The government of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is presiding over a dangerous regression in free speech rights in pursuit of its Hindu nationalist agenda.
Peaceful activists protesting against discriminatory citizenship policies, or calling for the protection of long marginalized Dalit and Adivasi communities, already face politically motivated charges. Now farmers, many of them Sikh, who have been peacefully protesting since November, are facing criticism for opposing controversial new farm laws. Authorities have made baseless claims against activists of incitement. Journalists and senior politicians are facing baseless criminal cases for reporting claims from a dead protester’s family members that he had died from gunshot injuries, presumably by the police.
Increasingly in Modi’s India, independent institutions including investigators, prosecutors, and the courts, which should be impartially defending rights, are instead protecting government supporters and targeting its critics.
BJP leaders were quick to complain after the arrest of a pro-government news anchor. The courts also intervened, and warned against criminal law being used for the “selective harassment of citizens.” But the same authorities opposed bail for the journalist Siddique Kappan after he was arrested on his way to report on the gang rape of a Dalit woman in Uttar Pradesh state.
The courts also refused to protect from arrest the producers of an Amazon Prime drama series, Tandav, after police in six different states opened investigations based on complaints that the series had hurt Hindu religious sentiment. Another TV drama, A Suitable Boy, also sparked indignation that was backed by a BJP minister in Madhya Pradesh state who ordered an investigation into the show’s “extremely objectionable content.” The drama showed an inter-faith couple kissing in a temple.
Meanwhile, the standup comedian Munawar Faruqui and five of his associates were arrested after a BJP supporter complained his routine insulted Hindu deities. Another comedian, Kunal Kamra, responding to contempt of court allegations against him, said, "We would be reduced to a country of incarcerated artists and flourishing lapdogs if powerful people and institutions continue to show an inability to tolerate rebuke or criticism."
Indian authorities like to boast of the country’s democracy and pluralism. But their actions all too often belie their words.