India’s status as a democracy and free society has been downgraded to “partly free” in the latest annual report on global political rights and liberties by Freedom House, a US government-funded NGO that studies political freedom around the world.
The report titled “Freedom in the World 2021 – Democracy under Siege” said India “appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader”. It said India’s fall “from the upper ranks of free nations could have a particularly damaging impact on global democratic standards”.
There was no immediate response from Indian officials to the report.
India had been rated as “free” in Freedom House’s reports for 2018, 2019 and 2020, though its scores on a scale of 100 had declined during this period from 77 to 71. In the latest report, India had a score of 67 out of 100.
In 1973, Freedom House launched the Freedom in the World report, which assessed the level of freedom in each country and ranked them with a numerical score and declared them as “free”, “partly free” or “not free”. The annual report is perceived as one of the oldest quantitative measures of democracy. The latest report said political rights and civil liberties in India had deteriorated since 2014 because of increased pressure on human rights organisations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a “spate of bigoted attacks, including lynchings, aimed at Muslims”.
The decline accelerated in 2019, and the central government and its state-level allies “continued to crack down on critics” during 2020, while the response to the Covid-19 pandemic “included a ham-fisted lockdown that resulted in the dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers”.
Rather than serving as a champion of democratic practice and a “counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China”, the government and the ruling party are “tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism”, the report said.
Freedom House cited other incidents and developments that had led to the downgrade for India in the latest report, including the government intensifying its crackdown on protesters opposed to a the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the arrest of dozens of journalists who aired criticism of the official pandemic response.
“Judicial independence has also come under strain; in one case, a judge was transferred immediately after reprimanding the police for taking no action during riots in New Delhi that left over 50 people, mostly Muslims, dead,” the report said.
While India remains a multiparty democracy, the government has “presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population”, and the harassment of journalists, non-governmental organisations and other government critics has “increased significantly”.
Freedom House gave high scores to India for the conduct of free and fair elections but expressed concern over the “opaque financing of political parties – notably through electoral bonds that allow donors to obscure their identities”. While political participation is “generally free”, Freedom House said “some political actors have sought to inflame communal tensions with the goal of energising their own supporters”.
It also gave a low score to India over the ability of different segments of the population, including ethnic, racial and religious minorities, having full political rights and electoral opportunities.
The report was extremely critical of China, describing it as the “world’s most populous dictatorship” and saying the “malign influence of the regime” in Beijing was “especially profound in 2020”. China “ramped up its global disinformation and censorship campaign to counter the fallout from its cover-up of the initial coronavirus outbreak, which severely hampered a rapid global response in the pandemic’s early days”, the report said.
Beijing’s efforts “featured increased meddling in the domestic political discourse of foreign democracies, transnational extensions of rights abuses common in mainland China, and the demolition of Hong Kong’s liberties and legal autonomy”.