By: Priyal Thakkar
While decrying the loss of basic human rights in the world’s largest democracy might seem hyperbolic, many international actors are, rightfully, concerned that India is on the verge of becoming an authoritarian state. In its report, Democracy under Siege, Freedom House explains civil liberties have been on the decline since Prime Minister Modi came to power in 2014 but accelerated after 2019. Additionally, the V-Dem Institute, an independent research institute based at the University of Gothenburg, said that India is no longer an ‘electoral democracy,’ and classified it as an ‘electoral autocracy.’ The institute concurred with Freedom House’s report, noting “much of the decline in democratic freedoms occurred after the BJP and Narendra Modi’s victory in 2014,” and that India is on the verge of losing its status as a democracy [NG(1] [PT2] “due to the severely shrinking space for the media, civil society, and the opposition” under Prime Minister Modi. Here are some reasons why.
In 2019, the Modi government [NG(3] repealed article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which had given the Indian occupied [NG(4] state of Jammu and Kashmir jurisdiction to make its own laws in all matters except defense, foreign affairs, finance, and communications. Article 370 was the basis of Jammu and Kashmir’s accession to the Indian union in 1947. [NG(5] The Constitutional order abrogating provisions of Article 370 was decried as unconstitutional as it bypassed the will of the people of Jammu and Kashmir and violated the condition of their accession to the Indian union. Later in 2019, India passed the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The Act fast-tracks citizenship for members of six religious minority communities from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan—except Muslims. In tandem with the National Register of Citizens (NRC), a “definitive” list of Indian citizens, it effectively disenfranchises Muslims across the country. With Muslims left out of the CAA, the NRC finds no place for Muslims and deems them stateless. The Act witnessed the nation erupt in protest, perhaps in numbers seldom seen since India’s Independence Movement against the British, and the government violently crack down on protesters. UN human rights experts urged India to release anti-CAA protesters and said “[their] arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated.”
In 2020, a UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing expressed alarm over mass evictions of railway track dwellers in the nation’s capital. “If this is maintained, India will squarely violate article 2.3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights containing the core human rights principle that everyone can seek judicial relief against any decision she or he considered arbitrary,” he said. [NG(6] This development builds on the developing fear of the loss of an independent judiciary in India. The UN Commissioner for Human Rights also raised concerns that vaguely defined laws in India “are increasingly being used to stifle” voices and urged the government to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and non-governmental organizations.
The Modi-led, Hindu nationalist [NG(7] BJP government pushed three farming laws though Parliament in September 2020 which dramatically changed the system of selling agricultural goods in India. For decades[NG(8] , the government offered guaranteed prices to farmers for certain crops. Farmers sold their goods at auction at their state’s Agricultural Produce Market Committee, “where they were guaranteed to receive at least the government agreed minimum price.” The new laws dismantled this structure, and the farmers argue that the changes will allow big companies to drive down prices, effectively devastating the farmer’s livelihoods[NG(9] . Agriculture is the primary source of livelihood for about 58% of India’s 1.3 billion residents. These laws essentially benefit a few corporations by impoverishing small agricultural workers. Millions of farmers have been protesting for months and at least 248 have died protesting these changes. Greta Thunberg, Rihanna, Susan Sarandon, and Meena Harris lent their support to the farmers. The Indian government, however, “seemed to take a page from China’s book, going full ‘wolf-warrior’ with a foreign ministry-led hashtag firestorm aimed at ‘vested interest groups’ and ‘foreign collaborators.’” [NG(10] In February 2021, a 21-year-old climate activist was arrested for the “seditious” act of sharing and editing a Google document for activists supporting the farmers’ protest. [NG(11] Citizens now live in constant fear of arbitrary arrests for any actions that may be perceived as “seditious” by the Modi government, infamous for cracking down on dissent.
India has the longest running fascist movement in the world and while the world seems to have noticed, there have been no concerted efforts to intervene. The Indian democracy is fighting for its life, and millions are risking life and limb to protest the Modi regime. However, the government’s use of official and unofficial violence has effectively quelled any meaningful dissidence. India’s “fall from the upper ranks of free nations” could prove to be catastrophic not just for its population of 1.3 billion people, but also to the world’s democratic standards. [NG(12] The world’s continual recognition of the Modi government as legitimate incriminates the world at large in the largest attack on democracy in recent times.