Updated at 9:05 a.m. ET on June 17, 2021.
For most of her life, Gulfisha Fatima showed little interest in anything beyond academics. By late 2019, the 27-year-old Delhi resident had finished her M.B.A. and was getting ready to apply for a Ph.D. Even as a student, she stayed away from activism. “Her world,” her brother Aqil told me, “revolved around books.”
That began to change in December of that year. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had proposed a bill that would alter the country’s citizenship law, effectively barring Muslim refugees in neighboring countries from seeking asylum in India. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) sparked outrage among critics, civil libertarians, and minority-rights activists, who worried that Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would use the potential law to erode the status of India’s 200 million Muslims as well. Before long, women in Muslim-majority northeast Delhi began staging street protests and sit-ins, demonstrations that over the following weeks would balloon to include tens of thousands nationwide.
Fatima did not immediately join the protests in Seelampur, the Delhi neighborhood where her family lived. But as the month progressed, Aqil said, she began to drop in. “Gulfisha would sit at the site for a bit, see what was going on,” he told me. She watched as protesters drew graffiti, raised placards, and read the Indian constitution aloud. Slowly, she became more interested, at one point putting up a whiteboard and writing out the English, Hindi, and Urdu alphabets to teach the older women protesters, many of whom were illiterate. “Her work was visionary,” Apeksha Priyadarshini, a student activist from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University who was often at the protest sites, told me. “She understood the value of education,” she continued. “She was equipped with a sense of identity and power, which she wanted to share.”
Before long, she was delivering speeches to the assembled crowd. “Our fight, my Hindu brothers and sisters, is not with you,” she said in a February 26 address, a microphone in one hand and a smartphone in the other. “Our fight is with the government—against its ideology, which manufactures Hindu-Muslim riots to win votes.”
She made the speech against the backdrop of Delhi’s worst sectarian riots in decades. On February 23, after a series of hate speeches by BJP leaders, including one by a minister in the Modi government, Anurag Thakur, calling on BJP supporters to “shoot the traitors,” riots broke out in Delhi. Over the course of four days, 53 people were killed, more than 200 were injured, and numerous houses, shops, schools, and factories were looted and burned. Fatima and her family stayed at home until the violence ebbed.
Though the demonstrations continued for a time, growing fears of COVID-19’s spread forced India into a national lockdown, and the protest sites were eventually cleared in late March.
Quiet descended on Delhi. The anti-CAA movement was effectively over. The fallout, however, was still to come. On the morning of April 9, 2020, Aqil got a call from a police constable. His sister had been arrested.
Fatima and 20 others were detained through April, and in September she and 14 others were formally accused of orchestrating the February riots to destabilize the Modi government. Yet the 17,000-page charge sheet was a farce, built on a series of unsigned “confessions,” some of which matched others verbatim. None of the confessions was made in the presence of a magistrate, so they were inadmissible in court. The only thing that linked the group, many of whom had never met one another, was their participation in the anti-CAA protests.
That was more than a year ago, and Fatima remains in prison, yet to face trial. Since the police filed the charge sheets, various courts have castigated them for making “irresponsible” allegations, “total non-application of mind,” and “vindictiveness.”
Fatima’s lawyer, Mehmood Pracha, says the authorities are going after her to set an example for others. That Delhi’s police answer to the national home minister (who is also the BJP president, and the architect of the CAA) only fuels that sentiment. “Gulfisha has not done anything,” Pracha told me “None of these accused has done anything. Zilch.”
In other words, she is being held not for having committed a crime, but for her opposition to government policy—for her political beliefs. India, feted as the world’s largest democracy by the United States and Europe, is detaining Fatima and many others as political prisoners.
The Citizenship Amendment Act marks modern India’s most significant departure from its tradition of secularism, but is only one of many controversial laws being passed by Modi’s government. Just since his reelection in 2019, the government has revoked the historic autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state, and sought to reform the country’s enormous agricultural sector—in both cases without consulting either Kashmiris or farmers.
This high-handedness is part of Modi’s style. In 2016, he gave Indians less than a day’s notice before demonetizing the majority of the country’s high-value banknotes, wreaking havoc on the economy, and similarly announced a stringent nationwide lockdown last year with little warning or safety net for the millions of low-wage laborers who were suddenly unable to go to work.
Throughout, Modi remained popular. That has started to change. Two new surveys show that his approval ratings are dropping. Criticism of his government’s priorities and performance is louder than ever before. Street agitations and social-media outbursts now also feature doctors and businesspeople.
The government’s actions, and its responses to criticism, raise more troubling questions than Modi’s electoral viability does. Cases such as Fatima’s fit a pattern. In recent years, BJP governments at the federal and state levels, as well as investigative agencies under their power, have arrested a range of people so wide—priests, professors, poets, lawyers, journalists, and stand-up comedians among them—as to turn the act of dissent itself into a jailable offense.
Modi’s seven years in power mark the worst period for Indian democracy since the 1970s, when Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, suspending all civil liberties and curtailing the press.
Perhaps most troubling has been this government’s use of India’s anti-terrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, a piece of legislation so harsh that several former judges have voiced concern over it. It enables the state to detain someone without a charge for 180 days, conduct closed-room trials, and produce secret witnesses.
In 2019, it was amended to allow the government to designate any individual a terrorist without them having to face trial, and to enable the National Investigation Agency, the country’s main anti-terror force, to take over inquiries in state and local jurisdictions—a move that critics say allows the national BJP government to intervene in areas where the party is not in power.
