“The offence of sedition cannot be invoked to minister to the wounded vanity of the governments,” declared the judge while ordering bail for the 22-year-old climate change activist Disha Ravi, who was arrested recently, accused of working with the activist Greta Thunberg to undermine the Indian government — an outrageous fiction. Their only “crime” was expressing support for the farmers’ protest.
But the decision in Ravi’s case has much wider implications. It was a rare but welcome instance of the judiciary standing up to the Indian government’s increasingly authoritarian tactics.
The judge came down heavily against the use of sedition charges against activists and journalists. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sedition charges have been deployed as a clear tool of intimidation. A report by the organization Article 14 shows that 96 percent of sedition cases filed against 405 Indians for criticizing politicians and government officials were registered after 2014, when Modi assumed power.
So it didn’t really come as a surprise when the latest Freedom House democracy report degraded India from “free” to “partly free.” The report noted that the government and “its state-level allies continued to crack down on critics during the year, and their response to covid-19 included a ham-fisted lockdown that resulted in the dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers. The ruling Hindu nationalist movement also encouraged the scapegoating of Muslims, who were disproportionately blamed for the spread of the virus and faced attacks by vigilante mobs.”
The report’s conclusion is a scathing indictment. “Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, Modi and his party are tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism,” the report says.
Of course the Indian government — which has now dismissed criticism from the United Nations and Amnesty International, which was forced to shut down in the country — rushed to attack the report as “misleading, incorrect and misplaced.”
But the government offered few specifics in its rebuttal. That’s because the steady decline of Indian democracy is impossible to deny, and emphasizing PR-friendly stories of economic growth won’t mark that reality anymore. The V-Dem Institute, based in Sweden, also downgraded India’s classification from “world’s largest democracy” to “electoral autocracy” in its latest report.
The same day Freedom House released its report, tax officials raided the home of the filmmaker Anurag Kashyap and the actress Taapsee Pannu. Both have been fiercely critical of the arrests of students and activists and have also expressed support for the farmers’ protest. The duo stands out for deciding to raise their voices for social justice, defying the comfortable silence and denial prevailing among most Bollywood stars.
Indian movie stars and athletes are often deployed to promote government policies and amplify propaganda. It helps cement their popularity. So when Thunberg, along with celebrities such as Rihanna and Meena Harris, tweeted in solidarity with the farmers’ protest, the entire powerful ecosystem of government supporters started attacking them for wanting to “destabilize” India.
But many of those high-profile supporters have been silent about the Freedom House downgrade. It’s more convenient to pick fights with celebrities than actually contend with the fact-based reality that India’s vibrant democracy is descending into totalitarianism. A top Indian movie star who enjoys cult status told me early in the year that his blood boils seeing activists and students being thrown behind bars, but that he feared that expressing support would bring retaliation from the government, such as the launching of fictitious investigations against him. His fears are not without merit. The raid on Kashyap and Pannu was a clear message. It’s not just the film industry that has been neutralized and co-opted — critics in the Indian media are also being identified and monitored.
The Indian news magazine Caravan just published an investigation about how Indian ministers actively discussed ways of neutralizing “negative influencers” critical of the government. “Some negative influencers give false narratives and discredit the Government. These need to be constantly tracked so that proper and timely response can be given,” the report reads.
The Freedom House report highlighted what Indian activists and independent journalists have known for a long time. What the citizens of Kashmir, who are vilified in their own land, have known for a long time. What students and dissidents fighting each day to uphold India’s democratic traditions have known for a long time. What Muslims who feel orphaned in a country their forefathers helped built with their blood and sweat have known for a long time.
My hopes for this country, as a journalist and as a Muslim, are being crushed each day. But like many Indians who have cherished the dream of this inclusive plural nation, I see the Freedom House report as an important historical document. I hope it provides solace to the young and the restless and the disillusioned, even while our own people, our media, our popular figures decide to ignore the truth. Some seem to be reveling in the criticism like a badge of honor.
But the world is indeed watching.
Rana Ayyub is an Indian journalist and author of “Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up.”