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India’s Spot on World Stage Mired in Abuses at Home

Listing Achievements at UN Won’t Hide Failures to Protect Rights

Farmers participate in a protest against farm laws in Haryana, India on September 7, 2021.  © 2021 Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto/AP Images

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi will join world leaders at the United Nations General Assembly this week, to address global issues and list his government’s “achievements on the domestic front.”

But back home, authorities are targeting critics of the government with surveillance, politically motivated prosecutions, harassment, online trolling, and tax raids. They are shutting down activist groups and international donor organizations.

Such attacks are becoming increasingly widespread and heavy handed.

After seven years in office, winning a massive mandate on the promise of corruption-free, efficient governance, Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led administration is struggling to keep its mission. Decades of previous gains in reducing unemployment, inflation, and poverty have been reversed.

While citizens struggle to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, the government spends on trophy projects. Ruling party leaders, perhaps in an effort to cover up their failure to deliver on electoral promises, make rabble-rousing speeches to demonstrate their Hindu nationalism, in particular targeting Muslim minorities, which in turn has incited violent hate crimes by BJP supporters. The government has also adopted laws and policies that systematically discriminate against Muslims and other minorities.

Such divisive politics has repeatedly drawn international criticism, and protests have broken out, some led by farmers and students, to oppose state policies.

Instead of accepting mistakes, taking on difficult tasks to address inequity, and reversing discriminatory policies, the authorities have chosen to silence the messenger and play victim.

The government had already been using counterterrorism laws, allegations of sedition, and other serious charges to jail peaceful activists. Now, the list of those the government and its supporters view with suspicion has grown, including a philanthropic actor, poets, jewelers, journalists, social media executives, entertainment companies, and other businesses. The commerce minister recently blamed Indian industry for ignoring national interests, while a Hindu nationalist magazine criticized a software company because it funds civil society groups.

The Modi administration still enjoys popular support because of the expectation that it will make good on its pledge of equitable development. But to succeed, leaders should stop passing the buck, stop abusing laws and state institutions to target critics, and start the hard work towards addressing urgent needs. Otherwise, instead of achieving the global recognition it craves, the Modi administration will only have created a legacy of abuse.

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