By P.K.Balachandran/The Citizen
Colombo, March 15: Freedom House, which rates 210 countries annually in terms of democratic parameters, has slammed the Narendra Modi government for its treatment of India’s largest minority -the Muslims- in its report covering events in 2022.
Published just ahead of March 15, the UN-designated anti-Islamophobia Day, the report details the discriminatory and punitive measures taken against Muslims by Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) governments at the Center and the States.
The government’s anti-Muslim policy is cited as one of the main reasons for continuing to describe India as a “partly free” country for three years in a row.
The overall score of the “world’s largest democracy” is 66/100 with political rights getting 33/40 and civil liberties getting 33/60. The report thus indicates that while Indians enjoy political rights (in terms of voting), they are lacking in civil liberties.
Here are key paragraphs from the report:
India is a multiparty democracy with regular “free and fair” elections, but the government led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has adopted “discriminatory policies” marked by a “rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population.”
Authorities in several regions demolished Muslim-owned properties during the year. In April, authorities in Delhi, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh responded to the unrest by demolishing Muslim-owned buildings. Authorities in Uttar Pradesh destroyed Muslim-owned homes in June after protests held that month.
While Muslim candidates won 27 of 545 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha (parliamentary) elections, up from 22 previously, this amounted to just 5% of the seats in the House, whereas Muslims made up some 14.2% of the population according to the 2011 census. Till 2022 end, no MP belonging to the BJP was a Muslim.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) of 2019 grants special access to Indian citizenship to non-Muslim immigrants and refugees from neighboring Muslim-majority states. At the same time, the government moved forward with plans for the creation of a national register of citizens. Many observers believe that the register’s purpose is to disenfranchise Muslim voters by effectively classifying them as illegal immigrants. The citizenship status of 1.9 million residents of Assam, which is home to a significant Muslim population, remains in doubt after a citizens’ register was finalized in the northeastern state in 2019.
A number of Hindu nationalist organizations and some media outlets promote anti-Muslim views, a practice that the Modi government has been accused of encouraging. Attacks against Muslims and others in connection with the alleged slaughter or mistreatment of cows, which are held to be sacred by Hindus, continued in 2022. The BJP has faced criticism for failing to mount an adequate response to cow-related violence.
Several BJP-led states have passed or proposed laws meant to stem the alleged practice of “love jihad”—a baseless conspiracy theory according to which Muslims marry Hindu women with the goal of converting them to Islam. The legislation effectively created obstacles to interfaith marriages and raised the risk of legal penalties, harassment, and violence for interfaith couples.
.Legislation in several states criminalizes religious conversions that take place as a result of “force” or “allurement,” which can be broadly interpreted to prosecute proselytizers. Some states require government permission for conversion.
In February 2022, the Karnataka government banned Muslim students from wearing the hijab (head cover) in several public institutions. In October, the Supreme Court delivered a split verdict on the issue, with judges calling on the chief justice to send the case to a larger bench.
In April 2022, the Article 14 news site said five of its journalists were escorted from a Hindu nationalist event in Delhi by police; demonstrators had attacked them when learning that most of them were Muslim. Police in Delhi later launched a case against Article 14 and journalist Meer Faisal for commenting on the incident on Twitter.
In June 2022, Mohammed Zubair, a cofounder of the Alt News fact-checking site, was arrested for allegedly inflaming religious sentiments via a Twitter post. A complainant accused Zubair, a Muslim, of showing disrespect to a Hindu deity. Zubair was later accused of using “offensive” language to describe Hindu religious leaders by the Uttar Pradesh police before receiving bail in July.
Activists, Muslims, and members of other marginalized communities are routinely charged with sedition for criticizing the government and its policies. In 2021, Article 14 reported a 28% annual increase in sedition charges from 2014, when the BJP came to power, to 2020. In May 2022, the Supreme Court put the colonial-era sedition law under review, stayed ongoing related cases, and asked the central and state governments to refrain from filing new cases.
Online “troll armies” associated with the BJP routinely harass individuals—notably Muslims—and organizations for voicing criticism of the government and for engaging in behavior that supposedly deviates from Hindu orthodoxy.
Other Civil Liberties Issues
The government, through the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), has selectively pursued anti-corruption investigations against opposition politicians while overlooking allegations against political allies. In September 2022, the Indian Express reported that the CBI investigated opposition politicians since the BJP came to power far more often, while fewer members of the ruling party were targeted.
Millions of requests are made annually under the 2005 Right to Information (RTI) Act. However, most requesters do not receive the information sought. But dozens of right-to-information users and activists have been murdered since the RTI Act’s introduction, and hundreds have been assaulted or harassed.
Attacks on press freedom have escalated dramatically under the Modi government, and reporting has become significantly less ambitious in recent years. The authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to gag critical media.
In addition to criminal charges, journalists risk harassment, death threats, and physical violence in the course of their work. Such attacks are rarely punished, and some have taken place with the complicity or active participation of police.
University administrators and faculty have been investigated, disciplined, or compelled to step down owing to their perceived political views. Academics face pressure not to discuss topics deemed sensitive by the BJP government, particularly India’s relations with Pakistan and conditions in Indian Kashmir. The heads of prestigious academic institutions are increasingly selected for their loyalty to the ruling party.
The government has imposed rules that increase social media companies’ liability for material posted on their platforms and effectively encourage aggressive content restrictions.
A nationwide Central Monitoring System is meant to enable authorities to intercept digital communications in real time without judicial oversight. In 2021, a collaborative investigation by news organizations revealed that the government had likely planted Pegasus spyware on the mobile devices of more than 300 prominent individuals, including opposition members, journalists, judges, businesspeople, and minority-rights advocates.
Under certain circumstances, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) of 2010 permits the federal government to deny NGOs access to foreign funding, and authorities have been accused of using this power selectively against perceived political opponents. The government cancelled the FCRA registrations of 6,677 NGOs between 2017 and 2021. In December, the government said one of the organizations lost its license because it received funding from the Chinese embassy.
Abuses by prison staff against people in custody, particularly those belonging to marginalized groups, are common. In July 2022, the Home Affairs Ministry reported that 4,484 people died in judicial or police custody in 2020 and 2021.