In a recent report, the V-Dem Institute (Varieties of Democracies) recently in its Democracy Report downgraded India from being the “largest world’s democracy” to “electoral autocracy”. It has claimed that it produces the largest dataset on democracy, with about 30 million data points for 202 countries from 1789 to 2020. The report comes in the backdrop of the US Freedom House degrading India’s status to “partly free” in its “Freedom in the World Report”.
The report highlights how the Modi-led government in India has utilised laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism to suppress dissent. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code clearly defines sedition as any signs, representations or words spoken or written that “cause hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection”. The British Raj used this to silence its critics.
The colonial legacy is carried forward by the Central Government to curb freedom of speech. In a democracy, freedom of speech is a fundamental right and peaceful protests are necessary. Yet, every instance of this is prohibited and many are detained.
The mainstream media in its ethics should hold the Government accountable, but this trend has been altered in recent times. They rather put individuals in media trials that harm reputations and portray someone as guilty.
On the other hand, Political scientists Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, in their book How Democracies Die, have pointed out how in electoral autocracies, authority is gained over the judiciary, media, election commission, law enforcement agencies, which is then packed with government loyalists. This leads them to not holding the government accountable and easily hurl on those who oppose it.
Also, they try incorporating intellectuals, cultural icons, sports personalities, etc., to propagate their discourse. Even opposition parties are projected as enemies, whereas political parties require a strong opposition that keeps them in check.
However, it cannot be denied that India has experienced the most number of internet shutdowns. The Public Safety Act (PSA) has also been repeatedly used in Jammu and Kashmir, which has led to the detention of its political leaders for their opposition to Article 370.
Over 7,000 people have been charged with sedition since the BJP assumed power, most of the accused being the critics of the ruling party. The Constitution’s commitment to secularism has been consistently harped when the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and defamation laws have been used to silence journalists and academia.
Those students and universities who raised their voice against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were punished as well. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act has been utilised to restrict the functioning of Civil Society Organisations.
The UAPA was passed in Lok Sabha on 24 July, 2019. It amended the UAPA, 1967, which allowed the Central Government to designate groups as “terrorist organisations” if they met certain perquisites. This has led to many activists and journalists being detained.
Under its radar came Paranjoy Guha Thakurata, then editor of Economic and Political Weekly, along with its co-authors Advait Rao Palepu, Shinzani Jian and Abir Dasgupta had published an article titled Modi Government’s Rs 500 Crore Bonanza to the Adani Group in the Economic and Political Weekly as well as The Wire. The article brought the amendment of the Special Economic Zone, 2016 and claimed for refund under Special Economic Zones, 2005.
It was alleged that this amendment was done to provide Adani Power Limited refunds on customs duty. The Adani Group subsequently sent a legal notice to this publication because it was accused of being defamatory. However, the Adani group withdrew proceeding against The Wire, except for Thakurta, who was issued a non-bailable warrant and section 500 of the Indian Penal Code was imposed on him.
Indeed, as privatisation of the Railways, Banks and Electric is become a harping issue, raising an opinion becomes a power of the privilege.
Next in line were Siddiqui Kappan, Masood Ahmed and Ateeq-ur-Rehman, who the police arrested at Mathura while they were on their way to Hathras. They were pressed with charges of Section 124 (Sedition) of the IPC, Section 14 and 17 of the UAPA and Section 65, 72 and 76 of the IT Act. They were accused of having links with the Popular Front of India. On the other hand, the mainstream media engaged in victim-blaming and even went to the extent of denying that the rape took place.
Many human activists who have been working for the betterment of marginalised communities have also been slapped with the UAPA. These activists are Bhujanga Rao, Athram Suguna and VS Krishna, all Dalit and Adivasi activists who have been working for the Andhra and Telangana Human Rights Forum. The police had claimed that they had “Maoist links”.
What their misgiving was that they had raised their voice for the cause of Adivasi rights in public and strived for their upliftment. Not only that, but they also provided food and medicines during the lockdown. Human Rights Forum has been consistently working for equality and people’s rights and against the diffusion of human rights culture in society.
It is imperative, therefore, to analyse why the UAPA is regarded as draconian in nature. Firstly, an accused can be detained without a charge sheet in police custody for 30 days. It can clearly be perceived as a political tool utilised for crushing voices that speak up for those without any agency. Rather, the opposition must protest against such detentions and vehemently ask them to be repealed by all measures.
Although it is an anti-terrorism legislation that must be used in exceptional circumstances, it has become a routine measure. In 2019, 9% of the sedition cases were closed due to insufficient evidence, applicable to UAPA cases. Although India has a low conviction rate, the UAPA and sedition cases lead to detained individuals for long periods of time. The former prevents the judge from granting bail unless the judge has reasonable grounds to believe that the individual is not guilty.
In a newsletter by Scroll.in, questions have been raised regarding the significance of democratic backsliding and what it means for the Quadlitaeral Summit. In the joint Op-ed, Quad leaders had written that their commitment towards democracy united them.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd George Austin III also paid a visit to India to meet Prime Minister Modi, Defense Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar. The Defense Secretary had raised questions regarding human rights violations in Assam as well as other things. However, this issue was denied by “government sources”.
Nevertheless, the reason for the democratic decline is then clear. Many would argue that this resonates with the Emergency under Indira Gandhi’s rule, whereas many feel that this instance resonates with the rule of the British Empire.
As the youth of the country, raising our voices on such issues is imperative. Fear looms in our minds, but we cannot be overpowered by it. As Rabindranath Tagore said, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.”
If we want to alter the functionality of political institutions, every one of us must vote because our vote matters.