THE BIGGEST THREATS TO DEMOCRACIES

Published by Afreen Azim, Irfan Bashir and Adisri on

What Does Any Threat to Democracy Mean?

A power imbalance between any citizens and any other organization (be it an individual or governmental) where the state is protecting the latter signifies the diminishing strength of democracy. Any threat to democracy is fatal because the failed social structure exposes almost every human to state-sanctioned violence. This could mean that law and order are not being upheld by dispensing justice, and the responsible parties could be any. Still, most are within the social structure, similar to all citizens electing to implement justice and equity.

Though these threats have different levels of intensity and may or may not be interlinked, it is safe to say that starting with the gravest threats is a priority. We need to explore why a threat to democracy is fatal and identify and analyze them to understand the changes our society should make.

Why Personal Is Political and Vice-Versa

According to the UNCTAD, only 43% of the data in third world countries is subjected to protection as opposed to 66% in others. According to NCRB data, caste-based violence has increased by 9% in India since the pandemic began. The FBI’s UCR Program states that since 2020, hate crime has skyrocketed, with 61.8% of the crimes due to racial bias, 20% based on sexual orientation, and 13.3% of the crimes against persecuted religions. This data brushes upon some of the significant issues that the world is facing. These crimes continue to get more brutal and unaccounted for every single day. 

Gender, Sexuality, Religion, Caste, and more make up an individual’s identity in the modern social world, and an attack on any of these is an infringement of Human Rights, something highly undemocratic. The interaction and experiences of individuals with each other in different spaces call for laws that aim to protect individuals against the conflicts related to these identities. Unfortunately, the institutions that are supposed to protect these rights are far from secular entities as they come with their own bias for various reasons.

How Do We Know If a Crime Is a Threat to Democracy?

A lot of people wonder if a crime is a threat to democracy or not. What threatens democracy is the lack of willingness of the state (Governmental Institutions, Judicial Institutions, Law and order Enforcement, and more) and its institutions to protect the persecuted and provide justice for several reasons like- willingness to stay in and acquire more power, corruption, and strengthening the social and economic hierarchy of the oppressors (of which they are a part).

Protecting the accused, unwillingness to take legal action against them, not just lack of protection of the freedom of the press but also actively turning them into the state’s PR team, state-mandated violence against protesting citizens, restricting freedom of speech through means of imprisonment (political prisoners) or custodial violence are some of the few ways so-called “democratic” governments are indulging in highly unconstitutional and illegal activities. These activities prove that a lot of power imbalance exists between the state and its citizens in several democratic countries, the examples of which we will analyze further. This imbalance, however, does indicate that democracy is in grave danger.

What Do Threats to Democracy Look Like Domestically With Examples

More than 60% of the cases of rape and murder entail victims from the Scheduled Castes in India. Only 40% of these cases were tried, which resulted in a conviction. This data was charge-sheeted by the police in 2019, keeping in mind that many instances surfaced of their refusal to file an FIR for the victim or their families. The state machinery in India continues to threaten the families of the victims of caste-based violence in the country by not allowing them to speak to the media and cremating the victims without the family’s consent. Rape and assault based on caste have been covered up by the local police, where families were threatened to maintain silence.

According to a data journalist at IndiaSpend, there was not only resistance to share Covid-19 related data and information with the public but also denial, refusing accountability, and providing answers to any questions asked by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. Government figures in the country were listing zero covid deaths when people were dying in huge numbers daily. Journalists and citizens across the country had made or teamed up with organizations to collect the data because of the state’s failure.

Series of Hate Crimes

Furthermore, religious hate crimes in India have increased under the current leadership, where 90% of the crimes mentioned above in the last decade have occurred during the ongoing term. Examples of acts, laws, programs, and more are the Citizen Amendment Act and Farm bills, which have not been very popular amongst a significant section of the country’s population. Protests surfaced in several parts of the world, including India, with hundreds detained, injured, and dead in acts of violence sanctioned by the state and enforced by the police.

At least 48% of the protestors recalled some incidence of violence against them during the anti-CAA protests. According to the data collected by farmers across newspapers reporting death every day, more than 700 farmers died during the protests. The data the government is unwilling to manage and refuses to provide relief to the victims’ families.

Violation of Human Rights

According to the 2020 reports on Human Rights Practices, there are several Human Rights issues in India, and reducing the freedom of the press is a grave concern. The World Press Freedom Index released its rankings for 2021, where India was placed at 142, even worse off than 2019. As a result of democratic backsliding, India went from 27th position in 2014 to 53rd in the Democracy Index in 2021, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

The ease with which the government of India uses media to paint the citizens abused by the state as anti-national, anti-social elements when they are merely students, farmers, and citizens fighting for their rights belonging to marginalized communities that have been stripped of power for centuries, is appalling. Moreover, access to reliable data is difficult for researchers as data collection is not just compromised in this country but also discouraged, as is the case with caste data. Using the draconian UAPA to arrest students cheering for Pakistan’s victory during a cricket match against India and other instances near national threats or terrorism can be described as nothing short of dystopian.

