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Dissent and Democracy: Prime Minister Modi’s War Against the Indian Press

The violent unrest in Kashmir and Prime Minister Modi’s calculated decisions backsliding journalistic freedom have recently come to a head with Modi’s decision to press charges against author and activist Arundhati Roy. Roy commented on Kashmir’s relationship with India in 2010, and in response, Modi’s government has brought back a colonial-era sedition law to justify her indictment. This willingness to take extreme steps to quell dissent has dire implications for India’s democratic health.

A Decade After-the-Fact

Arundhati Roy’s rise to fame as an author can be attributed to her novel The God of Small Things, which won the Booker Prize in 1997. The social and political commentary in the book is characteristic of her work as an activist; Roy has written multiple essays critiquing the inequalities of capitalism, the staggering aftershocks of imperialism, and the rapid growth of the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement heightened by Prime Minister Modi’s ascent to power. Fourteen years ago, in 2010, Roy attended a scholarly conference on the violence and unrest in Kashmir, the highly volatile and contested territory between India and Pakistan. As Kashmiris, both Hindu and Muslim, continue to live in what is essentially a military-occupied-adjacent state, many activists in India such as Roy have advocated for the separation of Kashmir from India and Pakistan, hoping to achieve a state without the violent military conflict and political violence perpetrated by both governments in the region. 

At this conference, Roy urged that Kashmir “was never an integral part of India.” Her words emphasizing her separatist outlook on the Kashmir conflict were met with great controversy in India. Over a decade later, Prime Minister Modi—whose prime ministership began four years after Roy’s comments—is using a variety of Indian laws designed to restrict speech and press and a colonial-era sedition law to bring Roy to court. Roy, as well as former international law professor at Central University of Kashmir Sheikh Showkat Hussein, will face charges of sedition in the Indian judiciary.

Section 124A: India’s Colonial History Bleeding into the Present

The Indian Penal Code (IPC) 1860 contains the highly controversial Section 124A on sedition. IPC 1860 was first enacted under the British Raj in the late nineteenth century, and the Sedition Law was used to target freedom fighters. Later in the early twentieth century, Mahatma Gandhi faced this same charge in his Great Trial of 1922, where he was accused due to his pivotal role in protesting against colonial rule in India. Essentially, British colonizers imposed this Sedition Law as a tool to ensure that Indians would not be able to protest against the occupation by the British Crown in an effort to discourage activists such as Gandhi from continuing their protests and rhetoric against the actions of the colonial government. 

Seeing as though this law is a prime symbol of British colonial rule over India, it is surprising that Modi, who proclaims India is the “mother of democracy,” has decided to use Section 124A to press charges against Roy. Already facing criticism from the larger global community due to India’s drop in the Democracy Index following his rise to power, this situation is another example of Modi’s government stifling key characteristics of a democracy, such as the political right of a free press. While this is the stance Modi is taking, the Indian Supreme Court may not be sure his move is constitutionally valid. Following multiple petitions challenging the constitutionality of Section 124A, the Court has decided to rule on the matter involving a batch of seven justices, meaning that while Roy has been charged, her trial could await this crucial piece of information. 

Losing a Free Press, Losing Democracy

Roy’s prosecution has become one of many in a stark pattern that Modi and his government have taken throughout their time in power, increasing in severity and frequency in recent years. The charges pressed against Roy were part of a greater number of raids on multiple political journalists writing for the online publication NewsClick, a left-leaning news site that has historically been critical of Modi’s nationalistic rhetoric around Kashmir, among other issues. 

In 2020, moreover, the Modi government issued a blackout on TV news organization Media One for 48 hours in reaction to its reporting on the February 2020 Delhi religious riots against the Muslim minority, which itself followed the Hindu nationalist rhetoric that Modi’s government propagated. Even recently, in January of this year, the Indian Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology drafted new rules on news screening that would require large platforms such as Twitter to take down any news flagged as “fake” by the Press Information Bureau. While this may sound reasonable in theory, the Press Information Bureau has in the past flagged perfectly accurate articles as “fake” news when in reality, they were simply critical of government policy or action. The charges pressed against Roy thus fall in line with the pattern presented by Modi’s government. Bolstered by the nationalist rhetoric that it has cultivated, the government has effectively censored the press through multiple channels.

India’s 161st position in the World Free Press Index has reflected just how its press freedoms have been dwindling, and this metric specifically credits Modi’s ascent to power as the reason. Roy’s case is just another sad example of how Modi and his government are taking drastic measures to silence the press, going to previously unheard-of measures, such as using colonial-era legal justification. A democracy using a law passed by its previous colonizer which historically silenced its own freedom fighters in the present-day context to punish a dissenter is jarring, to say the least, and is a red flag in terms of determining the health of that democracy. In India’s case, this seems to have been brought on by Prime Minister Modi’s autocratic leadership. Indians, along with the rest of the world, could potentially see a future consistent with democratic backsliding if this is left unchecked.

Featured Image Source: The New York Times

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