Home Politics In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel squeezed before elections

In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel squeezed before elections

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In Modi's India, opponents and journalists feel squeezed before elections

NEW DELHI – Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are increasingly employing strong-arm tactics to subdue political opponents and critics of the ruling Hindu nationalist party ahead of national elections that begin this week.

A decade in power, and on the verge of securing five more, the Modi government is reversing India’s decades-long commitment to multiparty democracy and secularism.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials of its main rival, the Congress Party, but few convictions. Dozens of politicians from other opposition parties are under investigation or jailed. And just last month, the Modi government froze the Congress Party’s bank accounts for what it said was non-payment of taxes.

The Modi administration says the country’s investigative agencies are independent and its democratic institutions are strong, pointing to high voter turnout in recent elections that have given Modi’s party a clear mandate.

However, civil liberties are under attack. Peaceful protests have been forcefully repressed. A once free and diverse press is under threat. Violence against the Muslim minority is on the rise. And the country’s judiciary is increasingly aligned with the executive branch.

To better understand how Modi is reshaping India and what is at stake in an election that begins Friday and runs through June 1, The Associated Press spoke with a lawyer, a journalist and an opposition politician.

Here are their stories:


Mihir Desai has fought for civil liberties and human rights for India’s most disadvantaged communities, such as the poor and Muslims, for almost four decades.

The 65-year-old lawyer from Mumbai, India’s financial capital, is now working on one of his (and the country’s) most notorious cases: defending a dozen political activists, journalists and lawyers jailed in 2018 on charges of conspiring. to overthrow Modi. government. The accusations, he says, are baseless and are just one of the government’s all-too-frequent and audacious efforts to silence critics.

One of the defendants in the case, a Jesuit priest and longtime civil rights activist, died at age 84 after about nine months in custody. The other defendants remain in prison, charged under anti-terrorism laws that rarely result in convictions.

“The early authorities came up with the theory that they were planning to kill Modi. Now they are accused of being sympathizers of terrorism,” he stated.

Desai believes the point of all this is to send a message to potential critics.

According to US-based digital forensics experts at Arsenal Consulting, the Indian government hacked into the computers of some of the accused and planted files that were later used as evidence against them.

For Desai, this is proof that the Modi government has “weaponized” the country’s once independent investigation agencies.

He sees threats to Indian democracy all around him. Last year, the government removed the country’s chief justice as one of three people who appoint commissioners who oversee elections; Modi and the leader of the opposition in parliament are the others. Now, one of Modi’s cabinet ministers has a vote in the process, giving the ruling party a 2-to-1 majority.

“It is a death knell for free and fair elections,” Desai said.


Waheed-Ur-Rehman Para, 35, was long seen as an ally of the Indian government’s interests in Kashmir. He worked with young people in the semi-autonomous, Muslim-majority region and preached to them about the benefits of embracing India and its democratic institutions, versus seeking independence or a merger with Pakistan.

However, as of 2018, the Modi government viewed Para with suspicion for alleged connections with anti-India separatists. Since then, he has been jailed twice: in 2019 on suspicion that he and other political opponents could stoke unrest; and in 2020, accused of supporting militant groups, charges he denies.

The allegations surprised Para, whose People’s Democratic Party once ruled Kashmir in alliance with Modi’s party.

But he believes the motivation was clear: “I was arrested to forcibly support the government’s 2019 decision,” he said, referring to the crackdown on resistance in Kashmir following the removal of the region’s semi-autonomous status.

The Modi administration maintains the move was necessary to fully integrate the disputed region with India and foster economic development there.

After his arrest in 2020, Para remained in prison for almost two years, often in solitary confinement, and was subjected to “abusive interrogations,” according to UN experts.

“My crime was wanting the integration of Kashmir, not through the barrel of a gun,” said Para, who is seeking to represent Kashmir’s main city in the upcoming elections.

Para views his own situation within the broader context of the Modi government’s effort to silence perceived opponents, especially those with ties to Muslims, who make up 14% of India’s population.

“It is a huge ethical question… that the largest democracy in the world is not capable of assimilating or offering dignity to the smallest pocket of its people,” he said.

The campaign to turn once secular India into a Hindu republic may help Modi win elections in the short term, Para said, but something much bigger will be lost.

“It puts the whole idea of ​​diversity in this country at risk,” he said.


In October 2020, freelance journalist Sidhique Kappan was arrested while trying to report on a government crackdown in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, governed by Modi’s party.

For days, authorities had been struggling to contain protests and outcry over a gruesome rape case. Those accused of the crime were four upper-caste Hindu men, while the victim belonged to the Dalit community, the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy.

Kappan, a 44-year-old Muslim, was arrested and imprisoned before even arriving at the crime scene, accused of attempting to incite violence. After two years in prison, his case reached India’s highest court in 2022. While he was quickly granted bail, the case against him continues.

Kappan’s case is not unique and he says it highlights how India is becoming increasingly unsafe for journalists. Under intense pressure from the state, many Indian news organizations have become more flexible and supportive of government policies.

“Those who have tried to be independent have been subjected to relentless attack by the government,” he said.

For example, foreign journalists are prohibited from reporting in Kashmir. The same is true of the northeastern Indian state of Manipur, which has been embroiled in ethnic violence for almost a year.

Television news is increasingly dominated by stations promoting the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda, such as a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim immigrants. Independent television stations have been temporarily closed, and newspapers that publish articles critical of Modi’s agenda find that any government advertising – a major source of revenue – quickly dries up.

Last year, the BBC’s offices in India were raided for tax irregularities just days after it aired a documentary critical of Modi.

The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranks India 161st on a global list of countries’ press freedoms.

Kappan said he has barely been able to report news since his arrest. The trial keeps him busy and requires him to travel to a courthouse hundreds of miles away every two weeks. The time and money required for his trial have made it difficult for him to support his wife and three children, Kappan said.

“It’s affecting their education, their mental health,” he said.

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