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How Free is India?

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Under Narendra Modi's virulent Hindu nationalist leadership, India has lost another prize: it is no longer designated as 'Free' in the latest Freedom House freedom report. Based on civil liberties and political rights, the country rankings are published annually, and India's new classification is "Partly Free' like arch rival Pakistan.

Suffering a progressive decline since Modi took over, India barely made the cut-off last year scoring 71. For comparison, a country like Canada scores 98, the UK 93 and the US only 83. Norway, Sweden and Finland are the only three countries with a perfect score of 100.

If China under Xi Jinping is grasping for top economic status, living there is no panacea according to the Freedom House report. It is one of a very few countries given a negative for political rights and only 11 for civil liberties scoring a total of 9. Yes, that's a single digit and close to countries like Saudi Arabia 7 and Tajikistan 8.

India, however, considers itself a democracy, so what has happened there? The answer of course is that Modi happened, and Yogi Adityanath, an extreme right-wing nationalist appointed by Modi to run India's most populous state, happened. Then discriminating laws and laws curbing dissent happened.

There is also the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which excludes Muslims from its benefits and the associated National Register of Citizens (NRC) which penalizes and requires proof of citizenship, again targeting the vulnerable. Critics call it an act with the potential to rob India's 200 million Muslims of their nationality.

Political parties other than the ruling BJP say that they will not implement the acts in the Indian states where they run the provincial governments. The central government contends they must, setting the stage for a lawsuit.

In the enduring Kashmir problem, Kashmiris who are predominantly Muslim are fully aware of their status in an India that now seeks to unify Kashmir with India without their consent and with their status as citizens subect to social inequity. If citizenship is a sense of belonging, in Modi's India it appears to cohere specifically around a Hindu identity -- Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis need not apply ... unless they are willing to be second-class citizens.

Consider the case of a Muslim primary school teacher, Farida Begum, charged with sedition and jailed awaiting trial. She and her students put on a school play about the CAA and NRC, the latter requiring proof of citizenship and the former marginalizing Muslims by exclusion. In the play, a woman complains how a boy who was selling tea (a reference to Mr. Modi's tea shop from his early days) is now demanding documents and how she might have to dig up the graves of ancestors to find them. The teacher and the mother of the play's lead have been charged with sedition -- sedition with 9-year old girls might appear to be risible but apparently not in Modi's India.

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Arshad M Khan is a former Professor. Educated at King's College London, Oklahoma State University and the University of Chicago, he has a multidisciplinary background that has frequently informed his research. He was elected a Fellow of the (more...)
 
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