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[Briefer] Sounding the Alarm on India’s Democratic Crisis Ahead of the 2024 General Elections

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Sounding the Alarm on India’s Democratic Crisis
Ahead of the 2024 General Elections

This briefer was written by a woman human rights defender and researcher based in India. Her name is not disclosed for security reasons.


The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) is deeply concerned over India’s six-week-long general elections, scheduled to begin on 19 April 2024, given the country’s shrinking democratic space, eroding fundamental freedoms, and rising attacks against human rights defenders (HRDs) and media organisations.

Under the leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), there has been a disturbing trend of using repressive laws–such as the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) of 2010 and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) of 1967–to suppress free speech and silence HRDs, journalists, civil society organisations (CSOs), and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). 

The politics of Hindu nationalism (Hindutva) has intensified in the past few years, marked by a violent crackdown on minorities and the decline of India’s secularism. Populism and hypernationalism have contributed to democratic backsliding in the country. 

India is touted as the world’s largest democracy with the largest electorate globally. The country’s 2024 general elections hold much power in either preserving or losing this title.

Silencing Media Organisations and Journalists

There has been an increasing clampdown on media outlets and journalists under the current government. 

For instance, the police raided NewsClick and detained its founder, Prabir Puryakastha, under the UAPA. In addition, the homes of 46 NewsClick media workers–including current and former employees, freelance contributors, and cartoonists–were raided by the Delhi Police. Authorities also searched the house of Teesta Setalvad, an HRD who has written articles critical of the government for NewsClick.

Under the Information Technology Act of 2000, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting ordered The Caravan magazine to take down its report on the Indian army’s alleged torture in Indian-administered Kashmir. The magazine had to remove the article within 24 hours; otherwise,  their website would be shut down. 

Meanwhile, tax officials raided the Indian offices of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) following the release of the documentary ‘The Modi Question.’ The latter examined the role of Indian Prime Minister and BJP leader, Narendra Modi, in the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. Through emergency powers under the Information Technology rules, the government subsequently banned the documentary. The BBC was also threatened with legal action for its report on India’s crackdown on Kashmiri press.

Aside from media organisations, the Indian Government has also been targeting individual journalists. 

Journalist Rupesh Kumar Singh has been detained since July 2022, following a nine-hour raid on his home. Singh faces four investigations, including those related to the UAPA, for alleged Maoist activities. Singh has extensively reported on the rights of Adivasis (tribal communities) and environmental degradation in Jharkhand. 

Notably, Singh was also a target of the Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli firm NSO Group, which the Indian government used to surveil over 40 individuals. Among those surveilled were political opposition figures, strategists, journalists, HRDs, supreme court judges, and religious leaders. The repeated use of this highly invasive surveillance tool has had a chilling impact on CSOs, journalists, and HRDs.

Journalist Gautam Navlakha, is currently under house arrest, facing UAPA charges in the Bhima Koregaon-Elgar Parishad case. This case, also known as the BK16 case, pertains to the legal proceedings initiated against 16 intellectuals by the Pune police in 2018 under the UAPA, who are accused of organizing a public meeting in Pune known as the Elgar Parishad. Out of the 16 accused, many have languished in prison for over five years without trial. While eight accused were granted bail based on medical or technical-legal grounds, two of them remain in custody. In 2021, Jesuit priest Stan Swamy died in custody after being repeatedly denied bail on medical grounds. A digital forensics firm, Arsenal Consulting, found false evidence planted on the accused’s devices, highlighting governmental overreach and raising doubts over the independence of India’s investigative agencies.

Aside from judicial harassment, journalists are also experiencing physical assault on the job. They are also subjected to online smear campaigns, including threats of murder and rape as instigated by online trolls, most of whom align themselves with the BJP and Hindu nationalist ideologies.

Shrinking Civic Space

The BJP has systematically restricted India’s civic space. As a result, Indian civil society is no longer able to shape or redress policies. CSOs and NGOs in India–particularly those working for minority rights, including that of Muslims, Christians, Dalits, and Adivasis–are facing intensified state scrutiny and regulatory constraints. 

Between 2015 and 2022, approximately 20,000 NGOs lost their access to foreign funding after the government intensified the use of FCRA and the Prevention of Money Laundering Act of 2002. Such laws have severely restricted the ability of NGOs to access resources, forcing them to scale down or shut down operations. Likewise, such laws infringe on people’s freedom of association. The FCRA affects organisations like Greenpeace, Amnesty International , Centre for Equity Studies, Citizens for Justice and Peace, Amnesty International- India, Oxfam, and the Centre for Policy Research, to name a few.

