Weekly Letter to the President
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INAUGURATION, January 20, 2009
Drunk in its stale air
For two hundred years.
Fettered in mind and body,
The soul, the safe escape
To let me breathe the cries
Of my heart singing
Tears of mel-an-choly.
The tears flow free today
Washing the stains of blood
And sweat in brotherhood.
Raise the curtain then an'
Let the world look in
On this promised land --
We breathe free today.... almost.
--- Arshad M. Khan
We will be known forever by the tracks we leave.
--- Native American proverb
March 5, 2021
Mr. President: Under Narendra Modi's virulent Hindu nationalist leadership, India has
lost another prize: it is no longer designated as 'Free' in the latest Freedom House
freedom report. Based on civil liberties and political rights, the country rankings are
published annually, and India's new classification is "Partly Free' like arch rival
Suffering a progressive decline since Modi took over, India barely made the cut-off
last year scoring 71. For comparison, a country like Canada scores 98, the UK 93
and the US only 83. Norway, Sweden and Finland are the only three countries with a
perfect score of 100.
If China under Xi Jinping is grasping for top economic status, living there is no
panacea according to the Freedom House report. It is one of a very few countries
given a negative for political rights and only 11 for civil liberties scoring a total of 9.
Yes, that's a single digit and close to countries like Saudi Arabia 7 and Tajikistan 8.
India, however, considers itself a democracy, so what has happened there? The
answer of course is that Modi happened, and Yogi Adityanath, an extreme right-wing
nationalist appointed by Modi to run India's most populous state, happened. Then
discriminating laws and laws curbing dissent happened.
There is also the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which excludes Muslims from its
benefits and the associated National Register of Citizens (NRC) which penalizes and
requires proof of citizenship, again targeting the vulnerable. Critics call it an act with
the potential to rob India's 200 million Muslims of their nationality.
Political parties other than the ruling BJP say that they will not implement the acts in
the Indian states where they run the provincial governments. The central government
contends they must, setting the stage for a lawsuit.
In the enduring Kashmir problem, Kashmiris who are predominantly Muslim are fully
aware of their status in an India that now seeks to unify Kashmir with India without
their consent and with their status as citizens subect to social inequity. If citizenship is
a sense of belonging, in Modi's India it appears to cohere specifically around a Hindu
identity -- Muslims, Sikhs, Christians and Parsis need not apply ... unless they are
willing to be second-class citizens.
Consider the case of a Muslim primary school teacher, Farida Begum, charged with
sedition and jailed awaiting trial. She and her students put on a school play about the
CAA and NRC, the latter requiring proof of citizenship and the former marginalizing
Muslims by exclusion. In the play, a woman complains how a boy who was selling tea
(a reference to Mr. Modi's tea shop from his early days) is now demanding documents
and how she might have to dig up the graves of ancestors to find them. The teacher
and the mother of the play's lead have been charged with sedition -- sedition with
9-year old girls might appear to be risible but apparently not in Modi's India.
In this India of a tea-seller from Gujarat with ridiculous sedition laws and blatantly
discriminatory citizenship acts, it is a natural consequence that Freedom House (a
respected think tank with a history going back to 1941) in its latest annual report
should no longer classify it as a free country, for it is not.