Evidently, raiding news organizations is not a shared challenge. “I couldn’t say,” US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said when asked at his press briefing if the BBC raid violated the spirit of democracy. “I’m just not in a position to offer a judgment.” But others in the U.S. freely offered judgment. India’s raid was “just its latest attack” on the press, the Washington Post said, noting that it came three weeks after the BBC aired a film “drawing attention to Modi’s alleged role in deadly sectarian riots that wracked his home state of Gujarat in 2002.” Calling Modi “notoriously thin-skinned,” the newspaper reported that India had “embarked on an extraordinary campaign” to censor the film by invoking emergency powers, banning the film on social media platforms YouTube and Twitter, and arresting students at one university and cutting power supply to another where the screenings were announced.
The New York-based watchdog, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said “Indian authorities have used tax investigations as a pretext to target critical news outlets before, and must cease harassing BBC employees immediately, in line with the values of freedom that should be espoused in the world’s largest democracy.”
Washington must know that Modi’s “actions to suppress freedom of the press,” as the New York Times Editorial Board wrote in an opinion published hours before the BBC raid, “are undermining India’s proud status as “the world’s largest democracy”.” If America’s most respected newspaper says that Modi has “fallen squarely in the camp [of] populist and authoritarian leaders” whose “alarming hallmark” was “the misuse of their powers to intimidate, censor, silence or punish independent news media,” then the powers-that-be, both in the US executive and legislative branches, need to give a listen.
A million jobs to build airplanes may bring a “more secure and prosperous future” to Americans. But it is unlikely that India’s worsening authoritarianism will improve security and prosperity for its citizens. The West’s deafening silence to India’s years-long attack on press freedom has only served to embolden Modi to escalate his war on the press. Without Western acquiescence, India’s foreign ministry could hardly have described the BBC film as a “propaganda piece” made with a “colonial mindset,” as it menacingly did.
Since Modi came to power in 2014, attacks on free speech have escalated, ranging from persecution of journalists to internet bans in Kashmir, which prompted the New York Times to say that India was “the world leader in shutting down the internet.” Critics of the government often face harassment, prison and even violent death. The CPJ reported that in 2021, India was tied with Mexico for the most journalists killed in a country.
Modi has used raids against independent media outfits in India, targeting The Wire, the Bhaskar Group, Newsclick, and The Quint, which have been critical of his regime. NDTV, one of India’s rare independent television news outlets, was raided and its respected owner-editor, journalist Prannoy Roy, so harassed over years that he sold his stakes to Gautam Adani, a billionaire industrialist close to Modi. Last month, a New York-based researcher exposed Adani as running “the largest con in corporate history.”
Reporters Without Borders, another global watchdog, downgraded India’s Press Freedom Rank from 142nd place to 150th in 2022, putting it behind the authoritarian regimes of Uganda, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, the UAE, Nigeria, and Rwanda. For two years, Washington, DC-based research organization Freedom House has downgraded India’s democracy from “Free” to “Partly Free,” citing “new rules that made it easier for authorities to compel social media platforms to remove unlawful content.”
The US is turning a blind eye to India’s egregious behavior because New Delhi has emerged as a critical ally in its strategy against China. Through Modi’s nine years in power, three US presidents – Obama, Trump, and now Biden – have ignored his escalating war on human rights, free speech and religious freedoms. In 2020, as Hindu mobs aided by Indian police carried out deadly violence against Muslims in New Delhi, barely ten miles away President Trump stood alongside Modi and praised India’s religious freedoms.
The Biden Administration has decided that Modi is a staunch ally and therefore must not be called out. Twice since 2021 has the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected a recommendation from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to sanction India for its persecution of religious minorities. This is a mistake.
Throughout the 1980s, a period when Washington held substantial leverage over Islamabad, it refused to call out the increasing authoritarianism of the Pakistani government. Likewise, although then US President George H.W. Bush issued a public condemnation of the Tiananmen square massacre of 1989, he secretly continued business as usual with the Chinese government. Both China and Pakistan are now hostile to American interests and offer a tremendous threat to a rules-based order.
America’s failure to hold Modi to account for India’s free fall into undemocratic behavior will have significant negative long-term consequences for democracy, not just for India but for the entire world. As the US never stops pointing out, China’s worsening despotism is bad for the world. Imagine, how much worse it will be both in ten years when both India and China, together accounting for nearly one-third of humanity, are rendered dungeons of hell.
The US rightfully took a strong stand against grievous attacks on democratic freedoms in Russia and China, not letting its substantial trade with either country prevent it from denouncing the two countries’ violations of fundamental human rights. To not condemn Modi’s authoritarianism would not only be a moral failing, but a serious miscalculation of our economic and security interests.