For smaller organisations, the FCRA is a death knell, erasing their ability to handle day-to-day operations and sustain their important work in sectors such as education, healthcare, poverty alleviation, environmental conversation, and disaster relief.

Many of these organisations have been plagued with tax raids, with their leaders either in prison or currently facing charges that could lead to incarceration. 

NGOs and CSOs in India–as well as their staff and leadership–have been enduring judicial harassment for years. This has created a climate of fear among HRDs, resulting in self-censorship and a weakened civic space.

Attacks on Minorities

Since 2014, there has been a noticeable increase in hate speech and discriminatory laws against minorities in India. The BJP, with its ideological roots in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, openly advocates for Hindu supremacy. The RSS asserts that India should be a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu nation), which contradicts the country’s secular constitutionality. Over the past decade, India has witnessed a transformation into an ethno-democracy, where religious minorities often find themselves relegated to second-class citizens. 

The government has enacted laws and policies, such as the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), that systematically discriminate against Muslims. The adoption of CAA in 2019 sparked weeks of peaceful protests across India, fanning fears of potential disenfranchisement among Muslims. Nevertheless, the Rules of the CAA were operationalised in March 2024, paving the way for faith-based citizenship. 

Several BJP leaders openly called for violence against protesters, resulting in clashes between protesters and BJP supporters. This was followed by communal violence resulting in 53 deaths, the majority of whom were Muslims. Instead of conducting impartial investigations into the BJP’s alleged incitement to violence and the police’s complicity, the authorities targeted protest leaders and activists. Student leaders Umar Khalid and Gulfisha Fatima, for example, have been in prison since 2020. Their bail petitions remain unheard and undecided. 

In recent years, India has also witnessed the rise of ‘bulldozer injustice,’ a term used to describe the punitive and selective demolition of Muslim homes, businesses, and places of worship. In an emblematic case, the house of a young Muslim activist, Afreen Fatima, was demolished in the BJP-ruled state of Uttar Pradesh with barely a day’s notice. 

The complicity of companies like JCB India Ltd, whose bulldozers have become synonymous with these demolitions, alludes to a larger issue: the collusion between corporations and the government in perpetrating violence against minority groups. This collusion is also evident through the alleged role of social media giants such as Google and Meta in spreading hate speech and communal hatred. 

In response to farmers’ protests against government policies in 2020, 2021, and 2024, the authorities resorted to threats, excessive force, and internet shutdowns. This violates the farmers’ right to protest. Among their various demands, the farmer-led protests specifically called for a guaranteed minimum support price for their crops. Many of the protesting farmers belonged to the Sikh minority community. Sikh farmers, particularly those from the Punjab and Haryana states, were vilified by BJP supporters. They were labelled as ‘separatists’ and Khalistan movement supporters.

From 2013 to 2022, there has been a surge in violence against Dalits and Adivasis. The highest number of atrocities were reported in two BJP-ruled states, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh.  

In Uttar Pradesh, crimes against Scheduled Castes–who are among the most socio-economically disadvantaged groups in India–increased by 1.2 per cent in 2021, the highest number of cases in the whole of India. The Hathras gang rape case of a Dalit Valmiki woman illustrates the complicity of both the state and the police in caste-based crimes, wherein the authorities not only tried to evade the caste question but also attempted to shield the accused. Meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh state reported the highest number of cases of atrocities against Scheduled Tribes, accounting for 29.8 per cent of the total cases in 2021.

Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab are dedicated to tracking hate speech and religiously motivated violence committed by BJP supporters. In early 2024, their websites were blocked by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology under the IT Act.

Crackdown on Civil Society and Journalists in Indian-Administered Kashmir

In Indian-administered Kashmir, the situation for civil society and journalists has become increasingly precarious following the unilateral and coercive revocation of its special status under Article 370 in August 2019. Civil society and journalists face relentless interrogations, arbitrary travel bans, revolving door detentions, and repressive media policies–such as the 2020 Media Policy and the closure of the Kashmir Press Club in 2022.

The Indian Government has systematically sought to delegitimize and silence the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society (JKCCS), a leading human rights organisation in the region. JKCCS has been instrumental in documenting the Indian state’s grave human rights abuses as well as in holding the government accountable. 

