The state of democratic discourse in India

By Rajesh Kumar Sinha

The last few years have witnessed many discordant voices being raised on the future of democratic discourse in India. There have been a fair number of claims by politicians from varied political hues, intellectuals, academicians, former bureaucrats, some religious leaders and media personalities regarding the supposedly undemocratic and oppressive political/civil landscape in the country since the advent of Modi-led Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) governmnet in the country.

To substantiate their claims, most of them have used the index rankings of western international human rights, democracy and press freedom tracking groups. They also have used the examples of verbal and in some cases, physical attacks against minorities, Muslims in particular and legal proceedings against some of the journalists and civil society leaders. An interesing point here is that the supposedly declining state of Indian democracy has become a big matter of concern for selective individuals/organisations in India, UK, US, Canada and the entire media/government in Pakistan. However, the political party and the governmnet accused of doing so continues to be very popular while its leader the PM Modi, remains the most popular national leader across the globe.

It would be pertinent to first analyse reasons for the unbridled criticism of the government, variously decribed by some as undemocratic, autocratic, fascist and electoral autocracy by V-Dem.There have been five significant events in the last eight years of BJP government in India that have repeatedly been used as a pretext for castigating the government as undemocratic and fascist. An objective analysis is likely to provide a better insight if they could be described as a precursor to supposed democratic decline in India.

The police action against students of the New Delhi-based Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 2016 opened the pandora’s box. It is said that some left-supported (CPI-ML) radical students organised a seminar in the university campus against an alleged rape of several Kashmiri women by Indian army in 1991. In course of the discussion, allegedly anti-national slogans, asking for territorial disintegration of the ocuntry, were raised. It is interesting that this seminar against the alleged, officially fake/unproven atrocities of the army was organised at the university premises after almost twenty-five years by a radical outfit that openly abuses the current administration.

The second major event related to the wide-ranging anti-CAA protests, carried out by opposition politicians in association with anti-government civil organisations, academicians and journalists. The issue related to the government’s passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that aims to offer citizenship rights to minorities facing political persecution in neighbouring Islamic countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh.

The protests that snowballed into a big national and global event, got a lot of funding from international agancies, government and others, and continued for a few months. The act did not have anything on any Indian citizen yet it was portrayed as an attack on the civil rights of Indian muslims and state’s efforts to disfranchise them of country’s citizenship. The government repeatedly clarified that it only aimed at fast-tracking citizenship rights to those minorities who needed immediate rehabilitation and assistance and not remain entrapped in the legal and bureaucratic web of regulations for long.

The new law was hijacked by anti-government propagandists as an instrument against the Indian muslims. Some political/legal luminaries even went to the judicary caliming the act to be discriminatory against muslims and that Rohingya refugees in neighbouring Myanmar too, be given citizenship in the country. It was against the fundamental premise that giving citizenship to foreign nationals is a right of the host country and not a privilege that aspiring foreign nationals can demand for. It is clear that the entire protests were anti-government, politically motivated/managed and had not the interests of Indian muslims in mind.

The third major event misused was the government’s decision to rescind Articles 370 and 35-A of the Indian Constitution, relating to the special status of Kashmir. A detailed insight into the issue would reveal that the primary condition for holding of the promised plebicite by Indian government in Kashmir, entailed removal of Pakistani military from the territory first folowed by Indian forces and holding of the right of self-determination by natives under the supervision of UN forces. Since the first condition was never met by Pakistan who subsequently gifted (under pressure) Aksai Chin, a major part of Kashmir to China and later on made signficant changes in the administrative/legal structure of the Kashmir region under its control, the question of India holding a plebicite did not arise and became infructous.

The Indian region of Kashmir has been facing incessant terrorism, especially since early 1990s due to unabated Pakistani support, financially, diplomatically and strtaegically through supply of arms and ammunition to extremists. The governments, both state and the federal, for decades have merely tried to continue playing politics with the situation while talking of peaceful solution. The Modi-government in a decisive step removed the controversial laws and imposed a curfew and internet blocakade for some time to deal with terrorists sternly who have been using the social media to play havoc with the people and region for long.

