In the middle of 2020, as the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic was raging all around India, a Group of Ministers from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration met six times to figure out how to “neutralise the people who are writing against the government”.
In most democracies, the idea of government officials and pro-government mediapersons gathering to discuss strategies to limit fundamental freedoms – and then putting their thoughts on paper – would be cause for a major scandal.
In Modi’s India, however, such behaviour is depressingly commonplace.
Consider the last few weeks alone.
On Wednesday, the Enforcement Directorate, the government’s economic investigation agency, conducted raids at the home and office of Harsh Mander, one of India’s pre-eminent human rights activists. On September 10, the Income Tax department raided the offices of Newslaundry and NewsClick, two news organisations that have been unafraid to call out government excesses. And on September 7, Uttar Pradesh police filed a police case against journalist Rana Ayyub for allegedly cheating donors her Covid-19 relief initiative, based on a complaint by a vitriolic organisation that calls itself Hindu IT Cell.
The government insists, as might be expected, that none of these actions are politically motivated, and that the law is simply following its course. Yet anyone who has observed the actions of India’s investigation agencies over the last few years, particularly in how the government has wielded them against political opponents, would know that the legal argument is simply a facade for targeted intimidatory tactics.
When the shoe is on the other foot, the government suddenly shows no interest in letting the law follow its course.
It has refused to investigate credible evidence, as identified by an American digital forensic firm, that malware was planted on the computer of Rona Wilson and other activists in the Bhima Koregaon case. It has repeatedly stonewalled the simplest of questions on the Pegasus leaks, which seem to suggest that the government was using spyware against political opponents, journalists and activists.
It has shown no interest in looking into allegations that Union Minister Nitin Gadkari was gifted a bus by a Swedish automobile manufacturer in the hopes of winning contracts, even though the company has officially admitted to misconduct in India. In 2019, the Print carried a story making this point, listing out seven politicians with corruption charges who would not be raided by the government, underlining the clear political bias in the way investigating agencies are used.
Instead, the government has steadily sought to exert more control over the the media, bringing in regulations that have been called unconstitutional and encouraging the frivolous filing of police cases against those who raise questions.
The government’s attacks on free speech and its attempt to create an environment where criticism is not tolerated has not gone unnoticed globally. As Aakar Patel recently pointed out,
“In the Economist Intelligence Unit “Democracy Index”, India has fallen from 27 to 53; on the CIVICUS National Civic Space Ratings, India has gone from “Obstructed” to “Repressed”; on the Freedom House Freedom in the World, India has gone from “Free” to “Partly Free”, and Kashmir from “Partly Free” to “Not Free”; on the Access to Info RTI Ratings index, India has fallen four places for being “less transparent” in government; on the Pew Religious Restrictions both social hostility and religious restrictions have worsened; on the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index it has fallen two places; on the University of Gothenburg V-Dem Index India fell in “one of the most dramatic shifts among all countries in the world over the past 10 years”.”
While the latest actions against Mander, Ayyub and the news organisations have been condemned by civil society and international bodies, there appears to be little expectation that voices within government – or the judiciary – will speak up to defend the values protecting speech and dissent enshrined in the Constitution.
Instead, India seems to quite firmly be going down the path of further state intimidation. Modi’s government has evidently decided that the way to solve the many problems facing India – from economic concerns to healthcare struggles – is to suppress those who might speak the truth about them.
The country saw how well that went in April and May, when governments first tried to insist that the Covid-19 crisis was still under control. Predictably, the news organisation that did some of the most revelatory coverage of the horrific scenes and government failure at the time was raided by income tax authorities months later.
With the BJP leadership resorting to desperate measures to regain control of the narrative, like replacing a number of chief ministers and mounting a massive propaganda effort to shore up Modi’s image, it is unlikely to change its tone towards those asking questions anytime soon.