India’s democratic backsliding has been a topic of concern for many decades. However, in recent years, the censorship of free speech in particular has led to detrimental social consequences, preventing checks and balances and enforcing a culture of conformity. In India, this censorship takes the form of draconian laws and pressure on media outlets to self-censor.
The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janta Party (“BJP”) government has arrested activists, journalists, and other critics of the government on politically motivated criminal charges, including terrorism. Many outdated sections of the colonial-era Indian Penal Code, drafted 200 years ago, still remain in place today. The Indian government has increasingly been using the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a counterterrorism law, to convict critics. The law has an extremely vague definition of terrorism and, though designed to combat immediate terrorist threats, is responsible for the arrests of many journalists associated with human rights organizations, according to the Human Rights Watch. On October 3, 2023, New Delhi police arrested an editor and employee at NewsClick, a media journal which notoriously publishes anti-BJP work. The Indian police then raided the homes of 46 involved journalists. After writer Arundhati Roy spoke up in a following protest, she was charged with counterterrorism for “causing disharmony” in a speech she made 13 years prior. The government curtailed her dissent with an unrelated event, abusing the counterterrorism law and charging her simply because of her opposition.
In their work, “How Democracies Die,” political scientists Levitsky and Ziblatt detail how un-democratic leaders will perpetuate democratic erosion through already legal mechanisms. The Indian government portrays itself as the protector of the majority’s interests and dismisses critical voices as simply divisive or anti-national. By using the counterterrorism law, India is enforcing censorship under the guise of maintaining public order and curbing divisive speech. Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy and, without it, democratic institutions like the free press and independent judiciaries are weakened. These institutions rely on the ability to challenge those in power and offer alternative viewpoints. Furthermore, the government will employ threats, intimidation, or harassment to deter critical reporting. Indian journalists fear for their safety and livelihood. This keeps the media government-friendly, with no constructive criticism or opposition allowed at all.
The limitation of free speech in India has created a climate of fear and self-censorship, which prevents the free exchange of ideas and the development of a vibrant, civil society. In August 2023, a professor at Ashoka University, a leading private university in New Delhi, was pressured to resign after criticizing the government (Financial Times). Sabyasachi Das courageously published a paper critically examining the government’s alleged role in voter suppression favoring the BJP. The paper ignited a storm of controversy with the BJP as they denied the events, and the university governing body distanced themselves from his work shortly thereafter. Associated Ashoka faculty believe the institution made a conscious effort to push him out, stressing India’s diminishing freedom of speech. This episode highlights how political and social consequences that the government has fostered now deter individuals from participating in political discourse and expressing their ideas. Consequently, a culture of conformity has taken root, where people refrain from challenging the status quo, thus hindering political and social progress and development. Censorship in India eroded the democratic norm of free speech, which is crucial for open and informed political discourse in a democracy. Opposing parties are unable to challenge the ruling party in a fair and open electoral system. In a healthy democracy, citizens should have the liberty to critically acknowledge and openly discuss the faults within their political system and aim to reform it through engagement with the government.
When legitimate dissent is suppressed, spaces are created for more extremist ideologies. This media polarization weakens democratic fabric. In a polarized media environment, journalists will align themselves with specific political ideologies to avoid legal repercussions. This can fuel divisions in society, decrease the quality of public discourse, and make it difficult for citizens to find common ground. When polarization increases, censorship is further justified as the government labels all critical media as biased. Democratic leaders should be striving for media plurality so that the media cannot be used to manipulate public opinion and suppress dissent. Media plurality is integral to democracy, as it ensures diverse and independent media outlets. This acts as a safeguard against an unjust concentration of power. In India, however, the media landscape is under siege as corporate interests increasingly dictate editorial decisions and government pressure stifles investigative journalism.
It’s also worth noting that India has experienced a significant decline in the press freedom index, a report that annually assesses a country’s press freedom records. Dropping from 150 to 161 out of 180 countries, it’s evident that the democratic right to free speech is increasingly being taken away from citizens. India’s censorship is significantly harming democracy, as censorship prevents open debate, leaves citizens uninformed, and erodes the system of checks and balances.
Levitsky and Ziblatt further assert how this type of media censorship creates longstanding social, economic, and legal consequences that will ultimately lead to the collapse of democracy. They argue that the media should act as a watchdog on the government and keep a check on power. The media must inform the public of political developments and foster accountability towards those in power. If this is weakened, it paves the way for a gradual decline in democratic values. Democratic erosion does not happen overnight, but rather through gradual, incremental steps.
There are unwritten rules in a democracy that good democratic leaders should follow. Levitsky and Ziblatt discuss the ideas of mutual tolerance and institutional forbearance, indicating how leaders should recognize democratic norms and attempt to uphold them. A good, trustworthy leader should not find legal loopholes to jump through to consolidate power. This limits the ability of civil society, media, and other institutions to hold those in power accountable and centralizes power within the government. However, India’s government has failed to do so and is instead attacking this norm by arresting journalists and threatening legal consequences.
Civil society plays a vital role in holding the government accountable and supporting media freedom. It is evident that India’s democratic erosion is subtle and gradual, posing a serious threat to the foundations of the nation. By safeguarding media plurality and countering media polarization, as well as reforming oppressive laws, the country can ensure that its democracy remains resilient. India is grappling with a defining moment, balancing a commitment to democracy against the rising prevalence of anti-democratic tendencies.