Though the entire world including member nations of Organisation of Islmaic Countries (OIC) accepted the Indian Government’s decision, Pakistan and China, for political and strategic resaons, went all out in projecting it as inhuman, illegal and violative of human rights. It is true that for some time, continuous restriction of people’s movement and internet blocakade inside major parts of the state was enforced yet innocent citizens were not harassed. Only some terror supporters and stone-pelters were arrested. However, thanks to the hyper active Pakistani intelligence and its terror modules, doctored videos were widely circulated in the social media to give an impression that a massive civilian uprising was underway in Kashmir against the decision.

While the greater part of administrations and media the world over remained vigilant but satisfied with the Indian government’s handling of the issue, sections of media in the UK,US and governments of Pakistan and China went all round, including the UN, questioing the action and touting the Indian state as autocratic and fascist. However, the situation has gradually eased out and today the Kashmir region of India is witnessing a new phase of socio-economic developments, new business investments, big inflow of tourists and introduction and expansion of railway networks.

Attacks on minorities, especially Muslims has been cited as one of the significant reasons for declining stature of Indian democracy. There have been attacks on Muslims, mostly verbal and some physical too, on Pehlu, Aflaque, Jaunid and a few others resulting unfortunately in the loss of their lives. There have been a couple of meetings organized by some criminal elements, under the guise of Hinduism, calling upon killing of muslims and creation of a Hindu Rashtra in India. It is equally true that all such cases have been dealt in as per the existing laws of the land and wrongdoers have been penalized.

There is another side of this story too. It is interesting that many of the attacks on Muslims took place in states, ruled by non-BJP governments. The law and order of the state comes under the jurisdiction of the relevant state government and the responsibility of letting criminals, even aligned with BJP support, attack innocent Muslim citizens in states like Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh (ruled by Congress party at the time of incidents), certainly lie with them who allowed such happenings to put the BJP party/Central government in bad light, scoring political brownie points.

In addition to domestic politics involved, there have been a spurt in incidents where hindus have been repeatedly targetted by criminal, fringe muslim elements (who are a miniscule minority) during festivals and other occasions. A section of the anti-Modi media, Indian and international, have preferred glossing over such issues while using such incidents to portray a sense of insecurity among minorities in the country. Shockingly, many incidents of mob lynching or murders of hindu individuals have either been avoided or described as simple criminal acts whereas killing of individual muslims have repeatedly been projected as hate crimes.

Many such incidents that did not make headlines either in India/abroad included one in Ranchi (Jharkhand) where a group of sixteen college boys going out for a picnic was stopped, brutally beaten and almost lynched.

Misrepresentation of factual events and political mudslinging has often led to creation of an impression regarding the alleged insecure plight of muslims in India that in reality is fallacious. In fact, share of minorities (mostly muslims) in skill development and government jobs in India has improved signficantly in post-2014 period. The dropout ratio of girls from schools has come down from 70% to 30% that itself is suggestive of the success of governmental initiatives.

The spectacular success of free rations for poor, free gas connections, electricity, housing and safe drinking water for all (ongoing programme) along with universal bank accounts and direct benefit transfer (DBT), all have been provided to most needy citizens without any discrimination. No wonder while critics/propagandists continue to peddle communal polarisation and consolidation of Hindu votes, as reasons for the continued electoral success of the Modi-led BJP, it is pertinent that more than 8% of Muslim votes (more than 12 million) in UP state elections recently went to it, indicative of the growing mulim support for the BJP.

How the increasing popularity of the BJP and growing marginalization of opposition parties, mostly Congress, communists and regional parties, has created a situation where anything and everything, positive developments/programs of government are getting snowballed as political soccer by politicians in the country and Muslims are increasingly used as pawns. An innocuous and healthy promotion of Yoga, legal protection against the unethical/outdated practice of Teen Talaaq or sticking with school uniforms for all as against the sudden introduction of Hijab/any religious dress in classrooms, all have been used as supposed anti-muslim/anti-constitutional state oppression.