Party politics and agenda are hindering the law’s implementation, but there are also some structural inefficiencies in the Indian Legal system. The refusal of social protection to minorities through reservations or other forms of representation and the refusal to provide caste certificates to SC/ST communities are several structural problems.

Mapping the Biggest Threats to Democracy


Economic Risks

Extreme Inequality

India has witnessed rapidly growing income inequality. Oxfam International reported that 77% of the national wealth is concentrated in the top 10% of the Indian population. The wealthiest 1% had 73% of the wealth generated in 2017, while 67 million Indians, the poorest half of the people, saw a 1% increase in their wealth. India has 119 billionaires, which has increased from 9 in 2000 to 101 in 2017. India will produce 70 new millionaires every day between 2018 and 2022. Billionaires’ fortunes have increased ten times over the past ten years. Their combined wealth is higher than the entire Union budget of India for the fiscal year 2018-19, which was at INR 24422 billion. Meanwhile, health care remains inaccessible for ordinary Indians, and 63 million are pushed into poverty every year because of healthcare costs. 

Economic Inequality

The meaning of democracy is that every individual is equal, no matter what their social standing is. In a democratic country, every individual, thus, is equal before the law, has equal access to governing institutions, has an equal vote, and so on, no matter their social standing or wealth. This is also known as procedural equality, which helps exercise personal freedom. However, procedural quality is only concerned with equality in front of the law and politics, and it does not have any bearing on income or wealth distribution. However, without some level of economic equality, there is a limit to how much personal freedom an individual can exercise.

Unemployment 

The rising unemployment in India worsens economic inequality and reduces the people’s faith in a democratic government. There is a widespread belief that it is easier for unemployed people to take part in illegal or anti-social activities so that they may be able to earn money.

Poverty

Those living under impoverished conditions can never have an equal footing with the privileged section of society. Not only do they not have the access or opportunity to speak up against the government, but they may not have any trust in the government institutions to believe that their conditions can be improved.

Environmental Risks 

Out of the world’s 100 riskiest cities, 43 are in India. According to Verisk Maplecroft’s Environmental Risk Outlook 2021, India has 13 of the world’s 20 highest-risk locations. Globally, Delhi ranks as the second-highest risk city, followed by Chennai (3rd), Agra (6th), and Kanpur (10th), with Jaipur (22nd), Lucknow (24th), Bengaluru (25th), and Mumbai (27th) close behind. Pollution is a significant health threat to the population, with Indian cities making up 19 of the 20 most at risk in the report’s Air Quality Index. Noxious air caused almost one in five deaths in India in 2019. It resulted in economic losses of USD36 billion, with the report terming this an ‘airpocalypse.’ Further, water pollution is responsible for nearly USD9 billion in annual health costs and causes 400,000 deaths annually. 

Global Warming 

Global Warming poses an existential threat to humanity and has become the defining issue of our time. The outcome of the climate crisis will depend on whether democracies can drastically reduce their carbon footprints in the coming years. Global Warming already impacts democratic governance through its effects on food security, conflicts, and water scarcity—migration and natural disasters, among other consequences. Global Warming poses “an existential challenge” for democratic governments. It could lead to more authoritarian rule if efforts to curb global Warming fuelled a surge in catastrophic impacts from hunger to heatwaves.

Climate Inaction

Climate inaction is not only a threat to democracy but human rights as well. The climate crisis will bring about intense heat waves and natural disasters, which will wreck communities and people’s livelihoods. Those who do not have access to proper housing, water, and sanitation will suffer far more from climate inaction than those who can afford to secure their basic needs.

Climate migration

The climate crisis wreaks havoc on people’s lives and their livelihoods. When natural disasters ruin not only one’s home but their source of living, people are often forced to migrate from one place to another. Being the largest democracy in the world is not going to save India from facing the consequences of climate inaction. With disruptions in the shoreline and agricultural resources due to natural disasters, migration within the country is imminent.

Geopolitical risk

The Eurasia Group identified India as no. 5 in its top 5 risks of 2020. It attributed its ranking to the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir, the NRC, which stripped 1.9 million people of their citizenship, an immigration law that considers religious affiliation and demonstrations, and the economic downturn followed suit. It further remarked on India’s weak health and sanitation infrastructure, misinformation about COVID-19 targeting minority communities, and India’s prioritization of nationalist agenda over reforms. With the growth falling to a six-year low of 4.5%, India’s fiscal situation is also precarious, with a widening budgetary deficit marked by the underperformance of the goods and services tax.

