Is Democracy in India’s DNA?

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Is Democracy in India’s DNA?

Basharat Ahmad Siddiqui

During his latest visit to the United States, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose government has a dodgy record on human rights, tried to evade media questions, as always. However, in what is the first and only press conference that Modi has addressed in the past nine years, a brave Wall Street Journal journalist Sabrina Siddiqui dared to ask a burning question: “As you stand here in the East Room of the White House, where so many world leaders have made commitments to protecting democracy, what steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and to uphold free speech?” To this, Modi first became jittery but then responded by saying, “Democracy is in India’s DNA, it is in India’s spirit, in its blood …”. he had uttered the word ‘democracy’ 14 times in his address to the joint session of the US Congress.

But was Narendra Modi speaking the truth when replying to Sabrina? Is democracy really in India’s DNA? Do Muslims and other minorities enjoy their fundamental rights granted to them by the country’s constitution freely? Do Indian citizens and voters reward democratic behaviour and punish non-democratic behaviour? The answer to these and many such other questions is a big NO. Modi’s “democracy is in our DNA” remark also came barely 48 hours before India marked the imposition of the Emergency on June 25, 1975, by the then-prime minister, Indira Gandhi. But was Indira Gandhi punished by voters for imposing the Emergency? Not really. In the post-Emergency general elections of 1977, she remained dominant in the south. In Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh she won landslide victories and got an overall vote share of 35.4 percent. In fact, Indira Gandhi herself believed she would win in 1977.
Is India a democracy?
In a true democracy, the helpless citizens are totally reliant on democratic institutions – the courts, the media, the parliament and an impartial law and order machinery – to protect them. But, in today’s India, parliamentary debate has become redundant. Two significant pieces of legislation since 2014, the 2019 revocation of Article 370 and the 2020 farm laws, were passed without full-scale parliamentary debate. There have been 399 sedition cases filed since 2014. The media and the judiciary have also been infected by the culture of majoritarianism and are no match for a super-powerful political executive.
On human rights
Reports from various international human rights organizations prove that India, which once was considered the epitome of democracy worldwide, has become a living hell for its non-Hindu citizens, especially during the past nine years of the Modi government. There are 203 million Muslims (14.2 percent of the population), 33 million Christians (2.3 percent), 24 million Sikhs (1.7 percent) and other minorities in India. They are discriminated against by the state machinery with impunity as their biggest protectors are running the country’s government. The government is busy in passing legislation that would give it more control over the citizens and limit the latter’s freedoms. The most recent piece of legislation is “The Digital Personal Data Protection Bill, 2023,” which was passed by lawmakers on Aug. 09. It is a data protection law that will dictate how tech companies process users’ data though it faces criticism that it will likely lead to increased surveillance by the government. Following are some reports that expose India’s real face on human rights:
1. Amnesty International
Following are some findings of Amnesty International which were reported in its “The State of the World’s Human Rights”:
Laws and policies that were passed without adequate public and legislative consultation eroded the rights of human rights defenders and religious minorities.
The government selectively and viciously cracked down on religious minorities, and explicit advocacy of hatred by political leaders and public officials towards them was commonplace and went unpunished.
In a continuing pattern of harassment and intimidation, unlawful and politically motivated restrictions were placed on civil society organizations and human rights defenders including activists, journalists, students and academics.
Throughout the year the authorities routinely used international travel bans to stifle independent voices including the human rights activist and former head of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel, journalist Rana Ayyub and at least two Kashmiri journalists who were scheduled to speak abroad on India’s human rights situation.
The government cracked down on critics by resorting to arbitrary arrests, including without following due process, under draconian and repressive laws.
At least eight Muslim students, councillors and human rights activists continued to be detained without trial under the UAPA for allegedly orchestrating religious violence in Delhi in February 2020 that killed at least 53 people, mostly Muslims.
Criminal laws were used disproportionately against religious minorities, particularly Muslims. The police routinely arrested Muslims for allegedly “promoting enmity between groups” and “outraging religious feelings” for acts including offering namaz (prayers), conducting legitimate business transactions, consensually marrying Hindu women and eating beef.
Explicit incitements to violence against Muslims, including to rape and murder of Muslim women, were made with impunity by Hindu priests in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi.
Punitive demolitions of Muslim family homes and businesses were carried out with impunity.
Peaceful protesters defending minority rights were presented and treated as a threat to public order.
Repressive laws including counterterrorism legislation were used rampantly to silence dissent.
Adivasis and marginalized communities including Dalits continued to face violence and entrenched discrimination.
2. US State Department’s 2022 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices
The report said, “Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual violence, workplace violence, child, early, and forced marriage, femicide, and other forms of such violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; and existence of forced and compulsory labour.
A lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and under-resourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.”
P. Chidambaram spills the beans
Moreover, in an article published in Indian Express, the former finance minister of India, has enumerated the following facts to prove that India is far from being a true democracy:

