NEW DELHI — In the latest edition of Freedom in the World, an annual report published by pro-democracy nonprofit Freedom House, India has suffered the largest decline in its political rights and civil liberties score among the 25 most populous democracies because of the Narendra Modi government’s “alarming departures from democratic norms,” while Kashmir’s status has declined from “Partly Free” to “Not Free.”
This 2020 report gives a damning assessment of the Modi government’s “pattern of Hindu nationalist policies,” including the persecution of religious minorities, abruptly revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy, the adoption of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which it calls a “discriminatory citizenship law,” and the “aggressive” suppression of the anti-CAA protests that followed.
195 countries are ranked out of 100 using 25 indicators within seven categories: electoral processes, political processes and pluralism, functioning of government, freedom of expression and belief, association and organisational rights, rule of law, personal autonomy and individual rights.
India, which is ranked ‘Free,’ dropped from 75/100 in 2019 to 71 in 2020. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are ranked 38, 39 and 58 respectively. China is ranked 10.
Freedom House, based in Washington, was founded in 1941 with the support of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the rise of Nazism at the time. Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Willkie, the Republican presidential nominee who ran against President Roosevelt in 1940, served as its first co-chairs.
“Indian government has taken its Hindu nationalist agenda to a new level with a succession of policies that abrogate the rights of different segments of its Muslim population, threatening the democratic future of a country long seen as a potential bulwark of freedom in Asia and the world,” Sarah Repucci, Freedom House’s Senior Director of Research and Analysis, writes in the report.
On Kashmir, the report highlights the abrupt revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s (J&K) special status on 5 August, 2019, the massive deployment of troops, the arbitrary arrests of hundreds of Kashmiri leaders and activists, the postponement or elimination of legislative elections, and shutdown of mobile and internet services.
On Kashmir, the score declined in 14 of the 25 categories on which the ranking is based. It was zero in categories like freedom of assembly and whether people are able to make free political choices.
On whether Kashmir has an independent judiciary, the report said, “Courts are politicised and act as an extension of Indian executive and military authority.
The government and security forces frequently disregard court orders.”
Kashmir, the report said, “experienced one of the largest single-year score declines of the past 10 years in Freedom in the World, and its freedom status dropped to Not Free.”
The report also mentions the implementation of the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam as an example of the Modi government’s Hindu nationalist policies. While the NRC (an exercise to identify persons living without documents) in Assam was devised when the Congress Party was in power, it took on exclusionary religious overtones under the BJP, especially after Home Minister Amit Shah vowed to implement it at a national level.
In addition to the NRC, CAA and the suppression of protests, the report says there is rising intimidation in the academic space and educational system, with the government aiming to control the discussion of politically sensitive topics.
On the state of India’s media, the report said, “Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in the media. Hindu nationalist campaigns aimed at discouraging forms of expression deemed ‘antinational’ have exacerbated self-censorship, and some media observers have suggested that reporting has become less ambitious in recent years. Online disinformation was widespread in the run-up to the 2019 general election.”
India has come under increasing international pressure following the Modi government’s revocation of J&K’s special constitutional status and the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which critics say makes religion the basis of granting Indian citizenship and discriminates against Muslims.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR) Michelle Bachelet has filed an application before India’s Supreme Court asking the U.N. be made a third party in the petition that has been filed against the CAA.
The Modi government’s failure to quell the recent communal violence in Delhi, which was raging even while U.S. President Donald Trump was in the national capital, has also been criticised in the international media. Neither leader condemned the violence that followed a two-month long sit in protest against the CAA. Modi appealed for peace three days after the violence erupted.
India because of its Hindu nationalist policies, and China because of its “campaign of cultural annihilation” against the Muslim Uighur minority, were highlighted as “glaring examples” in the 2020 Freedom report, which is called A Leaderless Struggle For Democracy.
The report notes that India is viewed as distinct from China, the other powerful country in the Indo Pacific region, because of its democratic values, but that distinction is getting blurred under the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
While India still has a “Free” rating and is credited for holding a successful parliamentary election in 2019, the report said, “The BJP has distanced itself from the country’s founding commitment to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive.”
“Several of India’s neighbours have persecuted religious minorities for many years. But instead of stressing the contrast with its own traditions and seeking to propagate them abroad, India is moving toward the lower standards of its region,” it said.
At the global stage, the report said the countries that suffered a decline in their rating outnumbered those making gains by nearly two to one, which includes 25 of 41 democracies.
2020 marked the 14th consecutive year of deterioration in global freedom. There were 64 net declines in 2019 and 37 net gains. Net declines have been more than net gains for the past 14 years. The highest number of net declines since 2005 was in 2015 when 72 countries declined and 43 countries improved.
“Democracy and pluralism are under assault,” writes Repucci. “Dictators are toiling to stamp out the last vestiges of domestic dissent and spread their harmful influence to new corners of the world.”
“In fact, such leaders—including the chief executives of the United States and India, the world’s two largest democracies—are increasingly willing to break down institutional safeguards and disregard the rights of critics and minorities as they pursue their populist agendas,” she writes.
The United States maintained its score of 86 from 2019, but it is down from 94 in 2009.
“India and the United States are the largest and perhaps the most influential democracies in the world, and their drift from liberal democratic ideals is sending exactly the wrong message,” said Mike Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “If major democratic powers fail to set strong examples and provide constructive leadership, it will be impossible to reverse the global trends that threaten freedom for all societies.”