India retained its status of being a “partially free” country for the third consecutive year in an annual report by Freedom House, the Washington-based pro-democracy think tank and watchdog.

It ranked 195 countries on parameters such as political rights and civil liberties. The cumulative score enables the organisation to rank a given country as “free”, “partly free” or “not free”.

India in the 2023 report scored 66 out of 100 – the same as last year.

The report, released on March 9, attributed Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party government’s “discriminatory policies” and an increase in the “persecution of the Muslim population” for the “partially free” status.

The report by Freedom House comes a week after Sweden-based Varieties of Democracy Institute had said that India is one of the “worst autocratisers” of the last 10 years. It has joined the ranks of Afghanistan, Brazil and Myanmar in “witnessing the most dramatic increases” in political polarisation, V-Dem had said.

Credit: Freedom House

Read the full report here.

Freedom House in its report said, “The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, NGOs [non-governmental organisations], and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi. The BJP has increasingly used government institutions to target political opponents. Muslims, Scheduled Castes [Dalits], and Scheduled Tribes [Adivasis] remain economically and socially marginalised.”

Some of the other parameters that were assessed to evaluate the health of a country’s democracy by Freedom House include “electoral processes”, “political pluralism and participation”, “functioning of government”, “freedom of expression and belief”, “associational and organisational rights”, “rule of law” and “personal autonomy and individual rights”.

While India scored 4 out of 4 in the assessment of its electoral processes, the score was lower (between 2 and 3) on other parameters.

On freedom of expression and belief, the United States non-governmental organisation noted that attacks on media houses critical of the BJP have escalated dramatically under the Modi government and that reporting has become “significantly less ambitious” in recent years.

“Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to quiet critical voices in the media,” said the organisation, which has been in operation since 1941. “Hindu nationalist campaigns aimed at discouraging forms of expression deemed ‘anti-national’ have exacerbated self-censorship.”

The report said that besides criminal charges, journalists in India face risk of harassment, death threats and physical violence in their work.

It cited the case filed by the Delhi Police against journalist Meer Faisal and news website Article 14
for their coverage of a Hindutva event in the national capital, the raids on the office of news portal The Wire in October and the arrest of Alt News co-founder Mohammad Zubair on charges of hurting religious sentiments.

In its report, Freedom House also said that academic freedom has significantly weakened in India in recent years, with professors, students as well as institutions being intimidated because of political and religious issues.

“Academics face pressure not to discuss topics deemed sensitive by the BJP government, particularly India’s relations with Pakistan and conditions in Kashmir,” it said. “The heads of prestigious academic institutions are increasingly selected for their loyalty to the ruling party.”

The report noted that activists, Muslims, and members of other marginalised communities are routinely charged with sedition for criticising the Modi government and its policies.

“Online ‘troll armies’ associated with the BJP routinely harass individuals – notably Muslims – and organisations for voicing criticism of the government and for engaging in behaviour that supposedly deviates from Hindu orthodoxy,” it added.

It also said that homes of Muslims have been destroyed in an apparent action against protests, with the authorities claiming that they were built illegally.

While India has no legal provisions allowing the destruction of property of anyone accused of an offence, BJP-ruled state governments have been increasingly dispensing “bulldozer justice” by conducting demolition drives under the guise of removing encroachments.

How has the government reacted to such reports?

Previously, the Indian government has rejected reports flagging its democratic backsliding.

“You use the dichotomy of democracy and autocracy...You want the truthful answer – it is hypocrisy,” Foreign Minister S Jaishanker had said in March 2021 after Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy”.

He added, “Because you have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want it to be played. So they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass their judgments and then make out as though this is some kind of global exercise.”

The foreign ministry claimed that the political judgements of the report were “inaccurate and distorted”.