Every democracy has checks and balances, along with strong independent institutions to provide voice to every section of society and prevent the state from becoming authoritarian. India is a noisy democracy with tolerably free and fair elections, even though every party, when in power, has attempted to subdue dissent and independent institutions. This process has worsened after Modi came to power. Institutions whose independence has been eroded under his rule include the Election Commission of India, the media, the Reserve Bank of India (the central bank) and the police‐prosecutor system.
The Election Commission has been vital in ensuring fair and free elections and curbing hate speech during campaigns. During the 2019 election, one of the three election commissioners, Ashok Lavasa, tried five times to get tough with the BJP for flouting Election Commission directives on hate speech. He was consistently overruled by the two other commissioners, who also declined to record his dissentions. Lavasa recused himself from further meetings, saying there was no point in having a minority voice if it was not recorded. Soon afterward, Lavasa’s wife, son, and sister were subjected to investigations by the Income Tax Department and the Enforcement Directorate (which deals with foreign exchange transactions). The message was clear: dissenters will be harassed.77
Many critics in the media, academia, politics, and other sectors have faced police cases on flimsy grounds, including historian Ramachandra Guha; Congress Party politicians Palaniappan Chidambaram and Shashi Tharoor; media critics such as Prannoy Roy and Siddharth Varadarajan; Gujarat police officer Sanjiv Bhatt, who testified that Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, had asked the police to back the Hindu rioters in the 2002 Gujarat riots; and NGO activists such as Teesta Setalvad and former additional solicitor general Indira Jaising.78 Critics were charged with violating laws on income tax, foreign donations, money laundering, foreign exchange, unlawful activities, sedition, promotion of enmity between groups, and even the Epidemic Diseases Act.
The BJP is not the first party to try to squash dissent: all of them do it. But the BJP stands out for doing it by conflating Hinduism and patriotism, implying that it alone can uphold India’s interests, whereas the secularists woo Muslim votes and hence subvert national security. Tax raids on businessmen have made them terrified of tax harassment and court cases if they criticize Modi’s policies. Veteran businessman Rahul Bajaj says that it is bad economics as well as bad politics to have a climate in which businessmen are afraid to speak freely.79
Misuse of laws and tax raids are not new inventions of the BJP. Other parties, especially the Congress Party, have been guilty of similar abuses in past decades, and even today in states where they rule. For instance, the owner and chief anchor of the pro‐Modi Republic TV, Arnab Goswami, recently faced multiple court cases registered in various non‐BJP states for allegedly using provocative language to cause riots.80 This looks like tit‐for‐tat against BJP abuse. In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who heads a regional party, has arrested several people for criticizing her, including Sanmoy Banerjee, Congress Party spokesperson in the state; Priyanka Sharma, BJP youth leader; Anirban Das, social activist; and Aseem Trivedi, cartoonist. In Tamil Nadu, cartoonist G. Bala was arrested in 2017 for supposedly defaming the chief minister of a regional party, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (All India Anna Dravidian Progressive Federation) (AIADMK). Another cartoonist, Dinkar [Ramdhari Singh Dinkar], was arrested in 2013 by a different regional party, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (Dravidian Progressive Federation) (DMK), for portraying politicians as monkeys in a carton.
The Paris‐based Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontières) (RSF) publishes an annual press freedom index that placed India 80th in 2002, falling to between 138th and 142nd during Modi’s five years in power. Arrests for insulting Modi occur with alarming regularity. Those arrested include teachers, students, businessmen, auto‐rickshaw drivers, and members of the police and paramilitary forces. Such arrests, which once caused a stir on social media platforms, have become so routine that they now attract only passing mention.81 Last year, a sedition case was filed against 49 intellectuals, including historian Ramachandra Guha and famous film directors Aparna Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and Mani Ratnam, for writing an open letter to Modi against the spate of mob‐lynching in the country.82 Earlier sedition cases include one against Amnesty International for organizing a debate on Kashmir, and another against an actor who merely said “Pakistan is no hell.”83
In one bizarre case, the teacher and parents of a nine‐year old girl were arrested for taking part in a school skit that contained anti‐Modi remarks.84 In Bihar, eight people were arrested for dancing to what the police called an “anti‐India” song.85 In Tamil Nadu, a folk singer was arrested for a song critical of Modi.86 These are just a few names in a long list.
