India Remained 'Partly Free' in 2022, Says US Government-Funded Think-Tank

Declining political participation of Muslims and state-directed demolition of their homes, along with attacks on press freedom in India, were discussed in Freedom House's 2023 assessment of rights in 195 nations. 

New Delhi: India’s status remained ‘partly free’ in 2022, with no change in overall scores as compared to the previous year, in an assessment done by Freedom House, a US government-funded think-tank.

The 2023 edition of ‘Freedom in the World’ is the 50th in this series of annual comparative reports, the organisation said. The report ranked 195 countries on the same parameters – and India got 66 marks out of 100.

Some of the assessed parameters were ‘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’.

India did well in terms of electoral processes, achieving 4/4 marks. This included the conduct of free and fair elections and implementation of electoral laws, among other factors.

For some factors under the parameter ‘political pluralism’, India was found wanting. For example, while the participation of women voters has increased over time and quotas have ensured reservation of seats for the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes in elections, the report said the political rights of Indian Muslims continues to be threatened. It talked about Citizenship Amendment Act (the rules for which are not yet framed) and possible disenfranchisement of Muslim voters, quoting “many observers”.

The report goes on to add:

“Marginalised segments of the population continue to face practical obstacles to full political representation. Muslim candidates notably won 27 of 545 seats in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, up from 22 previously. However, this amounted to just 5 percent of the seats in the chamber, whereas Muslims made up some 14.2 percent of the population according to the 2011 census. By the end of 2022, no national legislator belonging to the BJP identified as Muslim.”

As far as functioning of the government is concerned, the report mentions ineffective institutionalisation of Lokayuktas even if they exist – and thus the absence of strong safeguards against official corruption. “…These agencies have been slow to begin operations. Only 7 of the country’s 29 state-level Lokayuktas had publicly accessible annual reports as of October 2022. Few complaints were submitted through these bodies.”

About the Right to Information (RTI) Act , the report says though it has been used to expose corruption, it has lost its sheen for various reasons. RTI applicants receiving no answers on vital questions of governance, no action being taken against RTI officials for not giving answers, murder and harassment of RTI activists and the recent change in the RTI Act that made information commissioners “potentially exposed to political pressure” were some of the reasons listed.

The report comes heavily on India’s declining press freedom standards.

“Attacks on press freedom have escalated dramatically under the Modi government, and 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,” it said. Those perpetrating violence against journalists rarely get punishment, it added.

The report goes on to cite raids on independent news outlets. It gives examples of the arrest of Alt News co-founder Muhammed Zubair, harassment of journalists of news website Article 14 and raids on the office and homes of four editors of The Wire last year in relation to a defamation complaint made by BJP’s office bearer Amit Malviya over retracted articles.

Not only press freedom, even academic freedom has significantly weakened over the years, the report notes. Violence has increased on university campuses and even professors have been attacked. “Academics face pressure not to discuss topics deemed sensitive by the BJP government, particularly India’s relations with Pakistan and conditions in Indian Kashmir. The heads of prestigious academic institutions are increasingly selected for their loyalty to the ruling party,” the report said. The hijab controversy in Karnataka also finds mention.

The report expresses concern over the cancellation of Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) licences of 6,677 NGOs between 2017 and 2021, and notes a similar exercise against two NGOs led by Congress leader Sonia Gandhi in 2022.

The report also notes the election of “BJP candidate” and “first member of India’s tribal communities”, Droupadi Murmu, as president of India as a key development. The other key developments include protests and violence that followed the remarks of BJP’s erstwhile spokesperson Nupur Sharma on Prophet Mohammed and demolition of “Muslim-owned buildings” by “authorities” in Delhi, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh in April and in Uttar Pradesh in June in response to various protests held at those times.