Terrorism 

Terrorism threatens democracy not just by undermining the physical safety of people but also by distorting public debates, discrediting moderates, emboldening political extremes, and polarising societies. Geography is also a significant factor. In addition to terrorist activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan, South Asia saw terrorism in Jammu, Kashmir, Maldives, and Bangladesh. Branches of ISIS and al-Qa’ida continue to operate in the region. The Afghan Taliban and affiliated Haqqani Network or HQN and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) continue o operate from Pakistani territory. Indian counterterror forces detected and diffused regional terror operations. The National Investigation Agency examined 34 terrorism-related cases related to ISIS and arrested 160 persons, including ten alleged Al Qaeda operatives from Kerala and West Bengal.

Societal risks

Undemocratic Institutions

Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2021 report downgraded India from a Free to Partly Free. It attributed this to the government and its state-level allies’ crackdown on critics during the year and their response to COVID-19, which internally displaced millions of migrant workers. It also highlighted Hindu nationalism and its scapegoating of minorities for the spread of the virus and who faced attacks by vigilante mobs in the aftermath of these accusations. The problems with vigilante organizations or syndicates are that they essentially rise to power by furthering an agenda of hatred towards a section of people (often the minorities). This allows for gross human rights violations that weaken the pillars of democracy and paves the way for a majoritarian rule of law that discredits the voices of minorities. In the long run, such a paradigm creates fractures in democratic institutes, allowing leaders to evade responsibility by simply directing hatred toward the ‘others.’ 

Weak Opposition

An ineffective or disunited opposition helps to serve the status quo. Even though the opposition parties may have a common goal, they have failed to reach a consensus about their action plan. Most parties are also restricted to their regional spheres of influence, except for the Aam Aadmi Party, whose soft-communalism has come under the scanner. Moreover, most opposition parties have an autocratic structure, as seen through dynastic inheritance of power.

Election Fraud

Election fraud, such as bribing ministers and other stakeholders and negligence during the election process, undermines democracy. One such high-profile example is the cash for votes scam, where MPs paid bribes to interfere with the parliamentary process. The police investigation was shoddy as well and was criticized by the Supreme Court of India. More recently, the Election Commission removed officials from poll duty after allegations of theft emerged in the Uttar Pradesh State Legislative Assembly elections. This move by the EC was prompted by negligence in EVM transportation and wrongfully discarding balloting boxes.

Draconian Laws

As far back as 2000, India’s use of preventive detention laws, such as the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA), was criticized by international agencies. Preparatory to the Union Home Minister’s visit to Srinagar, 700 people were arrested under the law. Rupert Colville, a spokesperson for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, also highlighted India’s “crackdown on civil society actors” and use of “sweeping counter-terrorism measures” under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), counter-terrorism legislation. According to State-wide data, in seven years, 10,552 Indians have been arrested under the UAPA, out of which only 253 resulted in convictions. Overall, research has found that these laws have not served their purpose of national security and have instead been used as a convenient tool to deal with cases as varied as cow smuggling, burglary, and food adulteration.

Suppressed media

India ranked 142nd on the World Press Freedom Index, and Modi tightened his grip on the media. Reporters Without Borders also documented that four journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2020, making India one of the world’s most dangerous countries for journalists who are “exposed to every kind of attack, including police violence against reporters, ambushes by political activists, and reprisals instigated by criminal groups or corrupt local officials.” The use of criminal prosecutions has intensified since 2019 with the help of Section 124a of the Indian Penal Code, under which “sedition” is punishable by life imprisonment. In 2020, the coronavirus crisis was a pretext to control news coverage by prosecuting journalists providing information at odds with the official position. 

​​Caste Violence 

As per NCRB, caste riots saw an increase of around 50%, and cases of caste conflict jumped from 492 in 2019 to 736 in 2020. According to the government figure, 139,045 cases of crime against Dalits were registered in different states between 2018 and 2020.

Fifty-three thousand eight hundred eighty-six cases were registered under the Prevention of Atrocities Against SC/STs (PoA) Act in 2020, an increase from 49,608 in 2019. Regarding caste-based sexual violence, Government data reports ten Dalit women and girls are raped daily across India.

Still, the actual figure is estimated to be far higher as only a tiny proportion of crimes are reported, and conviction rates remain low. For example, Justice Denied: Sexual Violence & Intersectional Discrimination – Barriers to Accessing Justice for Dalit Women and Girls in Haryana, India, examined 40 rape cases involving women and girls from the Dalit community in India’s northern state of Haryana with a conviction of rate as low as 10%.

