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What Led To India’s Democratic Decline In The Recent Democracy Report?

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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.

protesters arrest
Over 7,000 people have been charged with sedition since the BJP assumed power.

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.

Protest against a new citizenship law in Delhi
There has been a sharp increase in sedition and UAPA cases under the Modi government. (Photo by Imtiyaz Khan /Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

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.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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