The walls are closing in on India’s democracy

Ashraf Engineer

December 23, 2023


Hello and welcome to All Indians Matter. I am Ashraf Engineer.

As the Opposition raised questions about the recent security breach in Parliament, the government chose to suspend nearly 150 MPs from the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha. Congress leader Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, one of the suspended MPs, said: “This government has reached the apex of dictatorship. They have the majority and they are wielding the stick of power. They want to run Parliament like a party office. But that cannot happen. We were eager for a discussion. The productivity of Parliament before December 13 is for all to see. It seems they find it easier to talk to the media, but are scared to speak in Parliament.” A fair and transparent political system is the lifeblood of any democracy, but it’s been clear for a long time now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party doesn’t believe in it. Instead, it uses state agencies to intimidate and silence the Opposition as well as its critics. India’s democracy has been under threat since 2014 and, as another general election approaches, it’s increasingly clear that the threat has never been more grave.


The suspension of the MPs for raising a legitimate issue is hardly the first time the Modi government has acted in a dictatorial manner. Not too long ago, it had Congress leader Rahul Gandhi removed from Parliament after a defamation case. Later, it removed firebrand MP Mahua Moitra for allegedly breaching rules. Both, Gandhi and Moitra, have been among the government’s most vocal critics.

In Gandhi’s case, Modi probably hoped the Congress leader would be prohibited from contesting the general election next year but the Supreme Court suspended the lower court’s judgment.

It seems that anyone questioning the regime will face some sort of action, from Enforcement Directorate raids to sedition charges. For instance, student activist Umar Khalid is still behind bars, his bail hearing being postponed repeatedly.

Those who are put in jail are often denied even basic amenities. Who can forget the plight of Father Stan Swamy, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease. He was denied even a sipper for his cup of water and he died in detention.

The media, too, has faced unusual wrath on the few occasions it hasn’t toed the line. According to the Reporters Without Borders’ Press Freedom Index, India ranks 161 out of 180 countries assessed. The organisation stated: “The violence against journalists, the politically partisan media and the concentration of media ownership all demonstrate that press freedom is in crisis in ‘the world’s largest democracy’, ruled since 2014 by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

The favourite tool to quash dissent has been draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, better known as UAPA, through which the government can designate absolutely anyone a terrorist.

Among the well-known instances was what came to be known as the Bhima Koregaon Case. In January 2018, Maharashtra’s Bhima Koregaon village hosted the annual gathering of Dalits to commemorate a military victory against high-caste rulers more than 200 years ago. Many activists were detained under UAPA after that for “promoting enmity between groups” and abetting terrorism. Among them were 79-year-old left-wing poet Varavara Rao, lawyer Arun Ferreira, trade union leader Sudha Bharadwaj and human rights activist Gautam Navlakha. Unlikely as they were to be involved in terrorism, the local police then claimed that there was a plot to assassinate Modi.

Another instance of such a draconian approach was the targeting of politicians, professors, and activists after the New Delhi riots in 2020. Among them were economics professor from Jawaharlal Nehru University Jayati Ghosh, general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Sitaram Yechury, pollster Yogendra Yadav and documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy. They were accused of a conspiracy to provoke the communal riots.

In fact, the riots had their roots in Modi’s Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens. The CAA enabled Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jains and Sikhs from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan to obtain fast-track citizenship of India. But, it left out Muslims. The NRC, meanwhile, threatened to strip millions of Muslims of their citizenship.

The protests were by and large peaceful. Later, there emerged evidence that mobs affiliated with the Sangh Parivar had attacked the demonstrators and used that as a cover to attack Muslim neighbourhoods. Shockingly, the New Delhi police, controlled by the Union Home Ministry, supported the rioters or looked on. Later, several Muslims were arrested for the disturbances.

This is all part of the Hindu supremacist approach of the Sangh Parivar, of which the BJP is part. And its so-called project spans everything, from institutional capture to the revision of history itself.

So, Mughal history is being erased from schoolbooks and the décor in the new Parliament building  includes a giant map of ‘Akhand Bharat’.

The building itself was inaugurated on the birth anniversary of Vinayak Savarkar, who is credited with starting the Hindu supremacist movement. Nathuram Godse, who murdered Mahatma Gandhi, was a devotee of Savarkar. Savarkar and his followers did not support the freedom struggle and their ideological descendants resent that India has a secular Constitution.

They resent also the social sector which has stood up to the bullying. Non-governmental organisations have faced the consequences of their criticism of the government. Their offices have been raided and their funding has been blocked. In 2020, human rights organisation Amnesty International was forced to shut operations in India after raids on its offices and the freezing of its bank accounts. In 2022, Oxfam India’s computers and the staff’s phones were seized after it was accused of facilitating foreign interference in India.

Oxfam’s operating licence was not renewed, a fate faced by more than 6,000 other foreign and domestic NGOs. Even environmental organisation Greenpeace’s operating licence was cancelled for being “anti-development”.

The Centre for Policy Research, a public policy think tank, was raided and its operating licence cancelled in March 2023. About 100 international researchers and scholars then wrote an open letter highlighting the danger of such actions.

The Missionaries of Charity, founded by Mother Teresa, was also denied a renewal of its licence in 2021. Only an international outcry forced the government to backtrack.

As for minorities, Muslims are now lynched with impunity and in many cases the killers are celebrated. Bilkis Bano’s rapists have been freed, and Hindu supremacist mobs frequently attack mosques and play hate music around them.

No wonder then that, in a Financial Times podcast, Stanford scholar Larry Diamond said India is no longer a democracy and that the US was enabling the Modi government’s excesses by not putting pressure on it to stop.

There seems to be no end to the government’s suppress-and-hide approach. If the consumption data shows it in a bad light, hide it. If someone criticises you, suppress that voice.

Every generation of Indians has faced a crisis of some sort. I was born in 1975 and the main crisis was an economic one. The 1991 reforms were transformative on that front. Today’s generation is staring at an existential crisis for the nation’s democracy. India had an opportunity to lead the world in democratic thought, to have a truly free society, but that window is shutting fast.

Thank you all for listening. Please visit for more columns and audio podcasts. You can follow me on Twitter at @AshrafEngineer and @AllIndiansCount. Search for the All Indians Matter page on Facebook. On Instagram, the handle is @AllIndiansMatter. Email me at Catch you again soon.