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US watchdog of democracy slams India’s repression in Kashmir; rights abuses across country

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 05 (APP):Repressive measures against minorities and protesters in India have been sharply criticized by Freedom House, a key US watchdog of democracy, in a report warning of democratic decline worldwide. Its Freedom in the World report 2020 targets India, which claims to be the world’s largest democracy, for a “harsh crackdown on political rights and civil liberties” including seven months of military lockdown and internet shutdown in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir.

The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which discriminates against Muslims, and the suppression of protests, as well as violence and harassment against journalists and academics, were also highlighted as “threatening the democratic future” of India. The report blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for India’s “alarming departures from democratic norms.” Although India’s 1950 Constitution enshrines equal treatment for every religion, it was pointed out that Hindu nationalists have in the recent decades increasingly challenged state secularism, arguing that India’s identity is fundamentally a Hindu one.

Although BJP denies its policies are anti-Muslim, the country’s Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah has referred to Muslims in the state of Assam as “termites”. During the past year, Freedom House said “25 of the world’s 41 established democracies experienced net losses” of freedom. Among the worst offenders is India. The recent anti-Muslim pogroms in New Delhi — which killed 46 people and were carried out with the connivance of senior police officers — are indicative of the country’s illiberal direction under Prime Minister Modi and his Hindu nationalist BJP. Freedom House notes that the BJP has “distanced itself from the country’s founding commitments to pluralism and individual rights, without which democracy cannot long survive.”

The report said, “The first major step was the central government’s unilateral annulment of the semiautonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. Federal authorities replaced the state’s elected institutions with appointees and abruptly stripped residents of basic political rights. “The sweeping reorganization, which opponents criticized as unconstitutional, was accompanied by a massive deployment of troops and arbitrary arrests of hundreds of Kashmiri leaders and activists. Restrictions on freedom of movement and a shutdown of mobile and internet service made ordinary activities a major challenge for residents. As a result, Indian (occupied) Kashmir experienced one of the five largest single-year score declines of the past 10 years in Freedom in the World, and its freedom status dropped to Not Free. “The government’s second move came on August 31, when it published a new citizens’ register in the northeastern state of Assam that left nearly two million residents without citizenship in any country. The deeply flawed process was widely understood as an effort to exclude Muslims, many of whom were descended from Bengalis who arrived in Assam during the colonial era. Those found to be undocumented immigrants were expected to be placed in detention camps.

“However, the Bengali population that was rendered stateless included a significant number of Hindus, necessitating a remedy that would please supporters of the ruling BJP. “That remedy was provided by the third major action of the year, the December passage of the Citizenship Amendment Law, which expedites citizenship for adherents of six non-Muslim religions from three neighboring Muslim-majority countries. In effect, India will grant Hindus and other non-Muslims special protection from persecution in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, but Muslims—including those from vulnerable minority sects or from other neighboring states like China and Sri Lanka—will receive no such advantage. “Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah has pledged to repeat the Assam citizens’ register process nationwide, raising fears of a broader effort to render Indian Muslims stateless and ensure citizenship for non-Muslims.

“These three actions have shaken the rule of law in India and threatened the secular and inclusive nature of its political system. They also caused the country to receive the largest score decline among the world’s 25 largest democracies in Freedom in the World 2020. “Tens of thousands of Indians from all religious backgrounds have taken to the streets to protest this jarring attack on their country’s character, but they have faced police violence in return, and it remains to be seen whether such demonstrations will persuade the government to change course.”