Indian freedom of speech at risk

When it comes to democratisation of the developing world, India prides itself for being a spectacular success story, and the go-to example for defending the westernised political system.

While the competing Asian tiger – the People’s Republic of China continues to defend its authoritarian ways, the Indian government thrives on its constitutional republic identity since its independence in 1947.

Yet recent months have left this reputation subject to international scrutiny, as the democratic concept that is freedom of speech has been compromised by an upsurge in attacks against liberal secular citizens.

Openly liberal public figures are the main targets of the attacks let by Hindu fundamentalists, with already several assassinations having been reported since August.

In an attempt to denounce both the killings and the lack of governmental response, award winning scientists, writers and filmmakers are returning and refusing to accept prestigious government awards.

This act of pacific protest led by India’s intellectual community highlights the popular concerns over an increasingly intolerant government and its complete disregard for the Indian constitution’s 19th amendment.

If the protests are getting so much attention, it is also because they are accusing the BJP-led government of endorsing the attacks by not speaking out against them. Hence, the events in India are not just reflecting social injustice, but also undemocratic political rule.

By not speaking out, the BJP is sending out a powerful message. Following an almost exclusively Hindu-oriented political agenda, the Prime Minister will now be associated with far- right political opinions that belittle religious and social minorities in India. This story of intolerance, unfortunately, seems to be the beginning of a repeat dating back to the 2002 riots in Gujurat where the current Prime Minister Modi was the state minister.

Prime Minister Modi’s lack of reactions to the murders fuel popular discontent, which has been echoed during the recent Bihar elections, when Modi’s party suffered a humiliating defeat.

A little historical context is enough to show that the recent political instability in India does not come as a surprise. After the elections that led to BJP majority rule in 2014, religious minorities – namely, Muslims and Christians started to voice their concerns about the possible negative social consequences of a Hindu nationalist agenda, and were almost immediately attacked for it

We cannot however, disregard the influence of India’s historical democratic attitude altogether. Thanks to frequent state elections in the country, opposition parties have gained momentum and accumulate electoral winnings. But the defeats are also crippling the current government and prevent it from pursuing its plans of economic reforms, which could leave India’s growth rate at a time when bridging the income gap is crucial for the country’s social recovery. Yet economic reforms will do no good if they do not intend to serve those who need it the most.

Consequently, intolerance will prove to be a major step back for regional development if nationalists and extremists continue to get away with murder. India could be heading towards a future that resembles that of its neighbors like Pakistan or Bangladesh, where liberals are constantly prosecuted for speaking out.

Diversity is and has always been a key feature of Indian identity, but competition between minorities is threatening secularity in the country. In this socio-political climate, liberals have no choice but to resort to self-censorship because the threat of death has become all too real. And while we cannot expect them to willingly put their lives and those of their loved ones at risk in the name of free speech, the result will be a bleak and intolerant political future for the world’s largest democracy.

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