The downgrading of India’s status from a “free” country to a “partly free” one is disquieting and reflects a systematic erosion of civil rights. In the ‘Freedom in the World Report 2021’, prepared by a US-based think tank Freedom House, India has scored 67 out of 100, slipping by four points since last year when it was still in the ‘free’ category. What is more disturbing is that the country’s score has been consistently declining over the last few years, from 77 in 2017 to 67 now. Though India has scored 34 out of 40 points in the political rights section, which is considered outstanding, its dismal score of 33 out of 60 on civil liberties is too stark to ignore. The country’s record in protection of media freedom and individual rights has also been poor. There has been a consistent crackdown on critics in the media, academics, civil society groups and protesters while the NGOs involved in the investigation of human rights abuses continue to face threats and legal harassment. The fall in India’s status comes from an assessment that takes into account performance on 25 parameters and indices. The global watchdog has rightly pointed out that instead of striving to emerge as a champion of democratic practices and a counterweight to authoritarian influence from countries such as China, the present dispensation in India has been driving the country towards authoritarianism. While there can be disagreements on the way the assessments is made and scores given, the growing fears over threat to freedom of expression and the selective targeting of the dissenters cannot be ignored.
As a mature democracy aspiring to play a larger role on the world stage, India can ill-afford to belittle these concerns or attribute motives to them. It has been the habit of successive governments to dub any criticism as an ‘anti-national’ narrative peddled by a ‘foreign hand’. However, in an interconnected, information-driven world, it is counter-productive for the governments to invoke the ‘foreign hand’ theory to suppress criticism. The perceptions of erosion of democratic values and backsliding need to be addressed, not dismissed. A declining economy and eroding freedom can be an explosive combination with the potential to adversely affect investor confidence. The slide must be arrested. It would be hypocritical if on one hand we proudly flaunt international recognition of India’s performance in certain areas while on the other, denounce any critical assessment of the country in other areas. For instance, when India moved up by 14 spots in the World Bank’s annual report on ease of doing business in 2020 or when Indian universities figured in the global top 100 list, the government lost no time in welcoming the rankings.
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