Significantly, Kashmir has been declared ‘Not Free’. Here is a breakdown of the report that has assessed the level of political rights and civil liberties in India in 2021.
Global freedom has declined for the 16th year in a row in 2021, says a new report by Freedom House, a non-profit organization based in Washington, D.C., that does research on democracy, political freedom and human rights. Like the previous year, India has once again been placed in the ‘Partly Free’ category, with a disappointing score of 66 out of 100.
The report has noted the effects of the government led by Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) on the democratic framework of India, saying it has “presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population.”
It further says that although the Indian Constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, “harassment of journalists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi.”
The report, titled, Freedom in the World 2022: The Global Expansion of Authoritarian Rule, points out that Muslims, scheduled castes (Dalits), and scheduled tribes (Adivasis) continue to remain economically and socially marginalized.
“While Hindus make up about 80 percent of the population, the Indian state is formally secular, and freedom of religion is constitutionally guaranteed. However, 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. Attacks against Muslims and others in connection with the alleged slaughter or mistreatment of cows, which are held to be sacred by Hindus, continued in 2021. The BJP has faced criticism for failing to mount an adequate response to cow-related violence,” the report has observed.
The authors of the report have noted five key points in 2021:
- In February, the government introduced new rules that made it easier for authorities to compel social media platforms to remove unlawful content. Among other removals during the year, Twitter was ordered to take down posts that criticized the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Several states governed by the BJP passed or proposed “love jihad” laws meant to curb the alleged practice of Muslim men marrying Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam—a Hindu nationalist conspiracy theory. The legislation effectively created obstacles to interreligious marriage and came in the context of escalating threats and violence against the Muslim community.
- A media investigation found in July that Pegasus spyware had been detected on smartphones belonging to dozens of leading opposition politicians, activists, businesspeople, and journalists.
- Also in July, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who had advocated for Adivasi rights died in custody, having been arrested on dubious terrorism charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in October 2020.
- Prominent opposition leaders were arrested in October while trying to visit the scene of a deadly incident in which a car in a government minister’s convoy allegedly struck protesting farmers. The lengthy protests were organized in opposition to 2020 laws regulating the agricultural sector; Parliament ultimately repealed the laws in November.
The Freedom House report has evaluated India’s position based on issues like the opaque nature of electoral bonds, selective anticorruption investigations against opposition politicians and the gradual limiting political rights of India’s Muslims. The contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) has also found mention on the report as have bribery and other large-scale political scandals.
Political rights and civil liberties of Kashmir (the part that is administered by India) has been scored separately and shows a shocking figure of 27 out of 100.
“Indian Kashmir’s status declined from ‘Partly Free’ to ‘Not Free’ in the Freedom in the World report, due to the Indian government’s abrupt revocation of the territory’s autonomy, the dissolution of its local elected institutions, and a security crackdown that sharply curtailed civil liberties and included mass arrests of local politicians and activists,” the authors explained.
Not surprisingly, the report has also spoken about attacks on press freedom all over India, that have “escalated dramatically under the Modi government, and reporting has become significantly less ambitious in recent years. Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to quiet critical voices in the media.”
It has also observed the rampant use of “online disinformation from inauthentic sources” as a run-up to every election campaign. Text messages leaked in 2021 “indicated that a leading pro-government journalist had privileged access to top-secret information regarding national security”.
On the issue of press freedom, the report decries the attack on journalists: “A Muslim journalist, Siddique Kappan, remained in detention after his October 2020 arrest for attempting to cover the alleged gang rape of a Dalit woman. In addition to criminal charges, journalists risk harassment, death threats, and physical violence in the course of their work. Such attacks are rarely punished, and some have taken place with the complicity or active participation of police.”
“Five deadly attacks on journalists were reported in 2021, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists—the highest figure for any country,” says the Freedom Report on India.
India cuts a sorry figure in academic freedom as well.
“Academic freedom has significantly weakened in recent years, as intimidation of professors, students, and institutions over political and religious issues has increased. Members of the student wing of the Hindu nationalist organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – from which the ruling BJP is widely regarded to have grown – have engaged in violence on campuses across the country, including attacks on students and professors.”
The report scores India very poorly on issues of freedom of expression, assembly, freedom for nongovernmental organizations and even on independence of the judiciary. Corruption within the police and the insurmountable obstacles citizens face in the pursuit of justice, including demands for bribes and difficulty getting the police to file a First Information Report, have also been mentioned.
The Freedom House report has also pointed to discrimination and inequal treatment of various segments of population, lack freedom of movement or personal social freedoms, including choice of spouse, continues to shrink India’s democratic structure further.
Amy Slipowitz, one of the authors of the report, says “there is increasing evidence of homegrown illiberal streaks within democracies. Undemocratic leaders and their supporters in democratic environments have worked to reshape or manipulate political systems, in part by playing on voters’ fears of change in their way of life and by highlighting the very real failures of their predecessors,” she says. “They have promoted the idea that, once in power, their responsibility is only to their own demographic or partisan base, disregarding other interests and segments of society and warping the institutions in their care so as to prolong their rule.”