- Press freedom, parliamentary proceedings, status of women and citizens’ right to protest are all under assault by the ruling BJP government.
The sharp reaction to Wall Street Journal journalist Sabrina Siddiqui and the online harassment faced by her on asking a question to Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his recent joint press conference with President Joe Biden in Washington D.C. on the discrimination against religious minorities and silencing of critics is just a taste of attack on press freedom in India. Had she been in India she would have lost her job by now and would be looking to start her own independent portal as most senior and reputed journalists in India are doing now. Reporters Without Borders has ranked India 161 out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom Index.
Against this background, how do we assess Modi’s address to the U.S. Congress, in which democracy has been hailed as the cornerstone of India-United States partnership?
Talking about the tradition of debate in the house, Modi said, “Being a citizen of a vibrant democracy myself, I can admit one thing Mr. Speaker – you have a tough job! I can relate to the battles of passion, persuasion and policy. I can understand the debate of ideas and ideology.” Compare this to the reality where most bills have been passed in the Indian Parliament in recent years without any debate. The manner in which farmers’ bills were passed made the entire opposition sit in protest overnight in the premises of Parliament complex. And while the opposition was absent from the house the government took advantage and got the Labor Codes approved. Even the ruling party members of parliament do not get a chance to express their opinion. They are supposed to blindly vote in favor of any resolution moved by the government as a favor to Modi and his Home Minister Amit Shah who have ensured their victory and a seat in Parliament.
When praising American Democracy, Modi said, “The foundation of America was inspired by the vision of a nation of equal people. Throughout your history, you have embraced people from around the world. And, you have made them equal partners in the American dream. There are millions here, who have roots in India. Some of them sit proudly in this chamber. There is one behind me, who has made history!” He should have been asked if he considers assimilation a strengthening feature of democracy then why in India Muslims are being hounded and have been reduced to second grade citizens. The ruling Bhartiya Janata Party does not have a single Muslim Member of Parliament. Does it not consider the 14% population of the country, which is mostly indigenous, not immigrants, worth being represented in the nation’s legislature? Kamala Harris is a minority in U.S., just as Muslims are in India.
Referring to cherished values of democracy he said, “Over two centuries, we have inspired each other through the lives of great Americans and Indians. We pay tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Junior. We also remember many others who worked for liberty, equality and justice.” It is amazing that Modi can talk about these values with temerity when at least six Muslim students and youth are in jail in Delhi on false charges of having a role in 2020 riots related to anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and 12 intellectuals, lawyers, professors, activists, journalists are in jail on false charges related to Bhima Koregaon case of 2018, all of them under Unlawful Activities Prevention Act in which it is extremely difficult to get bail and the trail has not even begun.
Talking about the diversity of India he said, “We have over 2,500 political parties. About 20 different parties govern various states of India. We have 22 official languages and thousands of dialects, and yet, we speak in one voice.” If diversity is a reality of the Indian State, it has existed from before and the credit for it goes to the freedom fighters and the makers of our Constitution. Had Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh or BJP played any role in laying the foundations of our country or drafting the Constitution we don’t know how much of the diversity would have been reflected today.
Modi’s favorite international leader was Xi Jinping until Xi ordered Chinese incursions in the India territory. Modi probably fantasized the one party rule and an authoritarian ruler in India based on the Chinese design. Given a chance Modi, Shah and BJP would not allow opposition parties to be in power anywhere. They are busy carrying out their machinations between the elections so that opposition governments can fall and be replaced by ones where BJP has a role. Also, who doesn’t know the obsession of RSS with Hindu, Hindi, Hindustan. Had it not been for the strident opposition from Tamil Nadu, BJP would have gone ahead with imposing Hindi as the national language. This is the vision of the RSS/BJP of the country speaking in one ‘voice.’
Modi informed the Congress that, “Today, there are more than 850 million smartphones and internet users in the country,” but forgot to add that India is a country which has enforced the most number of internet shutdowns in the last five years. He further said, “We protected our people with 2.2 billion doses of made-in-India Covid vaccines, and that too free of cost.” The reality that the world would remember of India during Covid times is walking millions on roads trying to reach their homes, inadequate beds in hospitals, shortage of oxygen supply, dead bodies lining up outside crematoriums or floating in river Ganga and Modi addressing crowded election rallies in West Bengal while the government was enforcing masks and safe distancing.
Talking of women he said, “India’s vision is not just of development which benefits women. It is of women led development, where women lead the journey of progress. A woman has risen from a humble tribal background, to be our Head of State.” Modi has the audacity to talk about this so soon after the entire world has witnessed how women wrestlers had to face harassment at the hand of police when fighting against sexual misconduct of a BJP leader. They were dragged by police as if they were miscreants and cases were filed against them. They still haven’t got justice and the accused Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh is roaming around free. Not long back the country witnessed with the complicity of the Home Ministry in the premature release of 11 rapists of Bilkis Bano and murderers of her family members. Who is going to take the claims of Modi seriously who humiliated the Indian President by not inviting her to the inauguration ceremony of the new Parliament building the same day when female wrestlers were being dragged on streets of Delhi?
Sandeep Pandey is a prominent Indian activist who has dedicated his life to empowering oppressed communities and advancing political change. His work has been recognized with numerous prestigious awards, including the Ramon Magsaysay Award, often referred to as Asia’s Nobel Prize.