The authorities were “distributing UAPA like prasad,” Nodeep Kaur, a labor-rights activist, told me, using the Hindi word for Hindu religious offerings. (Kaur herself was arrested in January for protesting the denial of minimum wages to industrial workers in a BJP-ruled state; she was charged with rioting and attempted murder, though not under the UAPA.)
This autocratic turn is no secret: Sweden’s V-Dem Institute, which studies and rates democracies, this year classified India as an “electoral autocracy.” Its report traces much of the decline of democratic freedoms to the BJP’s initial electoral victory in 2014, and calls out the party’s weaponization of UAPA. Last year, the Economist Intelligence Unit, a research firm linked to the magazine, lowered India’s ranking by two places in its Democracy Index, attributing the decline to “democratic backsliding” and “crackdowns” on civil liberties.
Yet this year alone, Modi has either attended or been invited to meetings by the United States, the European Council, the World Economic Forum, and the G7 summit, being held this weekend in Britain. At these gated clubs of democracies, he has spoken about how to channel technology, combat climate change, and beat the coronavirus pandemic. (India has been badly hit by COVID-19 and is still grappling with a brutal, albeit lessening, wave.) Modi’s ministers have mocked the reports of their attacks on democracy: Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said in March, for example, that the criticism comes from “a set of self-appointed custodians of the world, who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game they want to be played.”
The bottom line: India knows it does not have any real reason to worry about international censure of the kind that trails similarly threatened democracies, such as Hungary and Turkey.
“The fact of the matter is that the United States, and much of the West, has made a long-term strategic bet that India will provide a democratic counterweight to an authoritarian China,” Milan Vaishnav, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., told me. Yet, he continued, India “possesses many of the trappings of electoral democracy, while democracy between elections atrophies.”
The case against Fatima is remarkable not for its novelty, but for its ostentatious frailty: The Delhi police’s charge sheet accuses her of “a conspiracy,” but fails to establish any links between anti-CAA protesters, such as Fatima, and the February riots. In theory, Fatima should have been released long ago. That she is still being held, more than a year after her arrest, points to the flaws of India’s justice system.
For instance, once arrested, dissidents cannot depend on timely trials (as the cases involving Fatima and others illustrate) or impartial investigations. In one incident, an independent American cyberforensics firm called Arsenal Consulting found this year that a hacker had planted incriminating evidence on the laptop of an activist accused of coordinating with an armed group. Mark Spencer, Arsenal’s president, said the effort was “very organized” and “extremely dark” in its intent.
(The Delhi police’s Special Cell, which is investigating the riot-conspiracy cases, did not respond to multiple telephoned, texted, and e-mailed requests for comment. In a September 2020 statement, the force denied any prejudice on its part, saying the charge sheets were being taken “out of context in order to create a controversy and doubt about the investigation.” Separately, the National Investigation Agency did not respond to my requests for an interview, but in an affidavit filed with the Bombay High Court, it denied hacking the activist’s laptop.)
Incredibly, the fact that India is going through renewed pandemic difficulties does not affect bail from its horrifically overcrowded prisons. Under the UAPA, bail is granted only in extraordinary circumstances. Yet multiple detainees, held on spurious charges, have contracted COVID-19 and been kept in prison. In May, the Bombay High Court denied bail to Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest and activist who campaigned to strengthen rights for India’s tribal communities, but who had been arrested and charged with having Maoist links. The 84-year-old, who has Parkinson’s disease, told the court that he was going through “a very difficult moment” in jail. The court sent him to a private hospital where, days later, he tested positive for COVID-19. The same month, Siddique Kappan, a journalist, was returned to jail from a Delhi hospital where he’d been treated for COVID-19, before having fully recovered. He had been detained while en route to report on a provincial BJP government’s alleged cover-up of a lower-caste teenager’s rape and murder. The police accused him of working for the Popular Front of India, a controversial Islamic organization, and using “the garb of journalism” to incite caste-based riots, but haven’t yet provided any proof of his involvement with the PFI, and didn’t allow him to meet his lawyer until India’s Supreme Court intervened. He has been charged under the UAPA anyway.
When Fatima completed a year in prison, this past April, dozens of activists came together on a Zoom call to mark the day. One of them, Anuradha Banerji, described Fatima’s evolution at the protest sites, from just helping out to exhorting fellow demonstrators to chant slogans. Others, some of whom have never met Fatima but see in her situation symptoms of a deeper malaise, still go to court whenever a hearing is called in her case. “She smiles, then she walks peacefully into the court—it is a signal to us that she is okay,” Nabiya Khan, a recent graduate of Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University and one of the regular court attendees, told me.* “Her parents start crying every time she disappears from view, but she says, ‘Ammi main theek hoon bilkul’ (‘Mom, I am all right’), before going in. They wave at her; she waves back at them.”
Aqil can’t bring himself to go to court, but has seen his sister on the occasional video call she is allowed with family—COVID-19 has meant that physical meetings are no longer permitted. “She doesn’t talk that much about herself,” he told me. “She wants to know how things are at home. She never asks about what’s going on in the outside world.” He said they never talk about her case on these supervised calls, partly because he is certain she will be free soon.
“We would only worry if she had done anything wrong,” Aqil said. “How long can anyone keep an innocent person in jail?”
* This article previously misstated that Nabiya Khan is a student at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In fact, she is a recent graduate of Jamia Millia Islamia University.