NEW DELHI: India’s ruling party on Thursday called a report which downgraded its status as a free country “biased.”
The 2021 Freedom House report, which human rights activists say reflects reality in modern India, saw the country known as the world’s largest democracy downgraded from “free” to “partly free.”
In its report, published on Wednesday, the Washington-based institute funded by the US government justified the change of India’s status by saying that civil rights in the country “have been eroding since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014.”
It cited increasing attacks against Muslims and misuse of sedition laws to curb dissent, with Modi and his party “tragically driving India itself toward authoritarianism.”
India’s overall rank fell from 83 to 88 out of 211 countries listed in the report.
The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) immediately dismissed the report and its findings.
“The report is biased and (politically) motivated,” BJP spokesperson Sudesh Verma told Arab News.
“The adverse comments come in the wake of this government asking NGOs like Amnesty (International) to be more accountable and follow the norms of the country. Such supranational organizations have an axe to grind, and they influence such ratings,” he said, adding that the government does not discriminate against people on the basis of religion.
The main opposition party, Congress, said that losing its “free” status was a shame for the government.
“After 73 years of freedom, if we are called partially free by an NGO which is funded by the US government, shouldn’t our heads be lowered in shame?” Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate told reporters.
Some of the country’s activists and intellectuals say, however, that the report comes as no surprise.
“It states the obvious. Under the majoritarian and authoritarian government all the constitutional safeguards are destroyed and compromised,” renowned public intellectual Prof. Apoorvanand Jha of the University of Delhi told Arab News.
Jha, a well-known critic of the government, was himself questioned for hours by Delhi police last year for participating in a protest against the country’s new controversial citizenship law that has been seen as aiming to render stateless members of India’s Muslim minority.
“If you are a critic of this government then your persecution is the natural fact,” Jha said. “The mobilization of the people is important to regain democratic space and freedom, but the mobilization has to be from all sections of the society.”
According to Freedom House, India under Modi 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.”
For Zafarul Islam Khan, journalist and former chief of the Delhi Minorities Commission, which was established by the Indian government to safeguard the rights of minority communities, the Freedom House report is a lived reality.
His own home was raided by the National Investigative Agency after a fact-finding report in which he blamed Home Minister Amit Shah for “fanning communal sentiments” that led to deadly riots in New Delhi last year, which claimed the lives of 53 people, mostly Muslims, who protested the controversial citizenship law.
“What Freedom House said is a lived fact in India today where a tweet, or a word of humor or a cartoon, or a comment or conversion or marriage outside your community or caste or an article or a book, may land you in jail or ensnare you in the judicial labyrinth,” he told Arab News.
“It will take a long political fight to retrieve India from the current abyss,” Khan said.