Corruption

Throughout the world, political leaders who run on a populist platform are gaining power and undermining democracy. High corruption rates can contribute to increased support for populist candidates. For instance, democracies may experience corruption when they lack transparency in political and campaign financing, have outdated laws on freedom of information, provide insufficient protection to whistle-blowers, or have unreliable media.

Riots and Communal violence 

According to the NCRB data on ‘Crime in India,’ communal riots increased by 96% in 2020 over the previous year. In 2020 857 communal riots were registered across the country compared to 438 in 2019. Most of these cases in 2020 were attributed to the Northeast Delhi riots of February, and Delhi Police alone registered 520 points of communal riots in the year. Agrarian riots were 38%, with 2,188 rural riots, a jump from 1,579 in 2019 owing to protests against the farm laws. Riots during ‘Andolan/morcha’ increased by 33%. The report also reflected an increase in sectarian clashes from 118 in 2019 to 167 in 2020. It should be noted that the NCRB data only reflects the number of cases registered by the police.

Terrorism

Terrorism is one of the biggest threats a democracy can face, as it can also exist at a political level and be imbued in ideologies. Ideas that are hard to kill. In a country like India, with such great religious diversity, terrorism can spell doom, causing discord amongst communities that may take decades to resolve. Furthermore, sponsored cross-border terrorism can evaporate people’s trust in their government, weakening democratic institutions. If left unchecked, terrorism can create an atmosphere of fear in the masses, often resulting in “us vs. them” paradigms, causing internal fractures in a democracy. Populist regimes can also use these fractures to consolidate their vote banks and steer the conversation away from accountability topics.  

Technological risks

Social Media Misuse

Social media, like Twitter, has been used to target minorities several times. Examples include cricketer Mohammed Shami, Aryan Khan, and Kashmiri students. In particular, hate speech on Twitter goes unchecked because its hate-speech filter fails to flag misspelled or obscured words used by hate-speech purveyors. Twitter, like Facebook, has been unable to monitor such content in India by allocating fewer resources for content moderation than in its markets in the rest of the world or by outsourcing it for low pay and poor working conditions. Further, Twitter and Facebook have been deployed to automate and proliferate propaganda in favor of the current dispensation through apps like ‘Tek Fog. Furthermore, Social media is notorious for enabling the creation of echo chambers that don’t allow the creation of meaningful narratives around important policy issues that can have an impact on the democratic legitimacy of a nation. 

Cyber Attacks

Cybercriminals exploited the pandemic to attack critical infrastructures like healthcare and the vaccine supply chain. A recent IBM showed that a data breach in India cost the economy ₹16.50 crore in 2021, up by 17.85 percent over the previous year. Ransomware attacks rose to 151% in 2021, averaging 270 cyberattacks per organization. The World Economic Forum’s ‘Global Cybersecurity Outlook 2022’ report said each successful cyber breach cost a company $3.6 million (nearly Rs 27 crore) last year. Sectors that faced the most damage include the financial industry, where financial services were targeted in 50% of the top 10 cloud incidents of 2021, followed by healthcare and manufacturing.

Information asymmetry 

Surveillance capitalism, arising from the need to regulate behavior for productivity,  also puts democracy at risk. Behavioral-prediction products require not only voluminous data but interventions in conduct that “tune, herd, and condition our behavior with subtle and subliminal cues, rewards, and punishments that shunt us toward their most profitable outcomes,” according to Harvard academic Shoshana Zuboff who adds that “surveillance capitalism’s means of behavioral modification at scale erodes democracy from within because, without autonomy in action and thought, we have little capacity for the moral judgment and critical thinking necessary for a democratic society.” This is in addition to the erosion of democracy induced by the concentration of knowledge and the power accrued as a consequence. 

Fake news 

A 2019 survey by Statista showed that 88 percent of first-time voters across India saw fake news as a real problem. Disinformation is a problem across platforms, including print, television, and social media, since most of the population accesses news mainly through social media, which lacks an information verification mechanism. With more than 300 million users, WhatsApp’s Indian users forward content more than anywhere else, and such content is delivered without checks, exacerbating misinformation and its consequences. Moreover, the government’s Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code, particularly Rule 2(2), has been flagged by several national and international as a threat to free expression and privacy.

What Can We Do?

With a social culture as diverse as ours, representation ensures all points of view are acknowledged and builds a more civil society in the future. Intersectionality can’t be ignored for long. The threat to democracy entails as its purpose the need to homogenize citizens of a country in the wake of ongoing violence against the very citizens that build the backbone of nations worldwide. Questioning the government for transparency, Fact-checking, choosing where you get your news from wisely, and analyzing your own identity to introspect or unlearn is just a part of trying to live a little less wrongly in a world where the structural failure of systems is being exposed every day.