The World’s Largest Democracy Is Failing

What the attacks against the journalist Rana Ayyub reveal about the state of India’s democracy

A collage featuring Indian journalist Rana Ayyub, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and Indian protesters.
Tania / Contrasto / Redux; Antonio Masiello / Getty; Narinder Nanu / AFP / Getty; Manjunath Kiran / AFP / Getty; The Atlantic

Updated at 9:04 a.m. ET on December 10, 2021

When Joe Biden convened his virtual Summit for Democracy today, Narendra Modi was among the attendees. The Indian prime minister is the steward of the world’s largest democracy. Any conversation about global democratic decline, and what can be done to reverse it, would be incomplete without his participation.

Modi’s involvement in the summit nevertheless looks odd—even awkward—considering the role that he has played in precipitating democratic decline. Since coming to power in 2014, Modi has overseen a steady transformation of India from the secular democracy envisioned by its founders into a majoritarian, Hindu-nationalist state—one that demonizes its minority groups, undermines civil liberties, and crushes dissent. The democracy watchdog Freedom House took this deterioration into account when it downgraded India to a “partly free” country earlier this year. Although some democratic indexes have begun to label India a “flawed democracy,” others no longer consider the country to be a democracy at all.

Democratic backsliding of this kind can often be gradual and multifaceted. Perhaps no one better exemplifies what is happening in India today than Rana Ayyub. The award-winning investigative journalist, author, and bugbear of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has emerged as one of the chief chroniclers of India’s democratic decline in the international press; her work has appeared on the cover of Time and she writes frequent columns for The Washington Post. Ayyub’s journalism has earned her plaudits for resilience and courage, and it has also subjected her to a torrent of online abuse, including doxing and death threats. Recently, she has been charged with numerous criminal complaints that she says are designed to intimidate her into silence.

To her detractors, Ayyub is nothing more than an activist defaming India’s image on the world stage. To her supporters, she is a rare voice speaking truth to power in a media environment prone to self-censorship. But Ayyub represents more than just a bellwether for press freedom in the country. As a journalist, a Muslim, and a vocal critic of the government’s Hindu-nationalist agenda, she represents many of the identities that are no longer tolerated in Modi’s India today. Hers is a story of what her country is becoming, and of what it stands to lose.

To speak with Ayyub is to get a glimpse of what it means to be a journalist in a country that’s in democratic freefall. The world she inhabits is still ostensibly a democracy: India has free and fair elections, independent institutions, and a constitution that safeguards religious freedom and the rights of minority groups. There is a private, albeit embattled, press and a visible, yet divided, political opposition. And despite the fact that the 2019 election gave Modi and his party a commanding parliamentary majority, the prime minister is not beyond political pressure.

But democracy in theory differs from democracy in practice, and beneath this “semblance of democracy,” Ayyub told me, are significant cracks. One of the most prominent emerged in 2019 after the Indian government abruptly revoked the constitutionally enshrined autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir—a move that observers within and outside the country regarded as Modi’s way of usurping power from the country’s only Muslim-majority state. Another came that same year in the form of the Citizenship Amendment Act, which excluded Muslims in neighboring countries from seeking asylum in India, in effect establishing a religious test for citizenship. Perhaps the most visible crack has been in the government’s willingness to suppress dissent, whether through the deployment of police and security forces to quell protests or the intimidation, arrest, and detention of journalists seeking to cover stories that cast Modi or the BJP in a critical light.

Growing up in a Muslim household in Mumbai, Ayyub was long aware of the rising tide of Hindu nationalism. In an interview with Dexter Filkins, who profiled Ayyub for The New Yorker in 2019, she described feeling helpless when, at the age of 9, she and her family had to flee Hindu-Muslim violence that followed Hindu nationalists’ destruction of the historic Babri Mosque. That was the first time she ever really understood her identity as something different, or other, she told Filkins. That communal tension would become central to her work decades later. In 2011, she spent eight months posing as a pro-Modi filmmaker in his home state of Gujarat, in western India, and ensconced herself in Modi’s Hindu-nationalist circle. Her reporting implicated Modi, then the chief minister of the state, and many of his allies of complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots that resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people, the majority of whom were Muslim. (Modi has never been charged in connection with the riots and has expressed “no guilt” over how he dealt with the violence that resulted from them.) At the time, Ayyub was working for the investigative magazine Tehelka, where she had previously published an exposé that culminated in the arrest of Amit Shah, the Gujarat home minister and Modi’s closest adviser, in connection with the murder of a Muslim man by Gujarat police. (The case was ultimately dropped; Shah is now India’s home minister.) But Tehelka wouldn’t publish Ayyub’s latest investigation into Modi, nor would anyone else. “Nobody would, because they were scared of Modi,” Ayyub said. (The editors of Tehelka could not be reached for comment.)

So in 2016, two years into Modi’s premiership, Ayyub decided to self-publish the investigation in the form of a book called Gujarat Files: Anatomy of a Cover Up. It became a best seller and has since sold 400,000 copies in more than a dozen languages, according to Ayyub. The book is currently in the process of being adapted into a documentary feature, which is slated for release in 2022.

Although Gujarat Files earned Ayyub international recognition and accolades, it also established her as an enemy of Modi’s Hindu-nationalist project—a status that she said has put her on the receiving end of torrents of intimidation and abuse, both on- and offline. In 2018, she became the target of a deepfake in which her likeness was doctored onto a woman in a pornographic video. The fake video was widely circulated, including by members of the BJP. Not long after that, someone posted Ayyub’s phone number and address online. Although she might never find out who was behind the video or the doxing, she said that most of the online accounts sharing them belonged to supporters of Modi and his party.

