Freedom House (FH) is a U.S.-based think tank that is partly funded by the U.S. government. FH claims that it’s understanding of freedom is not culture-bound, however several academic critics have pointed out that it’s measurement criteria was born in a neoliberal climate, while others have remarked on how countries with friendly political ties with the US are ranked better.
FH measures access to civil liberties (eg: right to privacy, freedom of speech, right to fair trial) and political rights (eg: freedom of association, right to assemble, right to seek legal remedy) in various democracies. These ideas largely stem from a broad understanding of human rights.
FH recently ‘downgraded’ India from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’. Other countries that seem to have dashed the think tank’s hopes by failing to make democratic gains are Hong Kong, Ethiopia, Belarus, Algeria, and Venezuela.
The report seems to diagnose the symptoms of decay in neoliberal democracy alone. It concedes that the pandemic has forced many governments around the world to take on a more authoritarian approach to governance – for instance, many of us surrendered our right to assemble and protest in public spaces despite being in the throes of collective anguish about various new legislations in the country.
However, it fails to identify the role of the internet and other technologies largely developed in the US that have been aggressively globalised and slow to adopt feedback in terms of creating inclusive community guidelines that protect the interests of vulnerable communities online.
The criticisms about FH’s inclination to be a flagbearer of US’s ideals of democracy also seem to be valid: despite consistent reports of systemic voter suppression in parts of the country dominated by black and Native Americans, and several other instances of denying protection or affirmative action for communities of differing racial and ethnic profiles, it seems to have deemed the US a free country.
The fact of the matter remains that India has consistently denied the rights of several communities over the 7-odd decades that it has called itself independent. The caste system, racism, colourism, and cis-heteronormativity dictates our success in public lives as well as in accessing our basic human rights.
Although the authoritarianism of the state has ben notoriously obtrusive in recent times, made even more evident by the public theater of the mainstream media, this is nothing new. The shift in political tools has been fuelled by social media and other technologies that refuse to accept accountability, similar to the trite argument that ‘guns don’t kill people, people do’ that glosses over the culture that made it opportune for gun violence to take root and exacerbate.
In short, yes, the Freedom House thinks India is only partly-free in 2021, and while this may be true, the semantics of our historical freedom are debatable to begin with.