It is in continuation of this anti-government propaganda that continues unabated is the fifth factor that has been extensively used against Indian government. It talks of incessant governmental efforts to act against the constitution, muzzle pro-democracy, free speech voices and turn the country into a Hindu nation, against the ethos of secularism and pluarlism that continues to define India for centuries. To substantiate their argument, critics are showing instances where journalists have been intimidated, threatened and in some cases even put behind bars for some time.

It is true that media personalities, especially from social media have faced intimidation and harassment from ruling party politicians and administration as well. But what is conveniently sidestepped by anti-establishment media/journos is that media has faced persecution since the early days of independence. Nehru, widely cited by many as epitome of free voice, thinking and democracy, had banned many books/films/media and harassed some free thinking and outspoken critics. Afterwards, all successive governments have followed a policy of carrot and sticks for the media where a pliant/supportive media has been given varied benefits/government advertisements and state support while anyone opposing it has been tried to be stifled with indirect penal measures.

It should also be noted that not only BJP-ruled states but opposition governments in Maharashtra, Wet Bengal, Punjab, Rajasthan, Kerala and Chhattisgarh have repeatedly followed repressive, autocratic measures to stifle anti-government/media voices and common citizens/journos have been harassed/put in the jails on many occasions. However, their predicament is not talked about and highlighted while misdeeds of BJP politicians/ministers are routinely discussed.

The objectivity of reporting in news on India has become rare. Certain media outlets, newspapers/magazines, TV Channels/websites find incessant anti-government propaganda as the only baritone of their journalistic independence. There have been overt instances of plain lies and propaganda in reporting of many Indian/international media outlets including one US media powerhouse reporting of a massive strike involving 90 million citizens on 28th March during a nationwide strike whereas only some disruptions happened in the communist-ruled state of Kerala and the entire country remained normal on the day. An outside-funded and politically-influenced farmers agitation continued for months (involving a very miniscule section of farmers) but was projected as world’s largest movement against government involving 250 million.

 Politically motivated and questionable rankings of nations based on superficial parameters, have constantly been trying to demonize the current Indian government. Be it democracy rankings or press freedom, they have conveniently skipped taking about that India never figured high on their rankings anytime since 1950s. However, a brutal action against protestors in Trudeau’s Canada (Truckers’ strike), receives wide approval and appreciation from same media organizations. Whereas isolated incidents against Muslim individuals are discussed and debated threadbare, internment and severe repression of Muslims/Tibetans/Ahmadiyas/Sunnis in China, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, Bosnia and Blacks in US/Europe hardly find space in mainstream media.

The role of foreign funding through NGOs, print/digital media in disseminating a particular kind of anti-government narrative is also significant. A number of such journalists, including Rana Ayyub, Teesta Setalvad, Rohini Singh, Siddarth Vardarajan and others who in the last few years have made a name and money for themselves by being virulently on the other side of the establishment, prejudice and falsehood notwithstanding.

An objective analysis of the happenings in the Indian polity and society for the past eight years would reveal that some erroneous policy decisions (demonetization, GST) have been taken, some very unlawful incidents happened (sporadic incidents on attacks on muslims); some poor and marginalized individuals have faced intimidation and harassment too. The important factor to be noted is that it took place across the society, irrespective of religious divide and mostly on the basis of their socio-economic status. However, the national government on the whole has tried to be objective and enhanced the gamut of its welfarism for all. The final point is the polity and society today seem much more polarized than it was say, ten years ago as mostly people are divided into either pro-government or anti-government stance and the real reason lies with the hypocritical attitude of most politicians who cutting across political lines, have been seen exploiting even the pettiest issues for personal and political gains.

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Foreign Policy News is a self-financed initiative providing a venue and forum for political analysts and experts to disseminate analysis of major political and business-related events in the world, shed light on particulars of U.S. foreign policy from the perspective of foreign media and present alternative overview on current events affecting the international relations.

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