  • In the 79-strong Council of Ministers, there is no Muslim, one Christian and one Sikh, though the BJP has 395 MPs in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha.
  • The BJP fielded only 6 Muslim candidates in the Lok Sabha election in 2019 — three in Jammu & Kashmir, two in West Bengal and one in Lakshadweep – and all of them lost.
  • Consequently, Muslims constitute only 4.42 percent of the strength of the Lok Sabha, though Muslims constitute about 14.2 percent of the population.
  • In the last elections to the respective state assembly in Uttar Pradesh (403 seats), Gujarat (182) and Karnataka (224), the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in the three states.
  • Of the 34 judges of the Supreme Court, currently, there is one Muslim, one Parsi and no Christian or Sikh. The whisper is ‘one representative is enough’.
  • In May 2019, [Illegally occupied Indian] Jammu & Kashmir was dismembered and its status was reduced to a Union Territory.
  • The Citizenship (Amendment) Act is discriminatory against Muslims from neighbouring countries. It also excludes migrants who are Buddhists and Christians from Nepal and migrants of any religion from Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
  • Controversies were ignited on hijab, halal, azaan and prayers by Muslims on public grounds on the eve of the elections in Karnataka by the BJP and its fraternal organisations.
  • Cow protection and love jihad are campaigns supported by the BJP that target Muslim dairy-owners and traders and Muslim youth.
  • There were 2,900 incidents of violence between religious communities between 2017 and 2021, according to the National Crime Records Bureau [As many as]. 28 persons were killed in ‘lynching’ between 2010 and 2017 (24 were Muslims). In 2017, NCRB stopped collecting data on lynching.
  • According to a special report in Outlook (March 13, 2023), Christians in India continue to face targeted attacks on their faith, including threats to Christian gatherings, churches and educational institutions.
  • The US Report on International Religious Freedom, 2022 (May 15, 2023) said that religious freedom in India had worsened. The 49-page report cited examples of cases where minorities were targeted and attacked.
  • India’s rank slipped from 100 in 2022 to 108 in 2023 in the Electoral Democracy Index of Norway’s V-Dem Institute. It described India as an ‘electoral autocracy’.
  • US-based Freedom House downgraded India’s status to ‘partially free’ in its Freedom in the World report.
  • In December 2022, there were 7 journalists in jail; of them 5 were Muslims. Two were released on bail after 14 months (Mr Manan Dar) and 2 years (Mr Siddique Kappan), respectively.
  • People have been arrested for criticising the prime minister and chief ministers. Example: five men were arrested for the crime of putting up a hoarding that showed Mr Modi offering a cooking gas cylinder priced at Rs 1,105.
  • Mr Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website, was arrested on a complaint by a person who alleged that Mr Zubair had called some Hindu monks ‘hate-mongers’ and had hurt his religious sentiments. New charges were added for old tweets. Finally, the Supreme Court consolidated the FIRs and granted Mr Zubair bail in all cases including future FIRs.
  • According to an international digital rights organisation, Access Now, the world saw 187 shutdowns of the Internet in 2022. India accounted for 84.
  • In the World Press Freedom Index 2023, India slid to rank 161 out of 180 countries.

Sadly, when democracies become places in which dissidence and free speech are seen as crimes, when religious minorities are wrongly targeted and when political opponents are crushed by the repressive organs of the state, they are called autocracies, and not democracies. There is much more to democracy than holding regular elections and this appears to be something that has been forgotten by Modi and the people he has chosen to gather around him. The debate can be summed up in the words of noted journalist and author Sagarika Ghose who wrote in her piece “Democracy is not in India’s DNA”:
“India has a long way to go before democracy and democratic norms become part of [its] DNA. The two big trends of [Indian] politics at the moment, populism and polarisation, further lessen the democratic impulse among citizens. Voters are happy to vote in “elected autocrats” if they shower freebies at election time. At the same time, public life is so acutely polarised that it is impossible to create a consensus on what constitutes a danger to democracy. India’s democracy has been reduced to electoral majoritarianism which insulates leaders from being accountable to citizens.”

The writer is an academician based in Sargodha.

Muhammad Ali Asghar

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