‘These Are Dark Times For Democracy And Freedom In India’

Posted by AMIT SINGH in Politics, Society
May 29, 2017

These are dark times for democracy and freedom in India, when reason is being replaced by exposés, logic replaced by faith and democratic deliberations by fanatic mob violence.

Since the arrival of the Narendra Modi-led government in 2014, there have been ubiquitous marks of suppression and decadence in the values India always stood for. Be it intolerance to opposing views, protection of religious minorities, imposition of a fundamentalist religious ideology, indirect political support to public violence (cow vigilantes) and the neglect in following parliamentary procedures for the arbitrary imposition related to the currency note ban – all of this suggests that India is sliding towards a dictatorship like situation, where holding the government accountable can put one in prison or risk being labelled as an ‘anti-national’. These are popular tactics by the BJP supporters to silence opposing views and genuine criticism. Also, the media is selectively ignoring the burning issues which could put pressure on the government.

Our national concern has already shifted from increasing unemployment rate and dwindling business environment to war-mongering, religious nationalism, and silencing civil society.

Based on these observations, the following points are noted as subjects of concern, as the situation of democracy, rule of law and human rights decline in India.

Decline in Journalistic Freedom

In its latest report, Reporters without Borders (RSF) gave India the abysmally low rank of 136 in a list of 180 countries, as far as journalistic freedom was concerned. Even Afghanistan, Burma and Cambodia outshined India. This report stressed, “With Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media,” and, “Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals.”

The report goes on to say, “Prosecutions are also used to gag journalists, who are overly critical of the government, with some prosecutors invoking Section 124a of the penal code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment.”

According to a Human Rights Watch report, “These laws are vaguely worded, overly broad, and prone to misuse, and have been repeatedly used for political purposes against critics at the national and state levels.”

However, more alarming is the ‘polarisation of people’ along religious lines and the callous attitude of the majority of Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) supporters (media, intellectuals, party workers, including the fringe Hindu nationalist religious elements) who are quick to label any dissent as ‘anti-national’, thus narrowing the space for logical debate, hindering access to fundamental rights of freedom of expression.

In fact, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Hindu nationalist organisation closely affiliated to the BJP, seeks to decide for a nation of more than one billion people what to eat (ban on beef – controlling the eating pattern of the largest minority in India), what to read/see/listen (media control, self-censorship) and what to say (threat of sedition laws; only dominant Hindu narratives allowed in public discourse).

Along with it, self-censorship is on the rise and the media leaves no stone unturned to block any alternative views into public discourse.

RSS March (Image Credit: Adarsh Gupta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Restricting the Right to Protest

The Adityanath-led government in Uttar Pradesh has banned all kinds of strikes by employees and teachers in state universities and colleges effectively, violating their right to protest and freedom of expression. The ban is put under the stringent Essential Services Maintenance Act (ESMA). ESMA gives police the powers to arrest, without a warrant, anybody violating the act’s provisions.

Selectively Ignoring Higher Unemployment Rates

The United Nations International Labour Organisation (ILO) released its 2017 World Employment and Social Outlook report, which found economic growth trends lagging behind employment needs and predicted both rising unemployment and worsening social inequality throughout 2017. A Labour Bureau report found that the rate of unemployment in India had shot up to a five-year high of 5% in 2015-16.  The future looked grim with unemployment rates projected to be at 8.7% for women as compared to 4.3% for men.

Dwindling International Trade and Investment Credits

The impression being given by the media is that the Indian economy is growing; media also downplayed the loss of income and economy due to the note ban, specifically when the economy is sliding down. However, international credit rating agencies predicted a decline in India’s GDP due to the note ban.

Shrinking Spaces for Religious Minorities

In its 2017 report, US Commission on International Religious Freedom expressed deep concern over the rising intolerance and public violence against religious minorities in India. The Report states, “The heightened enforcement against religious minorities by BJP government officials and/or Hindu nationalists . . . has contributed to the deterioration of religious freedom in the country.”

The report goes on to say, “In 2016, ‘cow protector’ vigilantes—often Hindu nationalists—intimidated, harassed, and attacked Muslims and Hindu Dalits for allegedly slaughtering, selling, or consuming cow products. For example, in April 2016, in the Punjab area of Uttar Pradesh, police arrested six Muslim men who RSS members, allegedly without evidence, believed were slaughtering stray cows. At the end of the reporting period, the six men remain detained and no court date has been scheduled. In July 2016 in Madhya Pradesh, members of a Hindu nationalist group beat two Muslim women who they alleged were carrying beef. Reportedly, the incident took place in full view of the police, who did nothing to help the victims and even allowed onlookers to film the incident. Also in July, in Una Town, Gujarat, four Hindu Dalit men were stripped naked and beaten, reportedly by members of Shiv Sena, an Indian far-right regional political party, for killing a cow and skinning it.”

Moreover, the report mentions how, “Christian communities across many denominations reported numerous incidents of harassment and attacks in 2016, which they attribute to the Hindu nationalist groups supported by the BJP. In early 2017, the NGO, Open Doors, estimated that a church was burned down or a cleric was beaten 10 times a week on average in India between January and October 2016—triple the number of incidents the group reported in 2015.”

“Forced conversions of Christians and other religious minorities by Hindu nationalists also were reported in 2016. For example, in April 2016 in Chhattisgarh, two unidentified attackers, believed to be Hindu extremists, broke into a Pentecostal Church and beat the pastor and his pregnant wife,” the report also mentions.

Disregard For The Rule Of Law

In Uttar Pradesh and other parts of our country, the gau rakshaks and ‘anti-Romeo’ enthusiasts run amok with impunity. The police, eager as always to remain on the right side of might, arrest the victims first, lest they are labelled as ‘anti-national’.

Final Remark

Recently, President Pranab Mukherjee said, “…the need to ask questions of those in power is fundamental for the preservation of our nation and of a truly democratic society.” He further added, “That’s why we need to be sensitive to dominant narratives, of those who make the loudest noise, drowning out those who disagree.” He showed his concern that the media was not resisting enough against dominant views. Events occurring at the political-social stage indeed demonstrate that a disregard for democratic values and critical opinion is on the rise. The government directly or indirectly supports its political and religious affiliates who are pushing totalitarian hegemonic political ideas in mainstream discourse (fringe elements have become mainstream). They have thus jeopardised our Constitution and the liberal values India always stood for.

This article was originally published here.

Image Credit: Rajesh Sinha/Hindustan Times via Getty Images