The Platform

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Isac Nóbrega/PR)

In July of last year, Stan Swamy, a prominent tribal rights activist, passed away at a hospital in Mumbai. The 84-year-old became India’s oldest political prisoner and remained in custody for eight months while his bail plea on medical grounds was repeatedly rejected. Riddled with Parkinson’s disease, Swamy’s health deteriorated to the point where he could not feed himself. He was eventually moved to a hospital in May where he contracted COVID-19. Swamy was charged and arrested in 2020 under a draconian anti-terror law called the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – an accusation he categorically denied.

The National Investigation Agency (NIA) which deals with anti-terror crimes in India contended that Swamy had colluded with Maoist groups and was conspiring to take over the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi by means of an armed conflict. Swamy and 15 other activists known to be vocal critics of the government were charged with similar conspiracies. The sedition charges are traced back to a clash that broke out in January of 2018 in Bhima Koregaon between lower-caste Dalit Hindus and right-wing groups. In the subsequent days, some of India’s most renowned activists, academics, and lawyers were arrested for their alleged role in the violence. Charges against the defendants included an alleged plot to assassinate Modi.

What differentiates the government’s case against the activists is the use of the draconian UAPA law under the guise of anti-terror operations. The UAPA legally allows denying bail to activists as they languish in jail. The Modi government has repeatedly used UAPA to put away thousands of activists and dissidents to spend years in jail before their trials even begin. Of the 16 arrested, only two were granted bail; Stan Swamy was not fortunate enough despite his repeated pleas.

Subsequently, in July of 2021, Arsenal Consulting, a U.S.-based forensic firm, examined the allegedly incriminating contents found in the personal computers of two activists. Arsenal asserted that the contents were planted through spyware months before the accused were arrested. Authorities dismissed the findings as unsubstantiated citing sources of their own forensic investigation. Oddly, however, the planting of Israel-made spyware named Pegasus into the electronic devices of activists, political opposition figures, and journalists has only reemerged in January following a New York Times investigation.

While one would expect such abuse of executive power and squelching of dissent to result in significant protests, that has not been the case. Indians have generally been unaffected by the events as the government carefully constructs a narrative of jingoism, religious polarization, and the ever-chasing days of prosperity, popularly termed by Modi as “Acche Din” (Prosperous Days).

Thanks to the incompetence of India’s mainstream media and its partisan support for the current government, sensation has prevailed over sense while major socio-economic woes remain absent from the public discourse. According to a media watchdog report from 2019, out of 202 primetime debates on television, 115 were on the military offensive against Pakistan and praising the prime minister. Meanwhile, the devastating floods in Bihar State that year were debated on 3 occasions.

Rubbing shoulders with the BJP’s top-level politicians and corporate lobbyists have given the media elites unprecedented access to wealth and power. The BJP government spent over $227,624 on advertising in print and electronic media between 2018 and 2021. In a country where the government is the single largest advertiser and source of revenue for mainstream media, such relationships come with strings attached. Blatant peddling of false narrative at the expense of minorities, and fomenting war hysteria against neighboring Pakistan have become the norm. The state is so dire that the “fourth pillar of democracy” has widely been termed as “Godi Media” (lapdog media) for its unashamed parochial attitude.

Such a credibility crisis of Indian journalism was further amplified when the country went through its worst waves of COVID-19. The steady denial of the health catastrophe by the state, arbitrary arrest of journalists, and gag-orders on hospitals defined the new age of press freedom in Modi’s India.

What otherwise could have been brushed off as a mere coincidence, the chronology of certain events involving a former Chief Justice sparks questions on the executive branch’s interference over the Indian judiciary throughout Modi’s tenure. In April of 2019, following an accusation of sexual harassment against the-then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, he was acquitted of all charges. Meanwhile, the victim was sacked from her employment at the apex court only to be reinstated shortly thereafter.

However, the Chief Justice decided to preside over the bench even though the charges being heard were against him. Strangely, Gogoi also headed the landmark judgment on the much-disputed case of the Ayodhya site which both Hindus and Muslims have claimed ownership of. Gogoi was additionally part of the bench that directed the implementation of the widely controversial National Register of Citizens which carried a high political stake for the BJP. Four months after his retirement, in an unprecedented move, Gogoi was nominated as a member in parliament’s upper house in March of 2020. While the government has defended the decision and Gogoi has categorically denied the appointment as quid pro quo, such encounters over the years have gravely undermined the public trust in India’s judicial system.

For decades, India has served as the epitome of peaceful democratic transition for its political maturity and the direct representation of people in legislative processes. But the world’s largest democracy is slowly sliding into a state of majoritarianism. Modi’s ethnoreligious style of rule has thrived on populism and a blatant invocation of Hindu symbols undercutting India’s image as a secular state. Over the years, all pillars of a healthy democracy have been maliciously weakened while the real concerns of most Indians who remain poor and underprivileged have taken a backseat. It’s time for humane issues of livelihood, health, and employment to take over the public space which hitherto has been saturated by a deceptively crafted mystic image of the prime minister.

Manas Nag is an intelligence analyst based in Singapore. He holds a Master of Science degree in International Political Economy from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore.