What's Happening in India? A Briefing on Democratic Backsliding
Updated: Jun 21
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s political popularity has come at the cost of democratic freedoms. Amnesty International, Hindus for Human Rights, the Indian-American Muslim Council, and Polis Project are working together to raise the profile of underreported stories and voices as the crisis deepens and international concern increases. This briefing sets out some of the critical areas of concern and supporting evidence for journalists and others looking to quickly get up to speed,
Erosion of democratic institutions, media, and freedom of speech:
- Freedom House now terms India “partly free” due to the discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting minority populations.
- The Modi government has undermined the independence of the media, with the country slipping to 161st in the World Press Freedom Index, a marked decline since 2014. The government has repeatedly shown disdain for journalists, with Union Ministers even using the term “presstitutes” to describe reporters who aren’t favourable towards the government.
- Nearly 90% of journalist arrests between 2010 and 2020 happened after Modi’s government came to power in 2014. This stops the government from being held accountable. Take for instance, the banning of a recent BBC documentary about Modi’s handling of riots in Gujarat in 2002, jailing a Muslim journalist for over two years under terror charges for reporting an alleged rape case in a state governed by Modi’s BJP party.
- Foreign journalists are not exempt. For example, income tax department officials raided the BBC office in India soon after a documentary on Modi’s role in Hindu-Muslims riots in 2002 was banned by the Indian government; or, when a US-based journalist was blacklisted from entering India for a documentary on a protest movement against India’s discriminatory citizenship Act.
= The world’s most populous country is now ranked 46th in the Democracy Index, with its scores in political culture and civil liberties seeing a significant decline since Modi took charge in 2014.
- The government is implementing laws that would increase their control over what can be published digitally; while bringing large social media platforms under direct government oversight. India now accounts for nearly half of the world’s internet shutdowns.
Crackdown on dissent and opposition:
- Since 2014, when Modi was first elected as the head of the country, there has been a four-fold jump in the use of state agencies against opposition parties.
- The most high-profile examples include the conviction of opposition leader Rahul Gandhi and his subsequent suspension from the parliament in a defamation case over a political speech that targeted Modi. This is just the tip of a growing iceberg.
- Civil society organisations of all sizes are under threat – 6677 have had their licenses revoked under the Foreign Contributions Act in the last 5 years.
- Spyware software Pegasus was reportedly used by Modi’s government to hack the phones of journalists; many others have been arrested under draconian terror laws that allow for lengthy periods of detention without trial.
Divisive Hindu nationalist rhetoric and targeting of minorities:
- Modi’s BJP party has been accused of pushing a Hindu-majoritarian agenda at the cost of the civil liberties of minority communities, particularly Muslims and Christians. Muslims comprise nearly 15% of India’s population but have found no representation in Modi’s government.
- The government and its supporters often brand dissidents as “anti-nationals”. Since Modi took power there has been a marked increase in the use of the sedition law – a colonial artifact to be used against those who wage a war against the state – against activists, protestors, and particularly the Muslim minority community.
- Since the government took over, hate crimes against Muslims have increased by 300%. This is often under the guise of stopping cattle slaughter, ‘Love Jihad’ (a pejorative term used against inter-faith couples), or enforcing an economic boycott of Muslims. The vigilante attacks are often fuelled by Islamophobic statements made by government ministers and functionaries; or, through propaganda films, supported by the government, that villainise Muslims.
- Government policies often directly target Muslim communities too, whether it is laws that could deny citizenship to many Muslims or banning of the Hijab in educational institutions, or anti-conversion laws that could use the bogey of ‘Love Jihad’ to discriminate against inter-faith couples.
- These can have grave geo-political consequences, as seen in 2022 when an Islamophobic remark by a BJP spokesperson sparked outrage in Muslim-majority countries; or, protests in India’s neighbours against calls by BJP leaders to boycott Muslim-made products. Christians have also come under attack from vigilante groups using the bogey of forcible religious conversion by missionaries. In 2022 alone, there were nearly 600 attacks on Christians across the country.
- Twenty of India’s biggest companies now generate 70% of all profit in India, which also ranks 10th in the crony capitalism index. Crony capital wealth is estimated to form nearly 8% of the country’s GDP.
- One of the starkest examples is the Adani group empire which grew a staggering 35-fold since Modi took power. Adani is known to be close to Modi and is accused of receiving favours from the government: coal mines, power stations, airports, among others. Fraud allegations were spelled out in Short Seller Hindenburg’s report on the Adani empire. The group lost 60% of its value in the months after the report was published. Though calls to probe the company grew louder in India, Modi has remained silent and the government has refused to investigate allegations against the company.
Crony capitalism pays off well for the BJP, which has simultaneously undone laws to improve transparency in electoral funding. Since 2018, BJP has received an overwhelming share of electoral bonds – an opaque process it brought in channels of anonymous corporate funding to political parties.
In the last few years, US President Joe Biden has made several statements on the state of democracy in the US and the world. These have alarmed the public. You can read them here.
Despite mounting human rights concerns in India, the US leader has scheduled an official state visit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 22, 2023, including a prestigious state dinner at the White House.