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Western Democracies Stay Silent as India Falls Further Into the Abyss

With Congress Party opposition leader Rahul Gandhi facing prison, CJ Werleman explores how the UK is ignoring serious warning signs in the world’s largest democracy

The Indian Congress Party’s Rahul Gandhi. Photo: Adnan Abidi/Reuters/Alamy

Western Democracies Stay Silent as India Falls Further Into the Abyss

With Congress Party opposition leader Rahul Gandhi facing prison, CJ Werleman explores how the UK is ignoring serious warning signs in the world’s largest democracy

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“Why do all these thieves have Modi as their surname? Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi and Narendra Modi” joked Rahul Gandhi, Leader of India’s main opposition Congress Party, at an election rally during the Lok Sabha polls in 2019.

Nirav Modi is a diamond billionaire facing extradition from the UK to India for bank fraud and money laundering. Lalit Modi is the former head of the Indian Premier League but fled the country after charges of embezzlement and money laundering were filed against him. And Narendra Modi has been India’s Prime Minister since 2014, with international democracy watchdogs holding him responsible for downgrading the country’s democracy to an electoral autocracy.

Narendra Modi is also facing public allegations of crony capitalism over his ties to the Adani Group, a corporate behemoth that saw its value rise 2,500% during the past five years because of its monopolistic hold over everything from coal to electricity. That is before it all came crashing down in spectacular fashion earlier this year, wiping off more than $100 billion in value. 

Therefore, it’s not difficult to see why Gandhi’s joke tying the surname Modi to systemic corporate and political corruption struck a nerve among leaders of the ruling BJP and anyone named Modi.

But it now has the leader of India’s main opposition party facing a two-year prison sentence, after a local court in Narendra Modi’s home state of Gujarat sided with a defamation complaint filed by Punesh Modi, a member of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Gandhi says he will appeal the ruling, with his party calling the verdict “legally unsustainable”, but India’s BJP-ruled Government has moved to disqualify him from Parliament with immediate effect by citing Indian law stating that those who serve two years in prison are ineligible from holding public office.

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Banned from Parliament and facing a possible prison sentence for making the Prime Minister the punchline of your joke – welcome to the Modi’s India, where public dissent and criticism of the regime is on track to becoming criminalised.

According to Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, the “diminishing of freedom of expression, the media, and civil society have gone the furthest” in India during Modi’s rule, and his efforts to censor and silence his critics have made India “as autocratic as Pakistan and worse than its neighbours Bangladesh and Nepal”.

Modi’s crackdown on dissent has been particularly harsh on religious minorities, journalists, academics and human rights activists. In 2020, UK-based Amnesty International was forced to halt its work in India, when the Indian Government froze the accounts of Amnesty’s Indian operations after the group published two reports highly critical of the Government’s human rights record.

Amnesty International accused the Modi Government of treating human rights organisations like “criminal enterprises”, while also accusing it of stoking a “climate of fear” to “dismantle the critical voices in India”.

In February, India’s income tax authority carried out a series of raids on the BBC’s offices in Delhi and Mumbai for three days, claiming it was conducting a “survey” as part of a broader investigation into tax evasion allegations – soon after the UK broadcaster published a two-part series critically examining Modi’s leadership during the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place in Gujarat 20 years ago, when he was Chief Minister of the state at the time.

The Indian Government had previously called the documentary “hostile propaganda” and blocked Indians from sharing it on social media platforms, which – in recent times – have become the new front in Modi’s war against critics. His Government has blocked scores of politicians, activists and journalists on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

It has also used draconian British colonial-era laws to charge human rights activists and journalists with terrorism and sedition for reporting human rights abuses in the country. I, along with several others, was charged with terrorism for covering Hindu supremacist-orchestrated violence against Muslims in the state of Tripura last year.

These charges are being filed at the same time human rights experts are warning that the preparation for genocide is well underway in India and Kashmir.

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But it is doubtful whether the British public knows anything substantial of the tragedy unfolding on the sub-Continent if its only source of information is the UK Government – or the government of any other Western democratic nation, for that matter.

Under Modi’s authoritarian rule, we are not only witnessing the silencing of dissent in India but also silence from the rest of the world – including from the British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, which is shameful given international leaders have a responsibility to hold India accountable for compliance with international treaties on human rights.

A recent review by the Independent Commission for Aid Impact found that the £2.3 billion the UK spent on its aid programme to India since 2016, has done nothing to advance human rights there – “there is little, or no programming related to democratic space, free media, or human rights”.

There is a strong case for the UK Government to end its no-strings-attached aid to India while religious minorities are being persecuted and journalists, activists and political opposition leaders are being jailed. 

“The move against Gandhi by a judge in Modi’s own native state, Gujarat, should be setting off loud alarm bells in Western capitals about India’s commitment to democracy and the health of the rule of law in that country, but they have so far generated little political or diplomatic response,” observes Howard. W. French, a professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and long-time foreign correspondent.

Until the UK and other democratic nations hold Narendra Modi accountable by publicly condemning his anti-democratic actions, or imposing material consequences on his Government, India’s democracy – along with its marginalized communities – will sink further into the abyss.

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