Discovering democracy in America

  • P. Chidambram, M.P.

Althing, 48 km East of Reykjavik, Iceland, is believed to be the seat of the oldest Parliament in the world (c. 930). Iceland is rich, but humble, and is a democratic country. Not all countries with a Parliament are democracies. Examples of this kind are well known.

India has a Parliament but there are, increasingly, questions whether India is truly a democracy. It was therefore reassuring to hear the Honourable Prime Minister declare on his recent visit to the United States that India “is a democracy”. He uttered the word ‘democracy’ 14 times in his address to the joint session of the US Congress. News reports say that he ‘pushed back’ at a question on minority rights and free speech from a reporter at the White House.

Ms. Sabrina Siddique, WSJ reporter, was lucky that she was allowed to ask a question - a privilege that has been denied to journalists in India during the last nine years. The Prime Minister’s answer (as translated) was surprisingly long and detailed:

“Q. …what steps are you and your government willing to take to improve the rights of Muslims and other minorities in your country and uphold free speech? “A. I’m actually really surprised that people say so. And so, people don’t say it. Indeed, India is a democracy.” And the Prime Minister asserted, “There is no question of discrimination on the ground of caste and religion.” There are 203 million Muslims (14.2 per cent of the population), 33 million Christians (2.3 per cent), 24 million Sikhs (1.7 per cent) and other minorities in India. Are they discriminated against is a question that must be put to them. Here are some facts that will help you find an answer:

On Religious Discrimination

• In the 79-strong Council of Ministers, there is no Muslim, one Christian and one Sikh, though the BJP has 395 MPs in the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha. • The BJP fielded only 6 Muslim candidates in the Lok Sabha election in 2019   three in Jammu & Kashmir, two in West Bengal and one in Lakshadweep and all of them lost. • Consequently, Muslims constitute only 4.42 per cent of the strength of the Lok Sabha, though Muslims constitute about 14.2 per cent of the population. • In the last elections to the respective state assembly in Uttar Pradesh (403 seats), Gujarat (182) and Karnataka (224), the BJP did not field a single Muslim candidate in the three states. • Of the 34 judges of the Supreme Court, currently, there is one Muslim, one Parsi and no Christian or Sikh. The whisper is ‘one is representative enough’. • In May 2019, Jammu & Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India, was dismembered and its status was reduced to a Union Territory. • The Citizenship (Amendment) Act is discriminatory against Muslims from neighbouring countries. It also excludes migrants who are Buddhists and Christians from Nepal and migrants of any religion from Sri Lanka and Myanmar. • Controversies were ignited on hijab, halal, aazaan and prayers by Muslims on public grounds on the eve of the elections in Karnataka by the BJP and its fraternal organisations. • Cow protection and love jihad are campaigns supported by the BJP that target Muslim dairy-owners and traders and Muslim youth. • There were 2,900 incidents of violence between religious communities between 2017 and 2021, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. 28 persons were killed in ‘lynching’ between 2010 and 2017 (24 were Muslims). In 2017, NCRB stopped collecting data on lynching. • According to a special report in Outlook (March 13, 2023), Christians in India continue to face targeted attacks on their faith, including threats to Christian gatherings, churches and educational institutions. • The US Report on International Religious Freedom, 2022 (May 15, 2023) said that religious freedom in India had worsened. The 49-page report cited examples of cases where minorities were targeted and attacked. • India’s rank slipped from 100 in 2022 to 108 in 2023 in the Electoral Democracy Index of Norway’s V-Dem Institute. It described India as an ‘electoral autocracy’. • US-based Freedom House downgraded India’s status to ‘partially free’ in its Freedom in the World report. On Freedom of Speech • In December 2022, there were 7 journalists in jail; of them 5 were Muslims. Two were released on bail after 14 months (Mr Manan Dar) and 2 years (Mr Siddique Kappan), respectively. • People have been arrested for criticising the Prime Minister and Chief Ministers. Example: five men were arrested for the crime of putting up a hoarding that showed Mr Modi offering a cooking gas cylinder priced at Rs 1,105. • Mr Mohammad Zubair, co-founder of Alt News, a fact-checking website, was arrested on a complaint by a person who alleged that Mr Zubair had called some Hindu monks ‘hatemongers’ and had hurt his religious sentiments. New charges were added for old tweets. Finally, the Supreme Court consolidated the FIRs and granted Mr Zubair bail in all cases including future FIRs. • According to an international digital rights organisation, Access Now, the world saw 187 shutdowns of the Internet in 2022. India accounted for 84. • In the World Press Freedom Index 2023, India slid to rank 161 out of 180 countries. I wish the Prime Minister will answer questions of journalists in India on religious discrimination and freedom of speech.

Courtesy: The Indian Express