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Freedom of expression under stress in world's largest democracy

Indian PM Modi's ambitions of emerging as a global leader will take a beating if he is dubbed as anti-democratic
Freedom of expression under stress in world's largest democracy

Farmers shout slogans as they block a highway in Amritsar on Feb. 6 during their ongoing protest against the Indian government's recent agricultural reforms. (Photo: Narinder Manu/AFP)

Published: February 09, 2021 10:39 AM GMT
Updated: February 09, 2021 10:39 AM GMT

Indian politics, as elsewhere, is truly a mixture of positives and negatives. The discussion now is about whether the negatives outweigh the positives in India.

The talk about Indian farmers' struggle against three contentious agrarian laws has already entered the realm of politics. The fear of being unpopular has forced the government to put checks on social media, provoking debates about tolerance and freedom of expression.

These are not the issues. The real issue is India's negative international image because of a chaotic, nasty, sectarian turn the country is taking against the backdrop of the continuing farmers' struggle.

What began a few years back as a cry of religious minorities, including Christians, Muslims and deprived Dalits, is now global anguish, covert and overt, against the suppression of freedom of expression in the world's largest democracy.

Those who admire India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who does not hide his pro-Hindu preferences, claim that everyone seems to love seeing Modi as a punchbag. He is not only responsible for bringing his party to power but his government is also blamed for setting the Hindu-majority nation on a path of sectarian despotism.

The criticism of the Modi government is now universal. Many progressive and conservative people, from the US government to Barbadian pope star Rihanna Fenty, have taken to social media to criticize the government over the farmers' struggle, which the government insists is India's internal matter.

But some of those tweets and remarks came from surprising quarters. They included international celebrities and lawmakers from countries like Canada and the United Kingdom. Even Swedish climate campaigner Greta Thunberg has had her say.

Meena Harris, a niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, tweeted: "We all should be outraged by India's internet shutdown and paramilitary violence against farmer protesters."

India’s Foreign Ministry responded that, before people rush to comment on such matters, "we would urge that the facts be ascertained and a proper understanding of the issues at hand be undertaken."

It added: "The temptation of sensationalist social media hashtags and comments, especially when resorted to by celebrities and others, is neither accurate nor responsible."

The government statement also said that "some of these vested interest groups" have also tried to "mobilize international support against India."

But is it justified to make so much hype about a few tweets? Modi and his supporters are known for turning criticism against their party and government into anti-national activities. The government, often accused of pushing Hindu hegemony, did precisely the same this time too.

Twitter was served with a notice for “unilaterally unblocking” some 100 handles that the federal government wanted to be blocked for spreading violence and hatred in the country.

What does this bring us to? Socialist leader Ram Gopal Yadav says the strong impression is that the government of the day is against dissent.

There are other issues at hand. The attempt to choke dissent also raises questions about the government's idea of democracy, freedom of expression, justice, development and commitment to work for the Indian poor.

Government spokesman Anurag Srivastava told a virtual media briefing that India and the United States are vibrant democracies with shared values.

He then referred to the vandalism at the Red Fort on Jan. 26, India's republic day, during a rally of protesting farmers. It evoked "similar sentiments and reactions in India as did the incidents on the Capitol Hill" on Jan. 6. Both countries are addressing the violence according to their laws, he said.

This statement has significance, and the message is simple. If Americans are so touchy over the Capitol Hill misadventure, how could the Western world make such a fuss about India handling the agitation in Delhi with a firm hand?

Protesting farmers say the Jan. 26 violence in Delhi was engendered by Modi's political party — the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) — to weaken their struggle.

The farmers are continuing their protest even after the government agreed to suspend the three controversial farm laws for 18 months. But farmers want the government to repeal the laws, saying they are meant to help big corporate houses at the expense of small and medium-level farmers.

The government was nervous, but once violence happened, triggered by whosoever, the government got back its rhythm. The idea is perhaps to impose some gag order on the flow of information.

In the process, the BJP claims a conspiracy that even international celebrities want to corner Modi. But such talk has very few takers.

However, the prime minister's critics feel India’s image has taken a beating, especially after the government allegedly tried to corner those who often attack the government.

Modi will do well to realize that his ambitions of emerging as a global leader, or at least an Asian leader, will take a beating if he is dubbed as anti-democratic and, worse, someone who wants to gag social media.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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