India’s Democracy Is Under Threat
New Delhi’s crackdown on dissent is endangering free speech and the entire system of criminal justice.
A fair and transparent judicial system represents the bedrock of any democracy, especially one as large and diverse as India’s. But there’s a growing body of evidence that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is using state powers to intimidate its political opposition as well as critics. And amid a coronavirus pandemic and other concerns for the international media, there is a danger that New Delhi’s erosion of democratic values may go unnoticed before it is too late.
One of the first signs of this trend came in August 2019 when New Delhi deployed one of the principal national investigative bodies, the Central Bureau of Investigation, to arrest and incarcerate Palaniappan Chidambaram, a former finance minister from the opposition Indian National Congress party, on charges of bribery and corruption. It was a made-for-TV moment, with agents scaling the walls of his New Delhi home to issue their arrest warrant. Chidambaram, a lawyer of some repute, was able to obtain appropriate legal counsel and was eventually released on bail. But given the delays that have long defined India’s judiciary, it may be months, if not years, before a court delivers a verdict. Without taking a stance on the veracity of the charges, the move in effect muzzles a prominent opposition politician who has long been vocal in his criticism of the Modi government. Of course, corruption is rife in India, but the BJP has yet to explain why Chidambaram in particular was singled out.
The Modi government has also sought to quash political dissent through the use of anti-terrorist laws, most notably the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), which allows the state to designate individuals as terrorists on extremely flimsy grounds. One of the most prominent such cases stemmed from a riot that took place in January 2018 at an annual gathering of Dalits—members of India’s so-called lowest caste—in the village of Bhima Koregaon to commemorate a military victory against high-caste rulers more than 200 years ago. Several left-wing intellectuals and activists were detained under the UAPA last February on the grounds that they were guilty of “promoting enmity between groups” and involved in abetting terrorism. They included, among others, Varavara Rao, a 79-year-old left-wing poet and writer; Arun Ferreira, a criminal lawyer; Sudha Bharadwaj, a trade union leader; and Gautam Navlakha, a human rights activist and a long-standing critic of state coercion in India. It was hardly a group of people likely to be involved in terrorism. Worse still, local police claimed that they had unearthed a plot to assassinate Modi.
These charges aside, what is known is that the accused had, in fact, participated in a meeting in late December 2017 that had foreshadowed the Bhima Koregaon celebration. Some of them had given speeches in which they had roundly condemned the curse of caste hierarchies in India. All of them, at various points of their careers, have been known to be associated with left-wing causes including the rights of the socially marginalized or oppressed. The police, seizing on their left-wing credentials, dubbed them “urban Naxals”—a misplaced reference to a violent left-wing movement that began in West Bengal in the 1960s.
Despite concerted attempts on the part of the National Investigation Agency (NIA), which had brought the legal proceedings against the activists in the first place, the authorities were unable to gather evidence linking them to any of the professed charges. Even so, the Bombay High Court refused to grant bail to several of the key detainees—highlighting the court’s unwillingness to stand up to the present government. Worse still, the NIA’s persistence in legally harassing these activists highlights how a premier investigative body has been rendered into a plaything of the government in office.
As their legal fate remains in limbo, the government has now chosen to go after another group of politicians, university professors, and activists whom it claims were responsible for instigating riots in New Delhi last February. Among them are Jayati Ghosh, a noted economics professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University; Sitaram Yechury, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist); Yogendra Yadav, a well-known pollster and the co-founder of a civil society organization; and Rahul Roy, a prominent documentary filmmaker. Each of them has been accused of participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy to provoke the inter-religious riots that swept through the capital.
In reality, the riots largely stemmed from protests against Modi’s controversial Citizen Amendment Act, which allows many Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains, and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan to obtain accelerated citizenship in India on the grounds that they constitute oppressed minorities in those countries. However, the legislation does not apply to Muslims—a fact that protesters rightly highlighted as discriminatory and going against the secular values of India’s constitution.
The bulk of the protesters were university students and civil society activists—and most demonstrations were peaceful. But there is ample evidence that Hindu mobs, many of them affiliated with the BJP, set upon the protesters and attacked them. They also used the cover of the disturbances to attack vulnerable Muslim communities in New Delhi. Perhaps most disturbingly, the New Delhi police, which is directly under the control of the federal Ministry of Home Affairs—and not the local state government—either supported the rioters or stood by as the riots proceeded apace. Far from prosecuting those who were actually involved in organized mob violence against hapless communities, the central government is now using its powers to intimidate those whom it deems to be critics of the government’s policies. This blatant, partisan use of police powers threatens to further undermine the already troubled rule of law in India.
Police partisanship is not new. The most egregious historical examples are the anti-Sikh riots in New Delhi in 1984 following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, for which blame lies at the door of Gandhi’s Congress party, and anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002 during Modi’s term as the state’s chief minister. Both sets of incidents are a stain on the country’s judicial record—but they are largely seen as lapses in the wider history of democratic India. The systematic abuse of police and judicial powers that is now underway—with the apparent blessing of the Modi government—amounts to a new and major challenge to India’s commitment to impartial justice. It is a dangerous trend that could, if unchecked, upend Indian democracy.