India: a democratic state?
A few days ago, India was shocked by the news of the arrest of prominent members of civil society including activists, poets and scholars. These arrests occurred within hours of each other in six states. The charge of their arrest was that they were ‘urban Naxls’ or having links with the Naxalites in India. The government defended these arrests suggesting that the previous administration led by the Congress party had initially taken note of these individuals. However, many in the country believe that this is a further crackdown on civil society and dissent in the country.
The timing of these arrests, too, serves as evidence of the later. The arrests come at a convenient time to help distract the country from notable government setbacks including the failure of the demonetization policy, the falling value of Indian currency and a questionable military deal which could demonstrate nepotism and corruption. With the general election coming up, many believe the need to create an “enemy” is the logic behind these arrests. Often times communal violence is the chosen means (See Graph Below). Notice how communal violence spike in years preceding general and the first term of a general election – 2008 and 2013 and is now on the upward swing again. Therefore, there is a feeling that these next few months will be filled with more of the same.
Over the past four years, there have been steady efforts to limit the activities of non-government organizations (NGOs) especially those working in human rights, development and Christian activities. This has been done through the refusal to renew their Foreign Contribution Regulatory Acts (FCRA) certificates. As the name suggests, NGOs in India which require FCRA certificates to receive funds from outside the country. In 2016, the FCRA certificates of 20,000 of the 33,000 NGOs operating in India had been cancelled because of allegedly not following the provisions of the FCRA. Ironically, in 2014, both the BJP and the Congress were found to be in violation of FCRA provisions. However, instead of cancellation of their certificates, the law was changed with retrospection in 2016 to allow political parties to receive foreign contributions from abroad as long as it is channelled through its Indian subsidiary. This has exonerated by both the BJP and the INC.
By not receiving foreign funding for these projects, their activities which were perceived as “anti-development” or “anti-national” have been stymied. These organizations include Greenpeace, Amnesty International and World Vision India. The FCRA has been criticized by the first UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and Association as not conforming to International law, principles and standards. Both the Obama and Trump administrations, as well as the German governments have raised this issue with the Indian government to no avail.
Journalists around the country are increasingly subject to editorial control, legal action and threats of physical violence. Most notably, popular Hindi television journalist Ravish Kumar received threats of deaths and violence following his stories which were critical of the government. In a more extreme case, the southern state of Karnataka, noted journalist and publisher Gauri Lankesh, a longtime critic of Hindutva, was gunned down outside her house by members of an organization which leans towards a Hindutva ideology. The Committee to Protect Journalists show that 25 per cent of targeted killing of members of the press in India since 1992 have occurred over the past four years of the Modi era.
While India continues to be touted as the ‘World’s Largest Democracy’, it has witnessed a slip it its ratings. The V-Dem Annual democracy Report suggests that while India still possesses democratic institutions and processes like elections and a free press, it is undergoing a process of “autocratization” which is the decline of democratic attributes of these institutions. As this process unveils, India’s democratic and secular fabric is in danger.