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Recent estimates suggest that India has now overtaken China in population size, but where the world’s most populated country should be a beacon of democracy, the opposite may be true.
Under Narendra Modi, the press is being strangled; the judiciary is no longer independent; and protesters are thrown in jail. You can read more about this in our forthcoming Spring 2023 issue, where our Special Report focuses on the state of free expression in Modi’s India.
In the meantime, here is a quiz to get a flavour of what to expect.
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As India becomes the world’s largest nation it should be the world’s largest democracy. But was India ever a real democracy? If it was, how is it being threatened under current leader Narendra Modi? And what does the word democracy even mean?
In its 76th year since independence India will go to the polls next year. Modi is hugely popular and is tipped to win. But under his leadership the press, once vibrant, is being strangled, the judiciary is no longer independent, laws have been amended to throw protestors in jail, opposition figures are harassed, and minorities live in fear. While the global attention is focused elsewhere, Indians are fighting to protect their human and civil rights.
What can be done to protect the rights of minorities in India? What will Modi’s priorities be ahead of the 2024 elections? And crucially just how resilient is Indian democracy and is it open to everyone? The newest edition of Index on Censorship magazine explores these questions as we examine the role of free expression in contemporary Indian society. To launch the issue join us for an animated online panel discussion about past, present and future challenges to India’s democracy.
Meet the speakers
Salil Tripathi is an award-winning journalist born in Bombay and living in New York. He has written three works of non-fiction – Offence: The Hindu Case, about Hindu nationalist attacks on free expression, The Colonel Who Would Not Repent, about the war of independence in Bangladesh, and a collection of travel essays. He is writing a book on Gujaratis. More recently, he co-edited (with the artist Shilpa Gupta) an anthology honouring imprisoned poets over the centuries. He has been a correspondent in India and Southeast Asia. He was chair of the Writers in Prison Committee at PEN International and is now a member of its international board. He has studied in India and the United States and lived in the UK.
Dr Maya Tudor is an Associate Professor of Politics and Public Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at the University of Oxford. She researches the origins of effective and democratic states with a regional focus on South Asia. She is the author of two books, The Promise of Power: The Origins of Democracy in India and Autocracy in Pakistan (2013) and Varieties of Nationalism (with Harris Mylonas, 2023 Forthcoming). She writes for the media on a regular basis, including in Foreign Affairs, Washington Post, New Statesman, The Hindu, India Express, and The Scotsman.
Hanan Zaffar is a journalist and film maker based in South Asia. He reports on Indian minorities and politics. His work has appeared in Time Magazine, VICE, Al Jazeera, DW News, Newsweek, TRT World, Channel 4, Middle East Eye, The Diplomat, and other notable media outlets.
Jemimah Steinfeld is editor-in-chief at Index on Censorship. She has lived and worked in both Shanghai and Beijing where she has written on a wide range of topics, with a particular focus on youth culture, gender and censorship.
India is currently witnessing one of its longest and largest ever expressions of dissent. Farmers – protesting three laws passed in September by the central government – have been camping at the borders of the national capital since 26 November last year, challenging the powers in New Delhi.
The protests would seem, on the surface, to show that India is functioning as a democracy with the freedom of individuals to protest. It is therefore ironic that at least seven journalists have been booked for reporting on the events that have transpired during the clashes between police and authorities.
On 29 January , six prominent journalists – Rajdeep Sardesai, Mrinal Pande, Zafar Agha, Vinod Jose, Paresh Nath and Anant Nath – were booked by Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh police under charges of sedition, criminal conspiracy and promoting enmity.
A day later, freelance journalist Mandeep Punia, who was on a project for The Caravan magazine, was detained by the Delhi police, a few hours after he went live on Facebook and reported on how stones were pelted at the farmers at Singhu border, even as security personnel looked on. He has since been granted bail.
Based on eyewitness testimony during a rally by the protesting farmers on Republic Day, 26 January, when India celebrates the 1950 entry into force of its Constitution, The Caravan reported that a man was killed after being shot by the Delhi police. Sardesai, Pande and Agha’s tweets echoed the testimony.
Police have vehemently denied shooting the farmer, which they claim is backed up by an autopsy report. However, the man’s family has refused to accept the Delhi police’s claim. “The doctor even told me that even though he had seen the bullet injury, he can do nothing as his hands are tied,” the farmer’s grandfather told Indian news website The Wire.
Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, was booked by the Uttar Pradesh police for tweeting the police report of the incident.
While the controversy around the farmer’s death is far from settled, the government’s decision to go after these journalists is only the latest episode of its effort to gag the voices that have dared to question it.
The question arises, why would the central government of the largest democracy in the world choose to take these steps? This was answered by the secretary general of the Press Club of India during a meeting organised to protest the intimidation of journalists covering the protests.
“The government is sending a message that while on paper we’re a democracy, we are behaving like several undemocratic states of the world,” Anand Kumar Sahay said.
