Why India Has Become a Different Country
Human rights activists are withstanding an assault on the values of liberal democracy.
On Thursday, Nov. 12, the Indian Supreme Court intervened to release Arnab Goswami, a controversial media executive who is also the principal anchor of his network, Republic TV, from a Mumbai jail where he was arrested on charges of abetment to suicide. In granting him bail, Justice Dhananjay Chandrachud rhetorically asked: “If constitutional courts don’t protect liberty, who will?”
The court’s enthusiasm for individual liberty would have sounded more sincere if it extended similar courtesy to the dozens of human-rights defenders, academics, writers, and journalists who have been jailed for months: Their trials remain pending, and Indian courts have shown no sense of urgency to take on their cases. Indeed, on Nov. 21, while hearing the case of another journalist in jail—Siddique Kappan—the court complained of “unfair reporting” even as it finally gave lawyers permission to meet Kappan, who remains in jail. Kappan was jailed on so-called sedition charges as he was travelling to India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, to report on the story of the rape and death of a young Dalit (as those at the bottom of Hinduism’s caste hierarchy are known) woman.
Many, including international press freedom organizations, have spoken out for both Kappan and Goswami. But Goswami, who was arrested on charges that had nothing to do with journalism, is now free, whereas Kappan remains in custody. The saga of Goswami’s arrest is complicated: Goswami’s network has run a sustained campaign against the opposition-ruled Maharashtra state (India’s wealthiest) over the suicide of an actor, alluding to the fact that that the death may have been due to a murder. Goswami’s supporters—and there are millions—insist Goswami is being framed in another suicide case because of what they call his heroic journalism. When he was arrested, leading Indian politicians, including ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet, expressed their horror over his arrest. Other journalists doing heroic work, however, are arrested in states ruled by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and do not find such support from the government.
Being a journalist in India and uncovering stories that the BJP and its supporters don’t like is dangerous business. On Oct. 16, Ahan Penkar, a 24-year-old journalist covering a protest in front of a police station in New Delhi, was dragged inside the station by men, only some of whom were wearing a uniform. He was detained for four hours, his phone was taken away, and the police deleted the photographs and videos he had recorded from the phone and his cloud storage.
Penkar was interviewing people protesting an alleged rape and murder of a teenager in the capital. Later that day, the magazine where Penkar works, the Caravan (where I also write) published photographs showing Penkar with physical injuries which he said he had because Ajay Kumar, an assistant police commissioner, assaulted him, and other police officers abused him. Penkar has filed a complaint with the city’s police commissioner; authorities say they are looking into the matter.
Penkar said that when he was being roughed up and insulted at the police station, one of the officers shouted: “Why do you all keep doing this? Tumhe nahi pata hai ki desh badal gaya hai?” (Don’t you know the country has changed?)
You can say that again. India has changed.
The same week, India’s National Investigation Agency arrested Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest who has spent decades working for the land rights of adivasis, as indigenous communities are known in India, accusing him of being a sympathizer of the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) group. Swamy’s arrest has shocked Christians and human rights activists in India. He joins a growing list of intellectuals, academics, musicians, activists, and dissidents who have championed the cause of India’s underprivileged and marginalized communities and who are now in jail, denied bail, the cases against them pending.
Among those arrested in what is known as the Bhima Koregaon case, are the 80-year-old revolutionary poet Varavara Rao (who was diagnosed with coronavirus while in jail and yet was denied bail), lawyer Surendra Gadling, poet Sudhir Dhawale, social activist Mahesh Raut, human rights activists Rona Wilson and Arun Ferreira, academics Shoma Sen and Vernon Gonsalves, lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, academics Anand Teltumbde and Hany Babu, writer Gautam Navlakha, and performers of the Kabir Kala Manch.
The Bhima-Koregaon case goes back to New Year’s Eve in 2017 and early 2018, when hundreds of thousands of Dalits had gathered to commemorate the bicentenary of a 19th century battle in which the Dalits, as part of British troops, defeated upper caste Peshwas who had ruled parts of Western India at that time. In the violence that followed the 2018 celebration, one person died, and a few were injured. But the government has asserted that there was a conspiracy against the state, seized computers, books, and other personal effects from the homes of the arrested individuals, and attempted to implicate more than a dozen government critics. Journalist Samar Halarnkar describes it as “a vast, dubious enterprise of defamation and criminalization that began as a supposed plot to kill the prime minister—an accusation never mentioned since—and degenerated into a vast conspiracy with no credible proof and no sign of trial.”
If ticking boxes were sufficient to evaluate democracies, then India still gets the right ticks—it holds elections periodically, it has an independent judiciary, a constitution that safeguards minority rights and recognizes individual rights, where privately owned media operates, where opposition parties exist and are in parliament.
And yet, the essence of democracy is not the form, but its content; the norms, not the laws; it is not the presence of the structures, but whether those structures function the way they are meant to perform, and whether checks and balances set the system right when things go wrong, that determines democracy. And by those criteria, India—for long described as the world’s largest democracy—has been failing persistently.
