Last week, Pawan Khera, spokesperson of India’s main opposition Congress party, was arrested for referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Narendra Gautamdas Modi rather than Narendra Damodardas Modi.
Soon after, police deplaned Khera from a commercial airline at New Delhi airport and prevented him from flying out with other Congress leaders to the party’s plenary session in Chhattisgarh.
Following a report by financial research and short seller firm Hindenburg Research that laid bare stock market manipulation and fraud by the Adani Group, India’s ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has sought to distance itself from the chairman of the Adani Group, Gautam Adani.
A billionaire businessman, Adani is alleged to have a close relationship with Narendra Modi. But in the wake of the Hindenburg revelations, the Modi government has been rattled by any mention in the media of Modi’s close ties with Adani.
In an article in Deccan Herald, journalist Bharat Bhushan wrote that Khera’s reference to “‘Gautamdas’ (literally, Servant of Gautam)” was “a clumsy but savage jibe in the light of Congress allegations of a nexus between Modi and businessman Gautam Adani.” It drew the ire of the Modi regime, prompting his arrest.
The regime, which is now in its second term in power, is tightening its authoritarian grip over the country. Free speech is being muzzled in India with a heavy hand. It is not surprising that India has slid down from 142 in 2021 to 150 among 180 countries in 2022 in the World Press Freedom index.
Khera’s arrest, as political observers noted, was a clear attempt to intimidate the opposition. The Congress party lashed out at the government for its “British era” clamping down on free speech.
Any criticism of Modi and his government, however innocuous it may be, is not tolerated. Raids, threats, press censorship, surveillance, and arrests are the order of the day. Central investigative agencies are being unleashed at random on political opponents. Interestingly, corruption is unearthed only in opposition-ruled states.
In BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, a popular folk singer was not spared. Uttar Pradesh Police issued a legal notice to Neha Singh Rathore for disturbing law and order and communal harmony. Her alleged crime was writing and singing songs that are critical of the Yogi Adityanath government’s recent demolition drive and posting the song videos on her social media handle.
Rathore is extremely popular with the masses; she sings in the regional dialect of Bhojpuri and fearlessly talks about problems faced by ordinary people. The present trigger was Rathore’s song questioning the death of a mother and daughter, whose house was demolished by the Kanpur civic administration.
A few weeks back, the Modi government banned BBC’s searing two-part documentary on Modi titled “India: The Modi Question” from being viewed in India. The first part of the documentary focuses on Modi’s role as chief minister in the 2002 Gujarat riots while the second highlights the rising atrocities against Muslims since 2014, when Modi became prime minister. The government accused the BBC of having a “motivated agenda” and of unleashing “propaganda.” The reprisal against the BBC was swift; on February 14 the BBC’s offices in India were raided by the Income Tax department, to allegedly conduct “tax surveys.” The international press commented that it amounted to Soviet-style “intimidation” tactics.
Parliamentarian Mahua Moitra, who has been a trenchant critic of the Modi government, observed that the raids on the BBC were timed to divert attention away from the Adani scam. Moitra questioned when the Income Tax department and stock market regulator SEBI would raid “govt’s most valued sweetheart Mr. A” (sic).
Last week, India’s Supreme Court quashed the government’s attempts at muzzling the press to prevent it from reporting on Adani’s financial irregularities. A recent plea to ban the BBC from operating in India was also junked by the court.
Even as the BJP regime tries to ban and silence criticism, the censored content gets all the more publicity and traction on social media.
The Modi government’s attempts to silence criticism have become a routine affair; every other day someone is being gagged. Restrictions are imposed not just on political rivals but on poets, comedians, civil society activists, and student leaders. Journalist Siddique Kappan, who was on his way to Hathras to report on the gang rape of a Dalit woman in September 2020, was jailed for two years. “Anyone who is against the government is labeled as a terrorist,” Kappan said after being released on bail recently.
While he uses catchy slogans like “Mother of Democracy” to describe India and builds a swanky new parliament complex calling it a “Temple of Democracy,” Modi is subverting the very fundamentals of India’s democracy – free speech, dissent, and a free press. While paying lip service to parliamentary democracy, this government has shown all the traits of a fascist authoritarian state.
The Modi government intends to push through muscular Hindu nationalism where minorities and Muslims are at best second-class citizens. His rule is projected as an “Amrit Kaal” or golden period and the BJP is projected as the only party that can ensure Hindu supremacy. Therefore, anyone who upholds and speaks of diversity, questions the government, or exposes crony capitalism and corruption is perceived as a threat and crushed. Significantly, electoral victories give legitimacy to Narendra Modi’s highhanded tactics.
Recently, American billionaire philanthropist George Soros said that India is “a democracy, but its leader, Narendra Modi, is no democrat.” It triggered a severe backlash from the Indian government, which perceived Soros’ observation as a direct assault on the ideal leader narrative that the BJP has been portraying in the past nine years of Narendra Modi rule.
The entire government and ruling party machinery are engaged in peddling false narratives to extoll Modi and idolize him. BJP chief J. P. Nadda even declared that “Prime Minister Modi stopped the Russia-Ukraine war to rescue stranded Indian students.”
Glorification of one leader and advocating one-party rule in preference to India’s diverse, multiparty federal structure are further indicators of the country’s gradual slide into authoritarianism.