The statement encompasses almost everything that journalists in India, who are not toeing the line yet, deal with as they try to speak truth to powerful authorities. India lies 142nd on Reporters Without Borders’ world press freedom rankings.
RSF says: “Ever since the general elections in the spring of 2019, won overwhelmingly by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, pressure on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line has increased.”
That a large number of journalists are being booked, arrested or assaulted for doing their job just around these farmers’ protest tells a worrying story. A more thorough examination of the cases, with focus on the organisations that these journalists represent and the ideology that they support, will show whether Modi is targeting just the critical media or journalism as a whole.
There are also more covert ways in which the far-right party that governs the Indian state has told news establishments to not speak out against them if they want to preserve their business.
The mainstream news organisations in the country typically function on an advertisement-based revenue model. While this has helped in keeping the cost of the national dailies low, it has also made them dependent on large corporations and the government, the two biggest advertisers in newspapers.
As expected, the government has not missed the opportunity to milk this dependency and has led many media organisations to indulge in self-censorship and push the government agenda forward, particularly during the Covid pandemic when government advertising has increased.
While there is ample evidence of censorship by the Indian government on independent news websites like Newslaundry, it was also hinted at by the Modi in an interview with prominent English daily The Indian Express, in the run-up to Assembly Elections 2019.
In the article, Modi talks about the PM-KISAN income support or ‘dole’ scheme for farmers and compares this with payments received by other sectors from the government, such as publishing.
“I give advertisements to the Indian Express. It doesn’t benefit me, but is it a dole? Advertisements to newspapers may fit into a description of dole,” Modi said.
Media organisations are therefore on a warning by the government.
The close government scrutiny had also become clear back in 2018, when anchor Punya Prasun Bajpai was forced out from ABP News.
In a detailed account of the reasons behind his departure, Bajpai described how the channel’s proprietor had told him to avoid mentioning Modi’s name in the context of any criticism of the government.
Bajpai also described a 200-member monitoring team that was involved in observing news channels resulting in directives that would be sent to editors about what should be showed and how.
These “commandments”, which were reserved for TV news and large national dailies until 2019, have now reached the digital versions of these conventional news organisations. The only journalistic outfits who have dared to critically examine this government’s rule operate as digital platforms. The government is thus looking to “regulate” their work as well.
Censorship of content that is consumed by millions has not existed before on this scale.
But it has now permeated the Indian media to such an extent that freshers starting work in media are being told to “ride the tide” and “reserve their optimism” for when the political environment is less volatile.
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”114499″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]A year ago, on 5th August, Narendra Modi’s government in India unilaterally changed the status of the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir, revoking most of Article 370 which had given the region a level of autonomy and protection for 65 years. This single action has led to a year-long lockdown and curtailing of nearly every human right for the people of Jammu and Kashmir. The internet was switched off, phone lines were turned off, public gatherings were banned including for prayer, a curfew was instigated and the Indian army was deployed in significant numbers.
The situation on the ground has been devastating and it’s been almost impossible to get information to the Kashmiri diaspora about whether their friends and families are safe. For 213 days, you could not access the internet. And only after an international outcry were the approximately 300 journalists working in Kashmir given access to the internet via just a handful of official computers (in Srinagar, for example, CNN reported that the city’s journalists had to queue for hours to use just one of four computers with an internet connection for less than 15 minutes). Local media has been significantly restricted with huge pressure being placed on media outlets to only print the government line. The situation worsened just weeks ago, when the Indian government introduced a new media policy which has basically given carte blanche to the government to take action against any journalist or media organisation who operate in Kashmir if they don’t like what’s published.
Even in these circumstances journalists have remained in post, adamant to report on what is happening on the ground and the impact on the community – how people are surviving under such harsh circumstances. They have gone to extreme lengths to get news out, such as travelling to Delhi to access the internet. One Kashmiri journalist, Bilal Hussain, revealed in a recent interview with Index that in order to get video interviews to his editor in Paris, he would put them on a memory stick and give them to a friend who was travelling to the USA, and he sent it on from there.
These journalists did what only journalists can do, they shined a light where there was only darkness. They exposed the actions of a government that had moved against its citizens and they tried to tell the world.
This has not been without a huge personal cost though. Journalists have been harassed and in at least three cases arrested by the Indian authorities for doing their job. Masrat Zahra, a freelance photojournalist, Peerzada Ashiq from the Hindu newspaper and Gowhar Geelani, a renowned author and journalist, have all been arrested for crimes related to their journalism.
These journalists, these people, represent the front line in the fight for free speech. Their work, covering one of the most contentious areas of the world, ensures that the actions of government are not without consequence. They have made sure that the world knows and they have given hope to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. It’s our job to make sure that they do not stand alone and we won’t let them down.
The Autumn issue of Index has a dispatch from Kashmir about the challenges of working in the region as a journalist. Click here for information on how to read the magazine. [/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_btn title=”DONATE” color=”danger” link=”url:https%3A%2F%2Fwww.indexoncensorship.org%2Fdonate||target:%20_blank|”][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][/vc_column][/vc_row]