The Reserve Bank of India (RBI), the central bank, is an important independent institution. After two professional economists RBI governors, Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel, refused to toe the government line on a variety of issues (including the demonetization of high‐value currency notes, expanding bank credit, and handing over RBI reserves to the government to spend), Modi replaced the professionals with a pliable retired bureaucrat.87
The police should be an independent force, but in India they do the bidding of the ruling party. The Supreme Court once called the Central Bureau of Investigation a “caged parrot.”88 After the 2020 Delhi riots, the Delhi Police ignored complaints against BJP leaders such as Kapil Mishra, who was caught on camera openly instigating and engaging in violence. Instead, they arrested hundreds of peaceful anti‐CAA protestors under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, based on an anonymous complaint. The Delhi High Court expressed anguish at this lapse.89 Instead of listening to the court, the Delhi Police promoted an elaborate conspiracy theory that the Delhi riots were planned and executed by Muslim and leftist elements, even though two‐thirds of those killed were Muslims. The police have arrested dozens of Muslim activists and named well‐known academics and politicians as part of the conspiracy. Pratap Bhanu Mehta of Ashoka University says,
The whole purpose is to argue that there is a liberal, left, Islamist conspiracy to embarrass and subvert the Indian state. The political class repeats this, the media parrots this and the police, as if on cue, frames the issues this way. The idea is not just to deflect attention from violence and discrimination, it is to declare any critic of the government a potential subversive. It is to invent an enemy of the people, in students and intellectuals. The state has diabolically shifted the emphasis away from investigation of the riots to delegitimising the anti‐CAA protest.… It is not interested in guilt or innocence. It is interested in demonstrating that it can destroy your life with impunity.90
In the case of a bomb explosion on the Samjhauta Express, several Hindu extremists were prosecuted when the BJP was out of office. But after the BJP came to power, the case concluded with the presiding judge complaining that he was obliged to deliver a verdict of “not guilty” because the public prosecutors had deliberately presented a weak case, withheld the best evidence, and failed to cross‐examine crucial witnesses.91
Christians say criticism of Hindus leaves them open to arrest on the false grounds of causing communal enmity or attempting forced, illegal religious conversion.92 In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress Party chief, Ajay Kumar Lallu, and two of his party colleagues, were arrested under the Epidemic Diseases Act (which forbids spreading false information) for criticizing the government’s response to the coronavirus problem.93 An 80‐year‐old writer, Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi, and journalist Manjit Mahanta were arrested in Assam for sedition in order to stifle their anti‐CAA protests.94 The Delhi police charged former Jawaharlal Nehru University Students’ Union president Kanhaiya Kumar and nine others with sedition merely because of some slogans that were shouted by others at a student rally.95 The only saving grace, if it can be called that, is that the legal system is so slow that arrested people get out on bail and the cases meander on for years or decades. The main effect of the misuse of laws is not to convict hordes of innocent people but to harass them and raise the cost of dissent.
The judicial system is supposed to be independent of politics. Yet, after Modi came to power, court judgments are beginning to skew against secularism and follow a more pro‐Hindu trend. History in many countries shows that when societal attitudes change, court verdicts change too.96 The best example was the Supreme Court judgement on the Babri Masjid destruction. It held that a Hindu mob was guilty of criminal destruction. Yet, its verdict handed over the disputed parcel of land to a Hindu trust in order to build a Ram Temple, with the state government being ordered to allot five acres in a nearby spot to build a new mosque. In effect, the communal vandals were rewarded.97 A similar troubling trend is the Supreme Court’s unwillingness to take action or even hear habeas corpus cases in Kashmir after Modi abolished Article 370 and locked down the state while locking up top politicians and activists. In earlier decades, the Supreme Court would not have allowed such draconian action against civilians to go unchecked.98 Supreme Court judges have historically stayed clear of politics. But the last Supreme Court chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, was, upon his retirement, offered by the BJP—and accepted—a non‐party‐nominated seat for persons of merit in the Rajya Sabha, the upper house of parliament. This is an unhappy portent.99 But its significance should not be exaggerated. Many judges remain sternly independent and have slammed the BJP in important cases, some of which are spelled out in the next section.