New Delhi: The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting both reacted strongly to the US government-funded NGO Freedom House’s report downgrading India’s status to a “partly free” country.
While the MEA spokesperson gave a terse reply to reporters when asked about the report, the I&B ministry issued a long press statement in reaction.
Democracy watchdog Freedom House, in a new report, has demoted India from “free” to “partly free”, flagging sustained erosion of civil liberties in the country.
MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, “The political judgements of Freedom House are as inaccurate and distorted as their maps. For example on the COVID-19 situation, there is a widespread appreciation in the world of our response, of our high recovery rate and of our low fatality rate. India has robust institutions and well established democratic practices. We do not need sermons especially from those who cannot get their basics right.”
The ‘map’ issue was also zeroed upon by Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who said at an interaction, “I am concerned about this group which doesn’t get the Indian map correct. The Indian map on their website is wrong. They should first get our map right.”
Srivastava and Sitharaman were most probably referring to the map featured in the Freedom House’s tweet on the report, which did not include the Union Territories of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh.
“The Freedom House report, titled ‘Democracy Under Siege’, in which it has been claimed that India’s status as a free country has declined to ‘partly free’ is misleading, incorrect and misplaced, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting said in a statement.
The report had claimed that the decline in India’s status was due to the manner in which “the Hindu nationalist government and its allies presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population”. It also highlighted a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.
Responding to the findings, the ministry said, “Government of India treats all its citizens with equality as enshrined under the Constitution of the country and all laws are applied without discrimination. Due process of law is followed in matters relating to law and order, irrespective of the identity of the alleged instigator.”
It claimed that “proportionate and appropriate action” was taken during the northeast Delhi riots. “Necessary legal and preventive actions were taken by the law enforcement machinery on all complaints/calls received, as per law and procedures,” the ministry said.
This claim of the government comes under question. Several reports have noted that the Delhi Police’s response was less than equal and favoured Hindu perpetrators of violence. In addition, the investigation into the riots has focused largely on activists of the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protests and not conspirators who played a far more active role.
The government also rebutted the allegation in the report that the COVID-19-induced lockdown “left millions of migrant workers in cities without work or basic resources” and “resulted in the dangerous and unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers”.
The government said that the lockdown was announced to control the spread of the coronavirus and the period allowed the government to ramp up production capacity of masks, ventilators, personal protection equipment (PPE) kits, etc.
Denying the report’s claims that academics and journalists were intimidated, the government said, “Discussion, debate and dissent is part of Indian democracy.”
The report has claimed that though the private media are vigorous and diverse, and investigations and scrutiny of politicians do occur, but attacks on press freedom have escalated dramatically under the Modi government, and reporting has become significantly less ambitious in recent years.
Denying this, the government said that ‘Public Order’ and ‘Police’ are State subjects under India’s federal structure of governance.
“The responsibility of maintaining law and order, including investigation, registration and prosecution of crimes, protection of life and property, etc., rests primarily with the concerned State governments. Therefore, measures as deemed fit are taken by law enforcement authorities to preserve public order,” it said.
The report has also alleged that a wide variety of NGOs operate, but some, particularly those involved in the investigation of human rights abuses, continue to face threats, legal harassment, excessive police force, and occasionally lethal violence.
Rebutting this, the government said the Indian Constitution provides for adequate safeguards under various statutes, including the Protection of Human Rights Act 1993 for ensuring protection of human rights.
On the report’s claim that the authorities used assembly bans, internet blackouts, and live ammunition between December 2019 and March 2020 to quell widespread protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and proposals to roll out a citizens’ registration process across the country, the government said, “…the temporary suspension of telecom/internet services is resorted to with the overarching objective of maintaining law and order under strict safeguards.”
Lastly, the government rebutted the claim that the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) amendment led to freezing of NGO Amnesty International’s assets, and said the NGO had received permission under the FCRA Act only once and that too 20 years ago on December 19, 2000.
(With PTI inputs)