Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a rally during the general election of 2019. Photo: AFP / Sachin Kumar

The world of “Asia’s world city” is in a whirl. Hong Kong’s streets are crawling with cops. Stop and search operations are commonplace.

From roadside billboards to its iconic ding dings (trams), government ads warning of terrorists are everywhere. A fresh round of political purge is on the horizon, with opposition figures stepping down from public offices in anticipation of a government move to weed out “unpatriotic” office-holders, in line with a sweeping sedition law.

A year after its introduction, the National Security Law is changing Hong Kong fundamentally as Beijing tightens its grip on city. No one knows where the heavy hand of the state will land next.

For the first time, police this year banned the annual July 1 democracy march marking the day of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The popular pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily was forced to shut down after its bank accounts were frozen, owner and several journalists arrested, and the newsroom raided under the new law.

US President Joe Biden called the paper’s closure “a sad day for media freedom in Hong Kong and around the world.” A joint front-page editorial in the four largest Nordic newspapers declared: “The world can no longer stand idly by as China gradually sucks the air out of freedom of the press in Hong Kong.” The European Parliament warns that the city faces a “human rights emergency.”

That’s because the new law allows the authorities to mete out punishment for secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces. All of these seditious offenses can be defined at the discretion of the authorities, allowing them unprecedented power in curtailing protest and freedom of speech.

The unceremonious end of Apple Daily has added to fears that if used arbitrarily, the law will be turned into a tool to gag free speech, stifle peaceful dissent, punish thought crimes, curb personal liberty and subvert the rule of law.

Welcome to the world of the “world’s largest democracy,” where those fears are now a daily reality.

An 84-year-old Jesuit priest and life-long social activist died this month in custody in India after his Parkinson’s-ravaged body contracted Covid-19 in jail. Father Stan Swamy was arrested last October on trumped-up charges under a draconian anti-terror law, and had petitioned the authorities repeatedly to be allowed to die in his home, in the presence of his family. Instead, they chained him to his hospital bed.

This wasn’t the first time for such ruthless abuse of the law. India has long lived with oppressive security laws – with all their attendant distortions – without a fraction of the noise the world now makes for Hong Kong.

As an Indian journalist based in Hong Kong, I once tracked with fascination the struggle for democracy in my adopted city even as my country of birth was growing disenchanted with the outcome of that system of governance.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to national power in 2014, World Bank surveys consistently showed public trust in politicians in China and Hong Kong far exceeded that in India. The corruption and directionless of the then Congress-party-led coalition government bred popular anger, paving the way for Modi.

After seven years of Modi, I now watch democracy die quietly in India from faraway Hong Kong, where democracy was never born but it never felt that way, and its supposed passing is widely mourned.

That’s because even though Hong Kong never had representative democracy, it instituted rights, freedoms and standards of governance that were so enviable that their fraying evokes lament. Much more, say, than for the current institutional capture and attacks on civil rights in India, whose geopolitical alignment with the Western world and chronically poor governing standards temper global expectations of it.

Otherwise, there would be a lot to lament about.

Modi’s government has been conducting widespread surveillance on journalists, businesspeople, judges, politicians, and even virologists, reveals the unfolding Pegasus snooping scandal. Forty Indian journalists have been found to be on the Pegasus hacking list so far.

More insidious than snooping is the ability of software like Pegasus to plant false evidence that can be used against surveillance targets. Draconian security laws help the authorities stuff jails with social activists, writers, poets, and just regular people going about their lives – sometimes with the help of planted “evidence,” as may have been done in the case of Father Stan Swamy.

Actually, there’s no need for evidence even. Recently, 124 Muslim men were acquitted after 19 years in jail. They were released as police could not present any evidence against them that could stick.

They rarely can, and it doesn’t matter. For when it comes to “sedition” and “terror” trials, the process itself is the punishment. Non-violent citizens are thrown into jail for charges as ridiculous as “critical” or “derogatory” remarks against an elected executive, or even for spreading “disaffection toward the government.”

Bails are difficult as national security is privileged over fundamental rights, and by the time India’s excruciatingly slow judiciary gets around to delivering “justice” by disproving baseless charges, punishment has already been served. This makes security laws handy for India’s rulers.

Even as I am writing this, a journalist is languishing in jail, booked under the National Security Act for Facebook posts warning people that cow dung and cow urine do not cure Covid-19.

A journalist in Kashmir has now spent more than 1,000 days in jail under the dreaded Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, or UAPA, after writing a news feature profiling a young terrorist.

