Last fortnight, the Freedom Report, by the US think tank Freedom House, downgraded India’s rankings to 'partly free'. The Swedish V-Dem Institute, released its report a week later, and downgraded India to an ‘electoral autocracy’ from a liberal democracy.
For the Freedom House report, entitled 'Democracy Under Siege', this was the 15th consecutive year in which freedoms had declined across the world. They saw Covid as a major contributor to the increase in surveillance, decrease in rights, and rise in disinformation-propelled hate. The report bemoaned the loss of American values, as the commitment of the world’s most powerful democracy became increasingly xenophobic, racist, and isolationist. While India is one of the countries mentioned in the report, it by no means is the only country – the report documents the gradual erosion of individual freedoms across a digitally mediated world.
The V-Dem Institute sees similar trends across the world. It logs the straight 10th year of decline in democracy across the world. In a report titled 'Autocratisation Goes Viral', it looks at how freedoms across the world have been curtailed. Like the Freedom House report, it lays some of the blame on Covid normalising state surveillance, and lockdowns.
In part, the reason things look so bleak for democracy has been the lockdowns world over. States across the world told their peoples that they did not have the freedom to go about their everyday lives. And, people complied.
At the core, if you read both reports in detail, this is the underlying sentiment in both reports – the loss of freedoms and the increase in state control. Combined with media restrictions, forced internment, and social media fuelled hate campaigns, and we have a potent cocktail to doom democracy. As in the case with Rihanna and Greta Thunberg’s comments, the government made the cardinal mistake of reacting, justifying its position, and defending its record.
The Freedom House report, for example, looks at the state of the United States and suggests that the USA “will need to work vigorously to strengthen its institutional safeguards, restore its civic norms, and uphold the promise of its core principles for all segments of society if it is to protect its venerable democracy and regain global credibility”. The government of the United States has not even acknowledged them.
Threat does exist
But, the second, more important part is that in rejecting everything that the reports are saying out of a stand that this is ‘national pride’, we are throwing away the baby with the bathwater. There is a major threat to freedoms in India, and it is not the government alone. It is a growing tribe of disgruntled, insecure, and whiny cyber activists – whose job is to target others, otherwise them, and gain small victories for their ‘side’.
Munawar Faruqui spent a few weeks in jail in Madhya Pradesh, because the son of a local BJP leader thought he might crack a joke that might be offensive to Hindus. Climate activist Disha Ravi spent 10 days in jail, after the Delhi police arrested her in the toolkit case, before the sessions court judge ordered her released, saying "Difference of opinion, disagreement, divergence, dissent, or for that matter, even disapprobation, are recognised legitimate tools to infuse objectivity in state policies.
These are not isolated cases. Between 2017 and 2019, India had over 25,000 cases of ‘offences against the state’. There was a case filed against Amitabh Bachchan and KBC because one of the questions asked was: Which book was burnt by BR Ambedkar. The correct answer, is of course, the Manusmriti. But, someone was offended enough to file a FIR for hurting religious (Hindu) sentiments.
Quick to take offence
Emboldened by a ruling party hierarchy that is receptive to social media chatter and innuendo and looks to its social media fan base for constant validation, groups have become more and more assertive on what defines being Indian, and being Hindu – and use the law to derail anything that they think is against their sensibility. The shows ‘Tandav’ and ‘Bombay Begums’, for example, are facing challenges, despite being on subscription platforms, with parental lock, because someone is offended.
With the laws meant to protect us and our rights, being weaponised by interconnected groups of radicalised cyber and ground level activists – the challenge for the government is how to protect the rights of the majority from this tiny base that can create noise disproportionate to its membership. We are all self-censoring because someone with a Twitter following, may get offended, and we will spend the next few months, or years, of our lives lobbing off sedition charges in some remote court in India. The only ones who seem to have full freedom to express seem to be those with a hate agenda.
While the government has every right to ignore the international think tanks and say that we don’t care what others think – it is time it looked at the dangers to our freedoms posed by these hyperactive, hypersensitive, hyper nationalist, hyper religious groups – who scream, shout, wail, and whine – till they get their way, eroding our freedoms along the way. Their right to protest and be heard is absolute. But, so are ours.
The writer works at the intersection of digital content, technology, and audiences. She is a writer, columnist, visiting faculty and filmmaker.