India’s Democratic Decline: Erosion of Institutions, Free Speech Suppression, and Rising Authoritarianism

Featured & Cover India’s Democratic Decline Erosion of Institutions Free Speech Suppression and Rising Authoritarianism

India, the world’s largest democracy, has been regarded as a beacon of hope in the developing world. However, recent years have seen significant challenges to its democratic fabric, causing global concern. Various indicators suggest a troubling decline in India’s democratic health, with notable falls in several key freedom indices.

Erosion of Democratic Institutions

The degradation of India’s democratic institutions has been substantial. The judiciary, traditionally a pillar of Indian democracy, has faced political interference, particularly in the appointment of judges. In an unprecedented move in 2018, four senior Supreme Court judges held a press conference to voice their concerns about the court’s functioning, particularly the allocation of cases to judges with less seniority. This event highlighted deep-seated issues within the judiciary.

Similarly, the Election Commission of India (ECI), responsible for overseeing elections, has been criticized for perceived biases. Allegations emerged during the 2019 general election that the ECI favored the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Moreover, the handling of electronic voting machines (EVMs) has been contentious, with security and tampering concerns leading to widespread distrust.

Restrictions on Free Speech and Media Freedom

Free speech and media freedom, crucial indicators of a healthy democracy, have faced increasing restrictions. Laws like the sedition law and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) have been used to suppress dissent and silence critics. Journalists critical of the government have faced harassment, intimidation, and even arrest on dubious charges.

The government introduced new rules for social media platforms in 2021, demanding the removal of “unlawful” content within 36 hours and identifying the “first originator” of messages deemed a threat to national security. Critics argue these rules could stifle dissent and severely undermine free speech.

Discrimination and Violence Against Minorities

India has seen a disturbing rise in discrimination and violence against minorities, tarnishing its rich cultural heritage of diversity. Religious minorities, especially Muslims, have faced significant violence. In 2019, a Muslim man in Jharkhand was attacked by a mob for allegedly transporting beef and subsequently died from his injuries. Numerous incidents of lynching of Muslims accused of cow slaughter or beef consumption have been reported.

The government’s treatment of other minorities, such as Dalits and Adivasis, has also drawn criticism. Dalits, historically subjected to discrimination, have faced violence for asserting their rights, like entering temples or inter-caste marriages. Adivasis have been displaced and faced violence due to policies favoring industrialization. These incidents indicate a violation of pluralistic principles, which are fundamental to a democratic polity.

Rise of Authoritarianism

The rise of authoritarianism under the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a significant concern. The government’s actions, such as the abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), reflect efforts to consolidate power at the expense of democratic norms.

Opposition leaders and critics have been targeted using state power. In 2020, opposition figures like former Jammu and Kashmir Chief Minister Omar Abdullah and former West Bengal Chief Minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya were placed under house arrest. Activists and academics critical of the government have been arrested under the UAPA, seen as a tool to silence dissent. These actions signify a troubling shift towards authoritarianism.

Global Reputation: A Waning Democratic Credibility

India’s backsliding democracy has raised alarms internationally. Freedom House has downgraded India from “free” to “partly free,” citing declines in political rights and civil liberties. The Human Freedom Index and the Press Freedom Index also highlight the deteriorating state of democratic freedoms in India.

International human rights organizations and some Western governments have criticized India’s democratic backsliding. However, geopolitical considerations, particularly India’s role in countering China’s influence in the Indo-Pacific, often temper these criticisms.

Defending Democracy

Addressing these democratic challenges is crucial for India’s future. Ensuring the independence of the judiciary, protecting free speech and media freedom, and promoting equality and justice for all citizens are vital steps. Civil society, opposition parties, and the international community must hold the government accountable and advocate for the preservation of democratic values.

India must take these steps to restore its status as a beacon of democracy in the developing world. As a former Supreme Court judge remarked, “The strength of a democracy is measured not just by the vibrancy of its institutions but also by the respect it commands in protecting the rights and freedoms of its people.” Only through such measures can India continue to inspire and lead by example in the realm of democratic governance.

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