamentarian is a Muslim. In fact, the BJP has taken care not to allow any Muslim to contest a major election as a BJP candidate.

Raids on opposition

Even as the Prime Minister spoke about high democratic standards in India, investigation bodies were conducting raids on a close relative of Bihar’s finance minister, Vijay Kumar Choudhary. The raids have come at a time when the Indian state Bihar is hosting the biggest-ever opposition meeting ahead of the 2024 Parliamentary elections. The opposition leaders will gather in Bihar’s capital Patna to unite on a broad range of concerns that relate to the failing democratic standards. Choudhary, it is said, is in-charge of the logistics involved at the event.

The last five years have seen frequent raids by central investigation agencies on opposition leaders, even as none of these raids have been taken to its culmination. The agencies have rarely filed chargesheets; they haven’t taken these cases to trial but have still indulged in conducting raids on one opposition leader after another.

Houses and offices of several bigwigs in the opposition parties have been raided but the government has maintained conspicuous silence on the charges. In contrast, several tainted BJP leaders have remained scot-free. However, those opposition leaders who face corruption allegations but have switched over to the saffron party in recent times have managed to evade any form of scrutiny, leading to the widespread belief that the raids on opposition leaders are selective in nature and cater to the interests of the ruling BJP.

Attacks on human rights activists

Although the government’s action in the Elgar Parishad case is an example unto itself, there are several more stark examples which display the government’s propensity to shut down voices which stand up for those without a voice. The Delhi riots unfolded as a culmination of a shrill majoritarian campaign by Modi’s BJP and came on the heels of a widespread constitutional protest by Indian Muslims and civil society groups.

However, three years down the line, the police have failed to arrest any of the Hindutva leaders who gave hugely provocative speeches against Muslims but have charged those involved in the peaceful protests with allegations of treason and terrorism. Students like Umar Khalid, Gulfisha Fatima, Sharjeel Imam, Natasha Narwal, Asif Tanha and Devangana Kalita – three of whom are still in prison – were charged with UAPA, a law that was primarily intended to contain terrorism. Several Muslim activists are still lodged in prison as undertrials. Most of them, the government claims, were responsible for hatching a conspiracy to create a bad name for India at a global stage, even as the police haven’t produced any evidence to back the claim.

The unforeseen use of non-bailable offences and draconian laws against activists and critical voices in Modi’s regime has been worse than a similar dark period in Indian history, the Emergency for 21 months between 1975 and 1977. The Wire

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Disclaimer: Six (of many) reasons why PM Modi’s words on democracy in White House ring hollow - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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