India was rated as a "partially free" country for the second consecutive year in the annual report of Freedom House, citing the Narendra Modi-led government's new social media rules, the Pegasus spyware issue, and the October 2021 violence against farmers in Lakhimpur Kheri as some of the factors behind the assessment.
The country's score fell by 4 points to 67, from last year's 71.
The United States government-funded non-profit think tank, which assesses the level of political rights and civil liberties across the globe, said in its report, "India’s status declined from Free to Partly Free due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies."
"While India is a multiparty democracy, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population. The constitution guarantees civil liberties including freedom of expression and freedom of religion, but harassment of journalists, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and other government critics has increased significantly under Modi."Freedom House
Pegasus Spyware, Twitter Censoring Among Key Factors in Freedom House Report
Listing the key developments in India in 2021 that guided its assessment, the report noted that micro-blogging platform Twitter was ordered to take down posts that criticised the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Pegasus snooping revelations of July 2021 were also cited by the freedom evaluation report.
"A media investigation found in July that Pegasus spyware had been detected on smartphones belonging to dozens of leading opposition politicians, activists, businesspeople, and journalists," it noted.
A global collaborative investigative project published by 17 media organisations on 18 July 2021 had revealed that mobile phones of at least 300 Indians were targeted for tapping using Pegasus spyware. The list of those whose phones were allegedly tapped includes BJP ministers, Opposition leaders, top lawyers, rights activists, and journalists.
Report Cites Lakhimpur Kheri Unrest, Farmers' Protests, Love-Jihad Laws
"Prominent opposition leaders were arrested in October while trying to visit the scene of a deadly incident in which a car in a government minister’s convoy allegedly struck protesting farmers," the Freedom House analysis states.
Eight people, including four farmers, were killed in Uttar Pradesh's Lakhimpur Kheri in October 2021, after being run over by a convoy of cars. Union Minister Ajay Mishra's son, who owned one of the cars, had been arrested in the murder case.
Congress General Secretary Priyanka Gandhi, who had attempted to visit the kin of the deceased farmers at the time, had been forcibly detained in Sitapur for over two days.
The protests over the three contentious farm laws (which were rolled back after a year of demonstrations by farmers), and the 'love-jihad' laws introduced by various BJP-ruled states were also cited by the US-based think tank's report.
"Several states governed by the BJP passed or proposed “love jihad” laws meant to curb the alleged practice of Muslim men marrying Hindu women in order to convert them to Islam – a Hindu nationalist conspiracy theory. The legislation effectively created obstacles to interreligious marriage and came in the context of escalating threats and violence against the Muslim community."
Stan Swamy Was 'Arrested on Dubious Terrorism Charges'
"Also in July, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who had advocated for Adivasi rights died in custody, having been arrested on dubious terrorism charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in October 2020," the report stated.
Father Stan Swamy had died on 5 July of cardiac arrest as an undertrial prisoner. His death in custody, after he was repeatedly denied bail requests despite his deteriorating health over nine months in jail, had elicited widespread condemnation.
Last year, the central government had issued a statement on the 2020 report by Freedom House in which it had said that India’s status as a free country has declined to “partly free,” terming it “misleading, incorrect and misplaced.”
On Independence of Media & Judiciary
"Attacks on press freedom have escalated dramatically under the Modi government... Authorities have used security, defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to quiet critical voices in the media," the analysis by Freedom House stated.
"Also during 2021, several journalists were arrested for their reporting on the farmer protests against government-backed agricultural reforms. A Muslim journalist, Siddique Kappan, remained in detention after his October 2020 arrest for attempting to cover the alleged gang rape of a Dalit woman," it added.
Commenting on India's judicial system, the report noted that judges at the level of the Supreme Court have traditionally displayed autonomy and activism in response to public-interest litigation.
"However, lower levels of the judiciary suffer from corruption, and the courts have shown signs of increasing politicization," it said.
"Several key Supreme Court rulings in recent years have been favorable to the BJP, including the 2019 decision allowing the construction of a Hindu temple on the site of a historic mosque, and a 2020 decision to deny bail to a scholar and prominent critic of Modi who was charged with supporting a banned Maoist group," the think tank observed.