US State Department and Freedom House queer India’s international standing

G-20, which includes Saudi Arabia & China, meet in October. Biden’s ‘Summit for Democracy’ against authoritarianism is slated for December. Both place India in a spot

Mohammed Bin Salman and Xi Jinping
Mohammed Bin Salman and Xi Jinping

Sarosh Bana

Conscious of the global settings of the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was mindful of highlighting the democratic heritage of India.

Claiming to represent a country recognised as the “mother of democracy”, Modi struck a personal note to showcase his own democratic moorings by asserting that the strength of Indian democracy was demonstrated by the fact that the little child, who used to help his father at his tea shop has today grown to the level where he is addressing the UNGA for the fourth time.

Modi was almost certainly compelled by the unflattering perceptions of his government and of his own style of governance within the Joe Biden administration that has noted a democratic backsliding in India under Modi’s rule.

While in his meeting with the Prime Minister, President Biden used diplomatese to paper over what his country cites is political anarchy taking place in India, Indian-origin Vice President Kamala Harris did not shirk from telling Modi in their meeting as to how imperative it was to defend democratic principles and institutions, and to uphold human rights.

Biden has centrestaged the defence of democracy across the world, announcing that he would be hosting the first of two ‘Summits for Democracy’ on 9-10 December, “which will bring together leaders from government, civil society, and the private sector to set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal and to tackle the greatest threats faced by democracies today through collective action”.

While he did not specify the countries to be invited to the summit, which is being seen as an alternative to the G20 and a challenge to Beijing, the event will focus on the key themes of ‘defending against authoritarianism’, ‘addressing and fighting corruption’ and ‘advancing respect for human rights’. The G20, whose composition is determined by economic weight and includes authoritarian regimes such as China and Saudi Arabia, is due to meet in October in Italy.

Following his meetings with the US President and Vice President, Modi participated in the maiden in-person Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or ‘Quad’, hosted by Biden that also involved Japanese premier Yoshihide Suga and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison. What began as maritime cooperation among the four partner countries following the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 had led to an informal grouping that shares concerns about China’s overbearing presence in the Indo-Pacific.

The Modi government seeks global validity in being part of this partnership. However, while all four Quad members are democracies, India’s was recently downgraded from “free” to “partly free” by Washington-based Freedom House, whose research and analyses often frame the policy debate in the US and abroad on the progress and decline of freedom.

Describing itself as being founded on the “core conviction that freedom flourishes in democratic nations where governments are accountable to their people”, Freedom House noted, “India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population, and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.”

It adds that “while India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and increased violence affecting the Muslim population”. It points out that whereas the Constitution guarantees civil liberties, including freedom of expression and religion, the harassment of journalists, non-government organisations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi.

The Modi government has been stigmatised also by the Indian public and the opposition parties for its excesses against citizens, symbolised by its replacement of the enduring emblem of democracy, India’s Parliament House, by an unwanted new one – within a Rs 20,000 crore project branded Central Vista - without so much as seeking public opinion or Parliamentary approval.

The US State Department too has taken note of the happenings in India. Its scathing ‘2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices’ submitted to the US Congress in April stopped just short of accusing the Modi regime of crimes against humanity, when it recorded: “Significant human rights issues included unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by some police and prison officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners or detainees in certain states; restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, use of criminal libel laws to prosecute social media speech, censorship, and site blocking; overly restrictive rules on non-governmental organisations; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption at all levels in the government; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; tolerance of violations of religious freedom; crimes involving violence and discrimination targeting members of minority groups, including women, based on religious affiliation or social status ; and forced and compulsory child labour, as well as bonded labour.”

The report also noted that “a lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity”. It moreover observed that religious freedom in the sensitive border Union Territory of Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) had been marred by restrictions on freedom of movement and assembly, and that the 18-month internet shutdown there had been “the longest-ever shutdown in any democracy”.

Even as Modi was meeting Harris, one US lawmaker, Democrat Congressman Andy Levin of Michigan, voiced concern, remarking, “I hope his White House visit includes honest conversations about how the Modi government can ensure India’s democracy remains a democracy for all of its people.” Even the powerful India Caucus in the US Congress, including the caucus’s co-chairs, Congressmen Brad Sherman and Steve Chabot, has urged the Indian government to ensure that norms of democracy are maintained and dissent permitted.

These issues have queered India’s international standing. The BJP accorded an extravagant reception to Modi on his return to India, hailing him as a global leader, but as Congress leaders and others observed, the government and ruling party were keen on glossing over the empty seats in the UNGA during the Prime Minister’s address.

(The writer is an editor and independent commentator. Views are personal)

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