HRD Khurram Parvez, JKCCS programme coordinator, has been in pre-trial detention for over two years on politically motivated UAPA charges. Before his arrest on 21 November 2021, the National Investigation Agency also raided and seized his office and home. In March 2023, Khurram was re-arrested in another case–registered in 2020 by Indian authorities–on fabricated charges of ‘terror financing.’ In the same case, Irfan Mehraj, an independent journalist and former JKCCS staff member, was also arrested. Mehraj has been in pre-trial detention since 2023. Several other HRDs affiliated with JKCCS have been repeatedly summoned and interrogated as part of the Indian Government’s broader strategy to delegitimize human rights work in Kashmir and to suppress any critical human rights documentation.

Fahad Shah is the founder and editor of The Kashmir Wall (TKW), which was one of Kashmir’s last remaining independent media organisations. Under sedition and anti-terror laws, Shah was arrested in February 2022 and subsequently released on bail after 21 months. Meanwhile, TKW trainee reporter Sajad Gul was detained under the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) of 1978 in January 2022 for posting a video of a family protesting against the killing of their relative in a gunfight in Srinagar. Although the Jammu and Kashmir High Court quashed the PSA proceedings against Gul, he remains imprisoned. In August 2023, Indian authorities blocked TKW’s website and social media accounts. 

Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan has been in prison since August 2018. Sultan was released in March 2024 only to be re-arrested under the UAPA by Jammu and Kashmir Police within 48 hours for a 2019 case related to violence in the Srinagar central jail. Likewise, scholar Abdul Aala Fazili has been behind bars since April 2022 for his allegedly ‘seditious’ article ‘The shackles of slavery will break,’ which was published on the TKW way back in 2011.

The passports of at least 10 Kashmiris–including journalists, academics, students, and activists–have been suspended under The Passports Act of 1967 which governs the issuance of passports and travel documents for Indian citizens. Around 70 to 90 people who are perceived as threats to the Indian state are also expected to lose their passports. This includes those who have no outstanding charges against them.

In February 2024, Professor Nitasha Kaul, a British academic of Kashmiri origin and an Overseas Citizen of India, was denied entry into India and subsequently deported based on a preventive lookout circular issued by government agencies. Kaul is a staunch critic of the ruling BJP and has also testified against human rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir after the abrogation of the region’s special status. 

Many Kashmiri journalists, including Pulitzer-winning photojournalist Sanna Irshad Matto and freelance journalist Aakash Hassan, were barred from travelling abroad despite having requisite travel documents. 

An Iron Grip over Opposition

In the lead-up to elections, Arvind Kejriwal–the Chief Minister of Delhi and an opposition leader from the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP)–was arrested by the Enforcement Directorate. AAP leader Manish Sisodia was also arrested for alleged corruption. 

These arrests are perceived as the government’s attempt to weaken the AAP ahead of elections. 

Meanwhile, the opposition party Indian National Congress reported that its bank accounts have been frozen by the Income Tax Department. This hinders the party’s ability to campaign effectively. 

All these repressive actions create an uneven playing field among parties and candidates, raising concerns over the Indian Government’s disrespect for the democratic principles of free and fair elections.

Call to Action

FORUM-ASIA calls upon the Government of India to uphold its obligations concerning civil and political rights as well as social, economic and cultural rights in accordance with customary law and international human rights treaties that India is a state party to. Specifically, we call on the government to stop using repressive laws–such as the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act (FCRA) and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA)–to stifle dissent and free speech. 

We express our deep concern over the government’s crackdown on civil society and media organisations in India, specifically in Indian-administered Kashmir. The government must recognise, respect, promote, and protect the rights of journalists, HRDs, CSOs, and NGOs. Discriminatory policies and practices against minorities must end. Likewise, the government should take concrete steps to combat hate speech, discriminatory laws, and communal violence. We call for the immediate cessation of these crackdowns. The Indian Government must uphold the people’s right to privacy and freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association, without exception.

‘FORUM-ASIA strongly urges the Indian Government to ensure a level playing field for all political parties and candidates in the upcoming elections. The government must guarantee equal access to media, the fair allocation of campaign resources, and the impartiality of the Election Commission. Any form of electoral violence or intimidation must be strictly prohibited and promptly investigated. The elections must be conducted freely and fairly, ensuring that citizens can vote without undue influence or coercion,’ said Mary Aileen Diez Bacalso, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA.

FORUM-ASIA urges the international community, including the United Nations, to closely monitor the situation in India and report on any electoral irregularities. International scrutiny plays an essential role in safeguarding the future of democracy in India.


Related to this briefer, read this statement here