To be sure, India has always had caveats placed around its democracy. It has laws that permit detention without trial; it sends troops to quell dissent and has laws that human-rights groups say allow the army to act with impunity; the freedoms it grants its citizens come with many restrictions; between 1975 and 1977 then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared an internal emergency and jailed opposition leaders and suspended some laws that guaranteed fundamental rights; and it has periodically erupted in brutal violence, as in the inter-religious riots of 1984 and 2002. And yet, its descent has been sharp and steep since 2014, when Modi became the prime minister of the first right-wing, Hindu nationalist government elected on its own strength, not requiring coalition partners (although it does have parliamentary allies).
The world took notice of the deteriorating situation when in late September, the government’s conflict with Amnesty International, the world’s leading human rights organization, played out in the open. That’s when Amnesty decided to shut its Indian operations because of what it called a witch-hunt, and several international human-rights organizations expressed alarm. India promptly dismissed Amnesty’s concerns, saying the organization was under investigation for possibly breaking Indian laws regulating foreign financial contributions to civil society groups. Amnesty has denied those charges. The Indian Government has been after Amnesty for some time now, upset over its many reports critical of the government’s human rights record in Kashmir, and curbs on peaceful protests, and it has charged Amnesty with sedition for organizing events that the government considers anti-national.
India always had complicated and onerous rules regulating foreign funds going to civil society groups. The Modi administration has tightened those rules, making it harder for groups that advocate policy reforms or protection of rights to receive funds from abroad; groups that do so-called humanitarian work such as poverty alleviation or delivering services (but not questioning why poverty persists) are preferred. Globally, the space for civil society has been shrinking, and like Brazil, Hungary, and Russia, India has sharpened laws making it tougher to dissent.
The uproar that accompanied Amnesty’s exit was justified, but it is not an isolated incident, and it is a distraction to focus only on Amnesty’s plight; the real battle for human rights is being fought in India, where activists, scholars, journalists, academics, and human rights defenders are at the frontline, facing graver dangers and harm. Many are under surveillance, harassed, intimidated, have obstructions placed in their path, and are often detained without trial. When they apply for bail, even the highest courts ignore the pleas or routinely postpone the cases, as has been the case with those detained over the incidents in Delhi.
In February, the Modi administration appeared to have set aside all other priorities (including tackling coronavirus, then spreading through India) because it was busy preparing the country to host President Donald Trump’s brief visit (which yielded no breakthrough but gave Trump photo opportunities to woo Indian-American voters). At that time, a public park in Delhi was the setting of a major protest against changes in India’s citizenship laws. The new law would make it easier for non-Muslim asylum seekers from India’s neighborhood to get Indian citizenship. Concurrently, a major exercise was underway to prepare a national registry of citizens, which human rights lawyers argued discriminated against the poor and the minorities, who may not have documentation and paperwork to prove they were Indian citizens (many were being left out).
The protests at the park were peaceful, but government supporters attacked the protesters in a shrill tone and sometimes with violence. During Trump’s visit more violence occurred, and in the riots more than 50 people died. Since then, the Delhi police have arrested dozens of government critics, including student leaders like Umar Khalid, Sharjeel Imam, and Safoora Zargar (who was pregnant), and women’s rights activists like Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal, many of whom stressed their adherence to constitution and non-violence.
Even peaceful, Gandhian dissent is no longer tolerated in Modi’s India. Dissenters are called anti-national, and the state looks the other way when electronic stormtroopers supporting the Modi administration hound government critics online (including using doctored images to embarrass women) and it has been lethargic in pursuing cases to investigate the murders of four government critics in recent years. Several widely watched television networks have run virulent campaigns against government critics. Journalists in Kashmir are threatened, jailed, bullied, and beaten. At 142nd out of 180 countries, India ranks behind Myanmar and Afghanistan today in a global press freedom index. Reporters trying to visit the village of Hathras, where a young Dalit woman was raped and murdered, are stopped from doing so or arrested. U.N. special rapporteurs for human rights are not able to visit India, because as per U.N. protocol, they can only do so with an official invitation.
Electoral financing has become far more opaque, with political parties getting funds from unaccountable electoral bonds. Court appeals against the law, seeking greater transparency, remain pending. If opposition parties get elected to run state governments, inducements have been offered to legislators to topple those governments, and federally-appointed governors of the states, who are supposed to be impartial, make openly partisan, even provocative statements critical of religious minorities and the constitution. The judiciary has let some crucial cases remain in its in-tray, including habeas corpus petitions such as those involving the arrests of opposition politicians without due process in the disputed region of Jammu and Kashmir. Last year, the Modi administration revoked constitutional guarantees Kashmir enjoyed and relegated it from a full-fledged state to a federally administered and bifurcated territory.
The relentless pace at which the attacks have occurred, the way institutions have been appropriated and weakened, the ease with which the government has been able to pass measures in parliament, and the passive manner in which some judicial pronouncements and orders have permitted the erosion of rights, have all collectively transformed India into what it was not meant to be. Instead of the secular democracy it was envisioned as, it seems more and more like any other developing country with an autocratic leader who commands the passionate support of the vociferous.
The Delhi police are right: India has indeed become a different country. But many Indians—brave activists, lawyers, academics, intellectuals, union leaders, grassroots workers, and human rights defenders—are fighting to preserve their republic. Their voices must remain amplified—that is the far bigger story than Amnesty’s departure.