Free Speech in the World’s Largest Democracy

by Jasmine Bhatt

On the surface, 2014 has been a very positive year for India’s democracy. With the highest level of voting attendance ever recorded in modern India, the election of Modi for prime minister seems a sign of how far India has come as a democratic nation. The previous Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi, a devout Hindu and member of the nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has a following that nears almost religious fanaticism in some ways, with his promises of sorting out India’s economy, among many other things, being seen as the very thing India needs in this time of immense social, political and economical change.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi

However, once we delve a little deeper into Modi and the situation in the run up to the election, this seemingly democratic and fair win takes a sinister turn. Modern India has been built upon a foundation of free speech, yet it seems that increasingly with time, “‘free’ speech now needs to come with an asterisk in India that reads, ‘free, so long as you agree,'” as stated by Thane Richards. He talks of the “chilling effect” as it is known in legal circles, an unofficial and subtle way of controlling freedom of speech, with any controversial topics raised being dismissed “with the vigour of blasphemy”. Yet as bad as this passive shut down of dissent is, there are far more worrying powers in play, with high level journalists and editors being forced to tone down their coverage of the BJP or risk losing their jobs; prime time programmes being shut down for voicing not entirely positive reviews for Modi or his party; and even a college principal forced to resign after sending a letter around to his students advising them to carefully consider their vote before voting. One of the most shocking was the attack on the caretaker of a high level critic of politics as he was told to “Tell your sahib (boss) to watch what he says on TV.”

So was Modi really elected fairly? Surely this muffling of the media, and thus the filtering of what the public know and hear means that the voters cannot make a informed and individual decisions? In a sense, the control of what they hear is a form of psychological control and manipulation; the people of India are being duped into feeling like they are making a free and informed decision. This does not strike me, for one, as democracy. Heather Timmons writes that India’s national elections have always been more a black box than a horse race, given the influence of local politics and the lack of credible voting analysis, but this seems far more sinister than before, largely due to the widespread belief that because of the voting turn out, democracy in India is thriving – which of course, on the surface it is. But is it true democracy if freedom of information is restricted, and any negative feedback is promptly shut down? I would argue not.

Furthermore, Modi’s history has been largely ignored by the Western media, despite its chilling nature. It would be unsurprising if you hadn’t heard of the 2002 Gujarati Riots, yet they are one of the most horrific events to have taken place in modern day India. In brief, it has been described as three days of inter-communal violence in Gujarat (a predominantly Hindu state) primarily against Muslims by Hindus. It was triggered by the fire on a train that killed 58 Hindu pilgrims, although there is a widespread belief that the attacks against the Muslims were pre-planned, with Modi, Chief Minister at the time, especially implicated. Official sources state that 790 Muslims died, and 258 Hindus, yet figures from other sources believe as many as 2000 Muslims were killed, with many more being injured and displaced. The violence included humiliation, rape, children and adults being burned alive, the gutting of pregnant women and the flooding of homes and the subsequent electrocution of entire families inside. While Modi has since been cleared of assisting or turning a blind eye to the attacks, evidence does point to suspicious involvement. Nilanjana Roy attributes a large element of distrust and fear of Modi and the BJP to this, and the reluctance to go against them. This paints a dismal picture for the Muslims in India, as one can only wonder what protection they will get under Modi’s rule. If Hindu journalists, editors and high profile figures are being silenced, the future for those who go against Modi’s personal beliefs does not look positive.

The world’s largest democracy is under threat, and its future under Modi’s rule is uncertain and unstable to say the least. If you are a Brahmin and agree with Modi’s views then perhaps you will be fine, but if you are anything else, India is a scary and perilous society to be part of.

Jasmine Bhatt is a second-year English and Related Literature student at the University of York.


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