A US government-funded non-governmental organization (NGO) – Freedom House – has downgraded India’s democratic status from “free” to “partly free”.
In a recent report titled Freedom in the World 2021, Freedom House has reduced India’s Global Freedom score from 71 to 67, with 100 being the most-free country. When it comes to internet freedom, India’s score is just 51 out of 100. Due to these scores, India has gone from “free” to “partly free”. Finland, Norway and Sweden have a score of 100 while Syria has a score of just 1. So why did India’s score reduce?
According to Freedom House, “While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population.”
The NGO pointed out that though the Indian Constitution promises freedom of expression and freedom of religion, however, under PM Modi, there is an increase in harassment of journalists, NGOs and those criticising the Centre. “Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) remain economically and socially marginalized,” the report said.
To back their statements, Freedom House listed key developments that took place in 2020. The report mentioned the 2020 Delhi riots in which more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, were killed. The riots broke out during the anti-CAA protests. The NGO also noted that cases were filed against those criticising the Centre under the Sedition Act and the Information Technology Act for opposing the citizenship and government’s Covid-19 response.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, many guest workers were stranded and were forced to travel on foot. They did not get essential supplies which led to many criticising the government for calling a lockdown. Not only did the guest workers suffer, but Muslims were made scapegoats and named “virus spreaders” due to the Tablighi Jamaat event that took place in Delhi during the lockdown. The report also mentioned the acquittal of BJP leaders accused in the Babri Masjid demolition as one of the key developments.
“Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism,” said.
The NGO evaluates countries based on 25 indicators and each indicator is given a score between zero and four points. These 25 indicators are divided into two categories – Political Rights and Civil Liberties. Out of the 25 indicators, India scored full points in only six indicators, three points in five indicators and two points in the remaining 14 indicators. Here are a few questions where India scored just two points:
“Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?” The report pointed out though women’s voting in national elections equalled that of men, yet marginalized sections of the society face obstacles. With the parliament passing the CAA-NRC, the report states that the NRC purpose is to “disenfranchise Muslim voters by classifying them as illegal immigrants if they do not have the necessary documents attesting their place of birth. Also, the citizenship of nearly two million Assam residents is in doubt.
“Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?” The report pointed out that a lot of corruption has gone unreported and unpunished. The report claims that “the authorities have been accused of selective, partisan enforcement”.
“Are there free and independent media?” The report says that under the Modi government, there has been a significant escalation in attacks on press freedom. According to Freedom House, many media houses in India have faced sedition, defamation and even to a certain degree contempt of court charges for reporting on key issues and shortfalls of the government. Journalists covering any protests or incidents that show the government in a bad light have been arrested and taken away. Many are still languishing in jails.
“Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or non-belief in public and private?” The NGO said, “A number of Hindu nationalist organizations and some media outlets promote anti-Muslim views, a practice that the government of Prime Minister Modi has been accused of encouraging.” Muslims were made victims of mob lynching. They were also made scapegoats when several BJP officials, as well as some media channels, blamed Muslims for spreading Covid-19 during the early part of the lockdown.
“Do individuals enjoy the freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?” The NGO said that India’s score declined due to the crisis faced by guest labourers during the Covid-19 lockdown and featured violent and discriminatory enforcement by police and civilian vigilantes.
In the report, India scored two points in indicators asking about the Rule of Law in the country.
“Is there an independent judiciary?” India scored less as the report pointed out the appointment of former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi to the Rajya Sabha raised eyebrows. The report also noted a pattern of several Supreme Court verdicts favouring the Centre and the transfer of a judge after announcing a verdict against the ruling party’s interests.
When it comes to internet freedom, the country has scored just 51 out of 100 due to constant internet shutdowns, disinformation, online harassment and blocked content. The report said that India’s internet freedom has declined for the third year in a row.
The Indian government officials are yet to make comments regarding the Freedom House’s report.