US report regrets India’s fall from ranks of free nations

Published March 4, 2021
In this file photo, demonstrators gather along a road scattered with stones following clashes between supporters and opponents of a new citizenship law at Bhajanpura area of New Delhi on February 24, 2020. — AFP
In this file photo, demonstrators gather along a road scattered with stones following clashes between supporters and opponents of a new citizenship law at Bhajanpura area of New Delhi on February 24, 2020. — AFP

A report by a United States government-funded think-tank, Freedom House, regretted India’s fall from the ranks of free nations after the country's status was downgraded to "partly free", it emerged on Thursday.

“Under (Prime Minister Narendra) Modi, India appears to have abandoned its potential to serve as a global democratic leader, elevating narrow Hindu nationalist interests at the expense of its founding values of inclusion and equal rights for all,” warned the Freedom in the World 2021 report.

Reviewing the global situation in 2021, the report regretted “the fall of India from the upper ranks of free nations” which, it warned, “could have a particularly damaging impact on global democratic standards”.

The report pointed out that “political rights and civil liberties in the country have deteriorated since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, with increased pressure on human rights organisations, rising intimidation of academics and journalists, and a spate of bigoted attacks, including lynching, aimed at Muslims".

Read | India has now become the sick man of South Asia

The report noted that the decline only accelerated after Modi’s reelection in 2019, adding that last year, the Indian government intensified its crackdown on protesters opposed to a discriminatory citizenship law and arrested 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 added.

The report noted that in December 2020, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, approved a law that prohibits forced religious conversion through interfaith marriage, which critics fear will effectively restrict interfaith marriages in general.

The report pointed out that Indian authorities have already arrested a number of Muslim men for allegedly forcing Hindu women to convert to Islam.

The report also noted that amid the pandemic, the Indian government imposed an abrupt Covid-19 lockdown in the spring, which left millions of migrant workers in cities without work or basic resources. “Many were forced to walk across the country to their home villages, facing various forms of mistreatment along the way.”

Read | A story of swollen feet: India's migrant workers and the physical toll of walking home during the lockdown

To reverse the global shift toward authoritarian norms, the report urges democracy advocates working for freedom in their home countries to seek “robust solidarity from like-minded allies abroad”.

Rising authoritarianism, nationalism

Meanwhile, United States Secretary of State Tony Blinken referred to the report in his first major foreign policy speech on Wednesday, noting that “authoritarianism and nationalism are on the rise around the world. Governments are becoming less transparent and have lost the trust of the people”.

The chief US diplomat also referred to the post-election violence in his country in January when a crowd attacked Congress to undo the election results.

“Elections are increasingly flash points for violence. Corruption is growing. And the pandemic has accelerated many of these trends,” he said. “But the erosion of democracy is not only happening in other places. It’s also happening here in the United States.”

The US score in 'Freedom in the World' report has dropped by 11 points over the past decade and fell by three points in 2020 alone.

Secretary Blinken said that unlike its predecessor, the Biden administration was ready to encourage democracy across the world but will not use America’s military might to do so.

“We will encourage others to make key reforms, overturn bad laws, fight corruption, and stop unjust practices. We will incentivise democratic behaviour,” he said.

“But we will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force. We have tried these tactics in the past. However well-intentioned, they haven't worked.”

Military interventions, he said, had “given democracy promotion a bad name”, and had lost the confidence of the American people. “We will do things differently,” he said.

Shoring up US democracy, he said, was a foreign policy imperative of the Biden administration. “Otherwise, we play right into the hands of adversaries and competitors like Russia and China, who seize every opportunity to sow doubts about the strength of our democracy.”

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