“I’m somebody who is changing the opinion of the world vis-à-vis India,” Ayyub said. “The only way they think they can stop me is with rape and death threats, which are now a part of my life.”

The intimidation hasn’t stopped there. Ayyub told me that she has been followed by people and vehicles, both in India and abroad. Since June, she has also been facing a series of criminal charges. The first concerns a viral video of an elderly man claiming to have been the victim of an Islamophobic attack, which she and other journalists and lawmakers shared on Twitter. Police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh allege that sharing the video online amounted to an attempt “to destroy communal harmony.” She faces separate charges of tax evasion, and of misappropriating funds stemming from her relief work during the pandemic. The cases are all bogus, she said. Members of her family have had their bank accounts frozen because they had financial transactions with her, she told me. She has foregone leaving Mumbai in fear that she could be called in for questioning or even arrested. “It’s like you’re living as a fugitive in your own house,” she said.

These kinds of arbitrary and punitive investigations—against journalists, human-rights campaigners, activists, and political opponents—have become standard in Modi’s India, where the government has weaponized the country’s police and courts in a bid to silence its critics. “They don’t go after you for what you’ve written,” Salil Tripathi, an Indian-born journalist and the former chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee, told me, but rather “for a tax violation, a regulatory violation, or something else that seems like a crime so it’s very hard to garner public sympathy around you.”

One of the government’s other favored tactics is to apply the country’s sedition law, a remnant of British colonialism that has been repurposed by other postcolonial governments as a means of stifling dissent. In India’s case, charges of sedition, which is vaguely defined as any action that incites or attempts to incite dissatisfaction toward the government, have increased by 28 percent since Modi entered office, according to data collected by the independent news outlet Article14. Sedition charges rarely result in conviction (which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment), though the verdict hardly matters, Tripathi said. As far as the government is concerned, “all these processes become punishment.”

The last time India’s journalists faced this kind of state repression was in 1975, when the country’s then–Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency, granting herself sweeping powers, including the ability to jail her opponents and muzzle the press. Although India hasn’t returned to that dictatorial state since, press freedoms in the country, which ranks 142 out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, have been eroding. Many of the people I spoke with drew parallels between the state of press freedom during the ’70s and the state of it today.

“There is an undeclared emergency in this country and there is a prevailing atmosphere of fear,” Yashwant Sinha, a former government minister who quit Modi’s BJP in 2018 in protest of the party’s illiberal turn, told me, noting that although private media companies still exist in India, they have an interest in steering clear of government retribution, which ultimately leads to self-censorship.

For all the challenges that Ayyub has faced, she is luckier than many of her Indian peers. Although she has largely been censored in India, where she tells me she can’t get published by mainstream media, her international platform is much larger, affording her space with some of the world’s highest-profile outlets and broadcasters. Ayyub recently joined Substack, where she curates a newsletter dedicated in part to chronicling her country’s antidemocratic turn. “I don’t want them to have the pleasure of knowing that they have silenced me,” she told me, “so my only answer to them is my journalism.”

As an independent journalist, she doesn’t face the prospect of being censored or sacked from her job if she doesn’t toe a political line. Perhaps most important of all, she has avoided the fate of her colleagues languishing in prison, such as Siddique Kappan, an Indian journalist who was arrested last year on charges of sedition and conspiracy to incite violence while trying to cover the alleged rape of a 19-year-old Dalit (pejoratively known as an “untouchable” in India’s hierarchical caste system) in Uttar Pradesh.

Ayyub’s international notoriety does not quell press advocates’ fears for her safety. She remains a top concern of Reporters Without Borders, which has lobbied Indian authorities to protect her from further spurious charges and harassment. “When we saw what was happening to Rana and to other female journalists, we thought that it was very important to react, because we definitely don’t want another Gauri Lankesh in India,” Daniel Bastard, the Asia-Pacific director of Reporters Without Borders, told me, referencing the 2017 assassination of Lankesh, a journalist and vocal Modi critic, outside her home in Bangalore. “We are very, very worried.”

If press-freedom groups can’t get through to Modi, perhaps Biden can. This, at least, seems to be part of the reasoning behind Modi’s invitation to Biden’s Summit for Democracy, which will urge participating countries “to announce new commitments, reforms, and initiatives in accordance with the Summit’s three pillars: strengthening democracy and defending against authoritarianism, fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights,” a State Department spokesperson told me, adding that “the U.S.-India partnership stands upon a shared commitment to uphold the rule of law and democratic values.”

Modi will undoubtedly make grand statements about India’s commitment to democracy and freedom, which he recently described as being central to “India’s civilizational ethos.” But no one I spoke with expressed any optimism that either the summit or Biden could compel Modi to change tack. India has long been unreceptive to outside criticism, even from its close partners. Any meaningful change must be driven from the inside.

Internal reform will prove a challenge. Despite some political setbacks, Modi continues to be popular. Many people may not even detect that anything is fundamentally wrong with the health of Indian democracy today. “Most people confuse democracy with periodic elections,” Sinha said, noting that what’s less appreciated are the mechanisms that enable democracy to exist: an independent judiciary, constitutionally enshrined civil liberties, a free press.

Without those things, India can be a democracy in name only. As far as Ayyub is concerned, it already is one. “There is a veneer of democracy,” she said. “Below that is fascism.”

Correction: This article previously misdescribed Salil Tripathi as an Indian journalist.