India’s stature as the largest democracy in the world, as well as the notions of secularism and religio-cultural diversity the country has always projected on the international stage, have been in contradiction with ground realities. The Indian Constitution has hitherto proved ineffective in shaping a society adhering by its avowed principles. As politicians, diplomats and nationalists continue to paint a rosy image of the nation’s progress along with its spiritual underpinnings, muffled voices of the many oppressed have evolved into a haunting backdrop in modern India.
In recent years, India has witnessed unconstitutional restrictions on the right to free speech and assembly. Through the abuse of sweeping regulations, dissenting journalists, media organizations, actors, and human rights campaigners have been threatened and intimidated. In 2021, the Dainik Bhaskar group and later, offices of human rights campaigner Harsh Mander and actor-philanthropist Sonu Sood, were raided in September on suspicion of tax evasion.
Additionally, the government misused the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act in an effort to suppress NGOs, most notably by revoking the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative’s FCRA registration. Moreover, the “Prior Reference Category” list was updated to include more than 80 human rights organizations.
The Pegasus Project’s disclosure last year of unauthorized surveillance was the most shocking. The government is accused of hacking into at least 300 communication channels, including those of opposition politicians, journalists, attorneys, and human rights advocates. The spyware makes it feasible for governments to discreetly record audio and video using a phone’s built-in camera and microphone while also enabling users to monitor every phone activity. Many others had their names listed as “enemy of the state” who were to be “surveilled at all times” in the government’s Union War Book. Internet shutdowns are another manifestation of this expanding tendency, with as many as 665 outages reported in India since 2012, most of them in Jammu and Kashmir.
Arbitrary arrests and detentions have steadily increased, with a total of 4,960 arrests made under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) between 2018 and 2020, and 149 people convicted under the Act in the same period. Climate activist Disha Ravi was detained last February for “sedition” after disseminating a social media toolkit meant to support farmers against three controversial farming legislations. For expressing their support for four protesting farmers killed by a speeding car driven by the junior home minister, several opposition leaders were unlawfully imprisoned or placed under house arrest. Similarly, Hidme Markam, a human rights advocate from the Adivasi Indigenous community, was detained due to her advocacy of state security agents’ sexual assault of women.
The most notorious shreds of evidence of the erosion of any semblance of Indian secularism are incidents of violence against minorities, particularly Muslims and scheduled castes, which have been on the rise in India over the last few years. Crimes against Scheduled Castes have increased by 17.52% from 2018 to 2020, according to statistics, while hate crimes against Scheduled Tribes have risen by 26.71%.
Police are less likely to intervene in attacks against Muslims, a 2019 investigation has found. States are passing more legislation that restricts Muslims’ freedom of religion, such as anti-conversion laws and restrictions on headscarves in schools. Besides, authorities have used “bulldozer justice” to punish Muslims extrajudicially.
Then there is the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which allows for the citizenship of religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, approved by the parliament in December 2019. The BJP also pledged to complete a National Register of Citizens (NRC) in its 2019 election manifesto, which if adopted nationally, would demand citizenship documentation for every Indian. Also, Muslim males have also come under assault for what is referred to as “love jihad.”
There have been several high-profile cases of employment of excessive force in recent months, including the forceful eviction campaign in Assam, and one where a photojournalist was spotted stomping on a dead man’s body in front of police, who did nothing to stop the atrocity.
Exemplifying delayed justice, students and activists detained under the UAPA and the hundreds of people still incarcerated without prosecution as a consequence of the harsh Public Safety Act in occupied Jammu and Kashmir
In light of grave violations of fundamental human rights, especially those guaranteed by the oft-hailed Indian Constitution, governments, as well as NGOs around the globe, must investigate such dangerous trends emerging in India wherein Hindutva-led government carries on with impunity bolstered by the country’s recent ascent on the economic ladder. Suffice it to say, the time is past for the global community to continue to be bewitched by ancient myths of spirituality while dark truths lurk just beneath the surface, waiting to boil over.
The author is Research Associate at South Asia Times (SAT). She can be reached @_FarihaRashid_