As a country are we headed in the direction as aspired for by our freedom fighters?
The multiple strands of Indian Freedom Struggle were premised upon a singularly ambitious ideal comprising national unity and integrity, and a democratic and equitable society. The 'said society' was to be achieved through a social-economic and political revolution pursued with a democratic spirit using constitutional and democratic institutions. For a grand success of India as a fully developed equitable liberal democracy, the enormous feat of constituting citizens had to be achieved alongside – something we are still struggling at and a major challenge in a country riven by race, religion, caste, language and gender biases. The 'Indian Freedom Struggle', aimed at the formation of the 'Republic', envisaged an India with independent institutions, recognised rights for citizens, absence of 'arbitrary' constraints on freedom and a society where the dignity of every individual would be sacrosanct.
An appraisal of Freedom in today's India
An appraisal, after seventy-three years of British withdrawal, of the extent of freedom enjoyed in India, particularly an assessment of the freedoms exercised by its institutions and citizens, does not appear to be promising. Reliance is placed upon the ranking of nations against freedom indices published by independent international institutions, none from India though. However, the assessment of freedom indices is limited to only three consecutive years, i.e., 2018, 2019 and 2020, to enable us to assess the present direction of sway.
Below is a tabular compilation of five indices of freedom – the Liberal Democracy Index (published by V-Dem Institute, University of Gothenburg, Sweden), the World Press Freedom Index (published by Reporters Without Borders, France), the World Index of Moral Freedom (published by the Foundation for Advancement of Liberty, Spain), the Freedom in the World Index (published by Freedom House, USA) and the Index of Economic Freedom (published by The Heritage Foundation, USA).
The data as compiled above highlight a gradual continuing decline in the various freedoms enjoyed by citizens and institutions in India. In fact, the Democracy Report, 2020 as published by V-Dem Institute sounded a death knell for the largest democracy while recording that "India has continued on a path of steep decline, to the extent [that] it has almost lost its status as a democracy," after India slided to rank 90 in 2019 on the Liberal Democracy Index. This is due to the "severely shrinking space for media, civil society and [political] opposition." The report further highlights with alarm that India – a major economy with a sizeable population, exercising substantial global military, economic and political influence – is "amongst the top ten autocratizing countries."
This brings us to the World Press Freedom Index. India has slided four places to 142 in 2020 from 138 in 2018 from amongst 180 nations. While a comparative study reveals that the freedom of press is best guaranteed by the Constitution of India as compared to its immediate neighbours yet Myanmar, Bhutan, Nepal and Sri Lanka have ensured greater practical freedom for their press. India is just three places above Pakistan and nine places above Bangladesh in press freedom. It is equally bewildering to note that media are freer in theological monarchies such as Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait. It can, thus, safely be said that one area in India in which democratic deficit is substantial is the freedom of expression including press freedom.
Decreased press freedom, as is universally accepted, is also a measure of censorship, oppression and autocratization – after all, press is known as the fourth pillar of democracy which is supposed to keep the three other pillars in check.
The status of media freedom closely reflects the status of moral freedoms which a people enjoy – after all moral independence inter alia provides for acceptance of space for another's standard or opinion and moral judgment which is best expressed by the English phrase "agree to disagree." Individual freedom in moral issues is the pre-condition to a peaceful society. As regards India, it was ranked at 42 in the year 2018 on the World Index of Moral Freedoms but nosedived to rank 70 just two years later in the year 2020 which, indeed, is a serious concern.
Next is the Freedom in the World Index which assesses the condition of electoral process, political pluralism and participation, the functioning of the government, freedom of expression and of belief, associational and organizational rights, the rule of law, and personal autonomy and individual rights. Here too, India slipped to rank 83 in 2020 from rank 76 in 2018.
The last index considered herein is the Index of Economic Freedom which analyzes the ability of every human to control his or her labour and property and consequently attain prosperity. It also assesses the ability of the prevailing economic system to propel social-economic achievements. Despite a slide in the rankings on other indices, India recorded a rank improvement in the Index of Economic Freedom from 130 in 2018 to 120 in 2020. However, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic the ranking might not hold for long given that 122 million Indians have already lost jobs due to it.
Let us be reminded, lest we forget the dark years of Emergency wherein the press and other freedoms were mercilessly muzzled. While it then seemed impossible to salvage the sinking ship, India gradually rose to glory over the years to yet again take a dive – an assessment of the rankings against the various indices, as above, indicates a gradual decline in the various freedoms enjoyed by citizens and institutions. It is, at this time, incumbent upon every member of the nation to keep in close touch with each-other and put forth concerted efforts so as to overcome it. What inspires hope is the publication of this assessment: As George Orwell had famously remarked "[i]f liberty is to mean anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear." And might I add to Orwell's, that liberty, in addition, encompasses safeguard from the state's coercive action.
Views are personal only.
(Author is an advocate at the Patna High Court and may be reached at [email protected])