Another journalist has spent 10 months in jail for the seditious act of trying to report on the gang rape and murder of a minor girl.

I am quite sure I haven’t heard President Biden or Nordic papers fulminate about press freedom in India over any of this.

The Modi government makes frequent use of the UAPA (also used against Father Stan Swamy) to neutralize the regime’s discontents. Opposition Congress grandee Mani Shankar Aiyar calculates there were nearly 4,000 UAPA arrests and 3,005 cases in two years (compared with about 100 arrests and 61 cases filed under Hong Kong’s National Security Law in the one year of its existence).

But Modi did not invent the practice of wanton terror charges. Aiyar’s party holds the patent on that one. UAPA has been around since 1967. Modi just scaled it up with new amendments that make detentions under terror charges even easier. Cases under sedition laws, which have been around even longer, from the colonial times, have similarly jumped, by 28%, since Modi took power.

UAPA comes in a long line of abusive national-security laws, some of which are now defunct but remembered by their menacing abbreviations.

Take TADA, the Terrorism and Anti-Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act; in its decade-long existence until it was repealed in the mid-1990s, only 1% of the more than 75,000 arrested under the Act, mostly Muslims and Sikhs, were convicted.

It was succeeded by POTA, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which gained even more notoriety with an even poorer conviction rate, before it was repealed in 2004.

Hong Kong’s security law is considered the end of the city’s freedoms, the twilight of its days as a center of uninhibited capital and information flows. But curiously, throughout the decades that India has lived with its myriad security laws, none of these instruments of legal torture ever seemed to raise any alarm worldwide for the state of its free-market democracy, or dent its ever-growing attraction for global capital.

It still doesn’t, as the US happily overlooks all of Modi’s rights abuses.

For the first time, the Biden administration last week issued an advisory to American businesses warning of the dangers of operating in Hong Kong. The National Security Law, it warns, “could adversely affect businesses and individuals operating in Hong Kong.”

The “2021 Investment Statement” for India, however, makes no reference to the flagrant abuse of its security laws. Instead, it praises India for “ambitious structural economic reforms” and sees no concerns regarding doing business in India beyond “protectionist measures.”

Next week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is heading to New Delhi to prepare the ground for the next summit of the Quad group of “democracies” comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US. India is simply too important a partner in America’s strategy of containing China to allow for trifles such as tyrannical laws to get in the way.

Or media freedom, for that matter.

India has seen egregious media controls in recent years, thanks to a mix of intimidation and inducements by Modi’s headline-obsessed government.

On Thursday, taxmen raided the offices of media houses that have been painstakingly recording the true extent of deaths in the Covid second wave, exposing the government’s lies and data fudge.

Just as the government punishes those who refuse to gramophone its narrative of Modi’s relentless successes, it showers government advertisements on those who do. It spends nearly US$100 million a year on media outreach.

And it shows. Most national-level television channels are unabashedly pro-Modi and take the lead in framing his critics as “anti-nationals.” Media trials have their verdicts ready long before the courts get to try the so-called sedition and terror cases.

Unsurprisingly, from 80th in 2002, India’s rank on the World Press Freedom Index has plunged to 142nd out of 180 territories – behind Myanmar and Afghanistan. Reporters Without Borders counts Modi among 37 “predators of press freedom” such as Kim Jong Un, Bashar al-Assad and Ali Khamenei.

Having tamed many of the legacy media, the government is now trying to “regulate” digital news media and streaming platforms through intrusive new IT rules that the United Nations sees as infringements on human rights. But I can’t remember any parliamentary motion in the European Union on India’s endangered media freedom. 

India’s application of security laws and its media landscape offer snapshots of how a despotic state corrodes civil liberties and slowly captures governing and oversight institutions even as it maintains the facade of democracy.

Unlike the conspicuous show of control in Hong Kong, the despots in India operate in stealth. They disguise media crackdowns in tax probes. They don’t raid newsrooms, they weaponize them against the regime’s enemies. They keep newspapers going even as they shut down free flow of information. They hack democracy by breaking into journalists’ phones, but they never cease to feign their allegiance to democracy.

That’s all it takes to keep moralizing Western politicians at bay.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury has co-authored To Kill a Democracy: India’s Passage to Despotism with John Keane. Read Asia Times’ book review here.

Debasish Roy Chowdhury

Debasish Roy Chowdhury is an Indian journalist based in Hong Kong.