On Thursday, the White House announced that it is deploying response teams, composed of officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other federal agencies, to combat the “hypertransmissible” delta variant of the coronavirus spreading across the United States and the world. This variant first emerged in India, where a devastating second wave of virus infections have been accompanied by a parallel epidemic of mucormycosis, or “black fungus,” that is maiming and killing patients.
India’s humanitarian tragedy is linked to a deeper political crisis — that of democratic erosion. At independence from colonial rule, India had relatively low economic development and industrialization, widespread poverty and illiteracy, and immense ethnic diversity across linguistic, religious and caste lines. Leading political science theories argued these conditions made India infertile terrain for democracy. Yet in 1947, India instituted a democratic government and, with the exception of a short time from 1975-77, has remained one.
Up until a few weeks ago, that is. In its influential annual rankings of countries across the world, the U.S.-based democracy watchdog Freedom House downgraded India from a free democracy to a “partially free democracy.” Similarly, the Swedish-based V-Dem Institute demoted the country to an “electoral autocracy.” Both organizations cited the regime’s crackdowns on freedom of speech — and in particular, expressions of dissent — as a key factor driving India’s slide down these indexes.
How are India’s coronavirus crisis and democratic backsliding linked? Here’s what you need to know.
The decline of free speech in the world’s largest democracy
Since assuming power in 2014, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime has consistently and brutally undermined civil liberties, especially freedom of speech. This crackdown has affected journalists, editors, organizers, climate activists, Bollywood actors, cricketers, celebrities, and even ordinary citizens posting on social media.
The BJP has forced editors of prominent newspapers to step down. Police have raided or shut down the offices of media outlets that featured articles challenging the regime’s actions. Physical attacks on journalists have become commonplace. Some have been gunned down in broad daylight outside their homes, earning India a reputation as what the Columbia Journalism Review called “one of the world’s most dangerous countries to be a reporter.” Meanwhile, reporters and media organizations sympathetic to the regime have been protected and supported.
These attacks on freedom of speech harm democracies’ effective functioning. An uncensored public realm enables the open exchange of information; an unencumbered press enables popular accountability. That leaves governments insulated from evidence and accountability, making decisions in isolation.
Silencing critics can be lethal during natural disasters
In their influential 1991 book “Hunger and Public Action,” development economists Jean Drèze and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen explored why India had not endured famine since independence, despite chronic undernourishment and food production difficulties. Under colonial rule, devastating famines were numerous. Sen and Drèze concluded that the key difference since independence has been watchdog journalists whose reporting on early signs of a famine in an uncensored news media aroused public concern and pushed the government to act.
But in March 2020, Prime Minister Narenda Modi’s government petitioned India’s top court to prevent journalists from reporting covid-19 information that the regime had not sanctioned. The Supreme Court denied the petition — but nevertheless directed the media to broadcast “the official version” of covid-19 developments.
Meanwhile, the government has filed charges against and arrested dozens of journalists reporting on the government’s mismanagement of the coronavirus crisis, whether that was about the urban migrant crisis caused by the regime’s abrupt lockdown at the start of the pandemic; dire conditions at quarantine centers; or the shortage of oxygen and other key medical supplies. Following Drèze and Sen’s logic about famines, this quashing of a free press has both prevented the government from accessing accurate information about how the pandemic was unfolding on the ground and reduced its sense of public accountability.
The BJP government extended its power to censor
In February, the government announced controversial new rules covering digital publishing that give officials the power to block stories from being published or to shut down entire websites. In the past few weeks, the government has pressured social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter to remove posts critical of the government. Many posts — including those with the trending hashtag #ResignModi — have disappeared and mysteriously reappeared.
In India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, one man took to Twitter to locate oxygen for an ailing family member, who subsequently died. The police charged him with circulating misinformation “with the intent to cause fear or alarm.”
These attacks on free speech are all the more dangerous because other key democratic watchdog institutions — for example, an active political opposition — are weak.
India has protected the freedom of speech, until now
The freedom of speech, including the right to critique, has been at the core of Indian nationalism, forged during resistance to British colonialism. The Modi regime’s exclusionary Hindu nationalism deviates from that history. Muzzling free speech has been deadly during the pandemic.
Today the scale of the covid-19 crisis that continues to burn across India remains unknown. Experts warn that death tolls are likely many times the official reports. Scientists remain unclear about how well each of the vaccines work against the delta strain. In the United States, concerns about a new surge are growing.
A free press could not have prevented the pandemic. But it could have both provided critical early information about the unfolding second wave of virus infections and put pressure on the government to take action. This would have likely reduced the public health tragedy.
Prerna Singh (@Prof_PSingh) is Mahatma Gandhi associate professor of political science, sociology and public health at Brown University, and the author of “How Solidarity Works for Welfare: Subnationalism and Social Development in India” (Cambridge University Press, 2017).