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Monday May 20, 2024

Declining freedom

By Editorial Board
June 29, 2023

The sort of red-carpet welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi received during his four-day US visit highlighted the US’s growing tilt towards India to dominate the newly emerging geopolitical order in the South Asian region. Many had noted the way the US has ignored the sheer impunity with which Modi’s India has been treating minority communities. And a stark reminder of the oppressive nature of the BJP government came right in the middle of Modi’s visit. During Modi’s joint press conference with US President Joe Biden, Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui had asked the Indian prime minister a fair question about what his government planned to do to bring down the instances of rights abuses in the country that are directed at India’s minority communities – given many US lawmakers had already issued statements highlighting the Indian PM’s notorious record on human rights abuses. Modi’s diplomatic answer would have been enough. But the BJP’s IT cell had other things in mind: teach a lesson to people who dare question Modi. A BJP politician took to Twitter and implied that the question was “motivated”. This was the dog whistle pro-BJP social media accounts were looking for, and they started tweeting against Sabrina, pointing out her religion and questioning her lineage. With the Wall Street Journal condemning the way their reporter was targeted, White House too had to go on record and condemn the harassment faced by Sabrina.

India has gone from “problematic” to “very bad” in the World Press Freedom Index 2023 published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). It has fallen 11 places and now stands at the 161st position out of 180 countries. Modi may have been ruling India for nine years now, but he cannot escape his past. He is the same leader whose US visa was revoked after the 2002 Gujarat riots. At home, the BJP government’s authoritarian tilt has helped Modi silence his critics. Prominent journalists like Rana Ayyub and Muhammad Zubair routinely face online harassment, FIRs, and arrests. Instead of holding press conferences, Modi resorts to giving long interviews to Indian actors who rarely make their guests uncomfortable.

Ideally, the WSJ reporter incident should be a PR nightmare for the Modi government that could have well avoided being exposed to the international media. It’s not as though the incident went ignored. Former US president Barack Obama’s statement regarding how democratic institutions were being eroded in countries around the world and how India could fall apart if it did not pay attention to the protection of minority communities was also ripped apart by BJP trolls. But it is unlikely that the US will stop its India tilt. There was a time when India used to be the biggest democracy where all communities lived in peace. Now the world, especially the US, is silent as it sees the erosion of the country’s once-celebrated democratic norms. While India may have slipped down on the press freedom index, it has built the image of an economic power. And for the US, the focus it seems is on the gold mine India is.