Freedom House report not a surprise, say activists

India moving towards authoritarianism: Global Freedom Report 2021

Society

March 7, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Freedom House report not a surprise, say activists

Freedom in the World 2021 report dropped India’s overall status as a democracy from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free' (MIG Photos/Aman Kanojiya)

Human rights activists in India agree with the Freedom House report blaming the Narendra Modi government for the country’s movement towards ‘authoritarianism’ citing several examples of human rights violation.

To many human rights and freedom of expression activists and lawyers, the latest report of Freedom House, an American NGO that ranks democracies around the world on their scores of relative freedom each year, did not come as any surprise.

The Freedom in the World 2021 report dropped India’s overall status as a democracy from ‘Free’ to ‘Partly Free’, with declining scores in practically every single parameter of freedom gauged by Freedom House.

However, the Union government responded with its typical gusto of rejecting all overseas criticism and stoutly defending its record. In a detailed response, the government called the report biased and misleading.

But human rights lawyers and activists say they are not at all surprised by the report or the response of the government. “This (the report) is worrisome, but does not come as a surprise to me and most of us, I think. We had already witnessed India slipping two places to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index’s global ranking, according to The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), we have seen the country slipping further down in hunger index, basic human rights index, press freedom indexes every year,” Deepak Parashar, a human rights and labour law advocate in Delhi High Court tells Media India Group.

Indeed, India has consistently slipped in the Freedom House reports, falling from 77 in 2017 to 67 now. In 2021, Freedom House has demoted India’s freedom score from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’, saying rights and civil liberties “have been eroding since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister in 2014”, specifically referring to attacks on Muslims, frequent use of the sedition law and the government’s coronavirus response including the lockdown.

India’s score decreased from 71 to 67 out of 100, and its rank fell from 83rd to 88th in 211 countries. “His (Modi’s) Hindu nationalist government has presided over increased pressure on human rights organisations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks – including lynchings – aimed at Muslims. The decline deepened following Modi’s re-election in 2019, and the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 featured further abuses of fundamental rights,” the scathing report says.

Stung by the criticism, the government put out a point-by-point rebuttal to the report on the issue of curbs on human rights and civil liberties in India by the Modi government. But the response drew a rebuke from the rights activists. “From talking about free and fair elections to how much they have helped the migrants and how wonderfully they have managed the Covid-19 lockdown situation in the country, this government just states that they are correct, no matter what,” adds advocate Parashar.

Discrimination against Muslims

Freedom House also sharply criticised the Modi government for its highly discriminatory treatment of Muslims. “Under Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all,” Freedom House says. “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 2020,” it adds.

Freedom House also talks about scapegoating Muslims as ‘potential spreaders of the virus’. “In 2020, during the early weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic, the country’s Muslims were widely and speciously blamed for spreading the coronavirus, including by ruling-party officials,” it says in the report.

In its response, the government claimed India treated all its citizens with equality as enshrined under the Constitution of the country and all laws were applied without discrimination. “Due process of law is followed in matters relating to law and order, irrespective of the identity of the alleged instigator,” said the government.

Parashar strongly disagrees with this and says that the accused of the Delhi riots of February 2020 where at least 53 people, mostly Muslims, were killed amid violence that followed weeks of demonstrations against discriminatory changes to the country’s citizenship law, are still roaming free.

He also reminds us that the government kept totally quiet when Muslims were falsely blamed and defamed for the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in the early weeks of the pandemic.

Freedom House also calls the implementation of the Citizenship Amendment Act and the government’s intention for a National Register of Citizens as a threat to “disenfranchise Muslim voters by effectively classifying them as illegal immigrants”.

Freedom of media and expression

The democracy report also said the authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt of court charges, to “quiet critical voices in the media”.

In response to criticism of what the Freedom House report called ‘intimidation of academics and journalists and crackdown on expressions of dissent by media’, the government said the Constitution provided for freedom of expression under Article 19.

Shruti Jain, a journalism professor at a private college in Delhi strongly disagrees and says that there has been a serious crackdown on journalists by the government, posing a major threat to our democracy. “From arresting numerous Dalit journalists to those who were at the Singhu border covering farmers’ protest, numerous cases of defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt of court charges, has been used by the government to quiet critical voices in the media,” says Jain.

Lack of freedom in institutions

Jain goes on to talk about the amendment of the Right to Information Act, which brought the salaries and tenures of the information commissioners under the control of the central government. “It exposes the commissioners to political pressure,” she says.

What Jain says, echoes true with the Freedom House report in which it talks about the Modi government curbing institutional freedom by amending the RTI Act. It also raises doubts about the functioning of the Indian Supreme Court. The report said several key rulings in recent years “have been favourable to the BJP”, specifically mentioning the 2019 verdict allowing the construction of Ram Mandir on the site where the demolished Babri Masjid stood.

It also remarked on the controversial transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar in February from Delhi to Punjab and Haryana High Court and the equally debatable appointment of former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi to the Rajya Sabha. The report further states that the score declined because of the freezing of Amnesty International’s assets, leading to the shutdown of the organisation’s India operations. It also mentioned internet freedom in India declining dramatically for a third straight year citing frequent internet shutdowns, blocked content and disinformation spread by political leaders.

“No matter how many justifications the central government presents to justify everything but they have no answers to whether individuals are free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organisations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights and governance-related work? Do individuals enjoy even enjoy the freedom to ask questions,” asks Jain.

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