India recently celebrated 75 years of Independence. While there are many reasons of happiness and pride while observing this important anniversary, perhaps the most important feeling should be of the compelling need to stand up at this critical time for saving and protecting democracy in India. The reason is that during the last 8 years of the NDA/BJP regime democracy has come under increasing strain in India.
The people of India have for long taken well-deserved pride in their democracy but this is now changing. A recent India Today poll had 48% of the respondents stating that the democracy is in danger while 37% said that it is not, with 15% not responding.
Social activists, academics, students, journalists and opposition leaders have faced more arrests, harassment, intimidation and assaults in recent times compared to any other time during the last four decades. Although the emergency of 1975-77 was even worse in terms of the number of political opponents arrested, it lasted for less than 2 years before the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi announced its end. However there is no telling when the present phase of the assault on human rights and civil liberties, as witnessed during the NDA/BJP regime (2014-continuing) will end.
Fr. Stan Swamy was a Jesuit priest who devoted himself to serving the poorest tribal communities all his life. He was arrested in October 2020 at the age of 83. As his health deteriorated rapidly in jail, messages poured in for his release. These were ignored and he died nine months later on July 5, 2021. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders, said that she is devastated and Fr. Swamy was arrested on false charges.
G.N.Saibaba, who taught in a Delhi college, is 90% disabled physically. After his arrest, he was placed in an egg-shaped cell, designed to make him visible all the time but very inconvenient for a person of severe disability. On top of this when CCTV was also installed , he had to go on a hunger strike to get some relief.
Teesta Setalvad, a lawyer, activist and journalist who devoted herself for decades to helping victims of violence and riots, became co-petitioner with a woman who had seen her husband being killed before her eyes by rioters in Gujarat in 2002. This petition was not just dismissed but in addition Setalvad has been arrested. Mary Lawlor has said that Teesta Setalvad is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination, while asking for her release. Two police officers who helped to expose facts relating to riots are also in jail.
Himanshu Kumar had felt inspired by Mahatma Gandhi to work among the poorest tribal communities in Chattisgarh. When he drew attention to serious human rights violations and atrocities, his office was demolished. His petition to court was not just rejected but in addition he was asked to pay a huge fine and guidelines for further proceedings against him were issued.
Even when some victimized activists and opponents get some relief some courts, the tactic of implicating them in some other case is used to prolong their imprisonment. Opposition leader Jignesh Mewani and journalist Mohammed Zubair provide recent examples of this, although they finally got some relief from judiciary.
On May 3 World Press Freedom Day ten leading international organizations called for stopping assaults on press freedom in India. The Watch of the State initiative of the Polis project has mentioned 256 incidents of assaults and intimidation of journalists in India between May 2019 and August 2021.
Minorities have become significantly more insecure during the last 8 years or so of the NDA-BJP regime. They have faced entirely avoidable assaults and insults in matters relating to food, dress, livelihood and place of worship. Those accused of terrible violence against them, or of issuing threats of future violence, have been time and again allowed to escape serious punishment.
Democratic reforms introduced by the previous regime relating to right to information and transparency by the previous UPA/Congress government have suffered a huge setback. A scheme of election bonds was perfected in 2017 to allow the ruling party BJP to amass huge funds in conditions of complete non-transparency. Massive funds collected in this way not only help to win elections, these ( as well as intimidation)have been also used to topple state governments of opposition parties.
The Varieties of Democracy Institute, Sweden, has stated that India’s democracy is on a path of steep decline turning it into an ‘electoral autocracy’. Certainly the spirit of democracy has been increasingly missing in recent times and when this happens in a country of 1.3 billion people, then this has serious worldwide implications for democracy. Nevertheless, what still keeps hope alive is the robust resistance still being shown by several citizens, activists and media persons as well as opposition parties. Democratic traditions strengthened over several decades will not collapse so easily and a very good way of observing the 75th independence anniversary by Indian citizens will be to strengthen their commitment to democracy.
Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now and was formerly, Honorary Convener of National Campaign for People’s Right to Information. His recent books include A Day in 2071, Planet in Peril and Man over Machine—a Path to Peace.