On June 16, the Supreme Court of India cautioned the Uttar Pradesh (UP) state government against taking punitive actions targeting those who participated in protests over Islamophobic comments made by two Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders. Specifically, the country’s highest court was referring to the demolition of the homes of Muslim activists. Local authorities claimed that these homes were built illegally. However, others insist that the state government, led by hardline Hindu nationalist chief minister Yogi Adityanath, is running a retaliatory campaign against its critics.
One of the homes that were demolished belonged to the leader of the Welfare Party of India, Javed Mohammed, who had earlier been arrested and charged with being the “mastermind” behind the protests. Mohammed and his daughter, Afreen Fatima, are prominent activists, known for organizing against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019, which grants fast-track citizenship to non-Muslim undocumented immigrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.
Protests against the Act were met with a brutal crackdown as right-wing mobs, led by BJP leaders, rampaged through Delhi, targeting protesters, while police arrested anti-CAA activists and charged them under India’s stringent “anti-terror” law.
Analysts like Angshuman Choudhury of the Center for Policy Research in New Delhi were quick to point out that these home demolitions “bear [a] striking resemblance to Israel’s tactics against Palestinians”. As in Palestine, such measures are meant to introduce a sense of precarity into the lives of Modi’s critics. In India, they are the latest indicator that it is becoming increasingly hazardous to oppose the BJP.
Complete Modi’s tenure, a variety of tactics have been used to target his critics. In 2021, it was revealed that the Pegasus spyware, developed by the Israeli cyber-arms company NSO, had been used to snoop on journalists, opposition politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers, academics, and activists. A prominent target of the spyware was lawyer and trade unionist Sudha Bharadwaj, who was imprisoned in 2018 without trial under the “anti-terror” law and accused of “plotting to overthrow the government”.
In 2020, Amnesty International – which was forced to cease its operations in the country as a result of a government witch-hunt against human rights organizations – uncovered a hacking campaign targeting human rights defenders in the country. These human rights defenders received emails with malicious links which – if clicked – deployed spyware and compromised the computer “in order to monitor their actions and communications”.
This use of digital tools to suppress dissent was equally on display in the arrest of 22-year-old climate activist and co-founder of the India chapter of Greta Thunberg’s Fridays For Future movement, Disha Ravi. She was accused of “sedition, incitement, and involvement in an international conspiracy”. The evidence presented was a WhatsApp group and a Google document put together by Ravi and other activists to gather support for the farmers’ protests in India. While dismissing the case, the presiding judge deemed the evidence provided by the Delhi Police to be “scanty and sketchy”, adding that there wasn’t “even an iota of proof to support the claims of sedition, incitement, or conspiracy”.
The Indian government has also attempted to prevent its critics from traveling. Earlier this year, the former head of Amnesty International India, Aakar Patel, was stopped from leaving the country after a “look out circular” (LOC) was issued for him. LOCs are usually reserved for “apprehending criminals at the border”. Patel, however, was heading to the US to deliver lectures about the crackdown on civil society in India under Modi’s leadership. Speaking to the media, Patel described it as sending “a clear signal to activists, journalists, and politicians to shut up”.
A week before Patel, journalist Rana Ayyub was also stopped at Mumbai airport, accused of money laundering. The case was based on a first information report (FIR) filed by Vikas Sankrityayan, the founder of the NGO Hindu IT Cell. Ayyub was on her way to London where she had been invited by the International Center for Journalists to participate in a discussion about “online violence against women journalists”.
The Enforcement Directorate (ED) is currently investigating the allegation that Ayyub raised funding for charitable purposes through the crowdfunding platform Ketto and used some of the donations for personal expenses. Ayyub has maintained that the “entire donation received through Ketto is accounted for and not a single paisa has been misused”.
In a statement supporting Rana Ayyub, the Washington Post said: “Almost every day Rana Ayyub faces threats of violence and death. She has been the target of prejudiced investigations and online harassment. Her bank account was frozen over charitable work. Journalists should not fear prosecution and smear campaigns.”
But the targeting of journalists began earlier than this. In 2017, the residences and offices of Prannoy and Radhika Roy – the founders of the influential cable news station NDTV – were raided by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in what many deemed to be a “politically motivated witch hunt” because of NDTV’s critical editorial stance.
The CBI said it was investigating the allegation that the founders and NDTV had caused “losses to a private bank by defaulting loans”.
The network responded: “NDTV and its promoters have never defaulted on any loan…We adhere to the highest levels of integrity and independence. It is clearly the independence and fearlessness of NDTV’s team that the ruling party’s politicians cannot stomach and the CBI raid is merely another attempt at silencing the media”. While this investigation was seemingly stalled due to lack of evidence, the CBI filed another case against NDTV in 2019 for allegedly violating foreign direct investment regulations and routing “tainted money of unknown public servants through shell firms”.
And it’s not only journalists and activists who have been targeted. In October 2021, when Aryan Khan, the son of Muslim Bollywood superstar Shahrukh Khan, was arrested by the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) on charges that included “possession of drugs and contact with an international drug racket”, it was widely seen as politically motivated. He was not found to be in possession of any narcotics and charges were eventually dropped in May this year.
Many believed Aryan had been targeted because of his father’s unwillingness, unlike many of his Bollywood colleagues, to unequivocally align with the Hindu nationalist agenda. Journalist Kavita Chowdhury noted that while others have churned out “jingoistic blockbusters pandering to Hindutva sentiments”, Khan has remained a symbol of secularism and personifies the “ethos of Hindu-Muslim unity”.
All of this is impacting India’s standing in the world. It has slipped to 150th out of 180 countries in the Press Freedom index and 46th out of 165 independent countries and two territories in the 2021 Democracy Index published by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). While this is an improvement on its position – 53rd – in the 2020 index, it is a significant drop from its ranking of 27th in 2014, when Modi became prime minister.
But more concerning than these alarming indicators is the impunity with which Modi has overseen India’s swift decline into Freedom House’s category of a “partially free country”.
Hindu nationalists have been bolstered by significant electoral successes, while Modi has benefitted from a cultural shift – one that he has, in many ways, orchestrated – that has led to a society that, more than ever, celebrates the ideological and political ways of Hindutva. Equally, as we were recently reminded with the arrest of Teesta Setalvadwho campaigned for justice for the victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim riot in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister, the prime minister is willing and able to mobilize public institutions for his political agenda.
This leaves little by way of recourse for Modi’s detractors in India and indicates that there are few barriers left to prevent the country’s slide into authoritarianism.