Fresh reports on Indian police raids targeting a news outlet critical of the government and on the sanction to prosecute award-winning author Arundhati Roy for a 2010 speech she gave about Kashmir have thrown once again into sharp relief India’s increasingly illiberal cultural and political trends toward freedom of expression, the free press, and political opposition. India today maintains the appearance of constitutional processes, preserving their structure while neglecting their essence, said Hartosh Singh Bal, the executive editor of The Caravan, India’s premier long-form narrative journalism magazine of politics and culture and the winner of APARC’s 2023 Shorenstein Journalism Award.
Delivering the keynote address at the Award’s 22nd annual celebration on October 10, 2023, Bal described how India maintains a legal facade of democracy while democratic norms and practices have significantly eroded. “In India today, the Constitution is subservient to an ideology that is violative of its spirit,” said Bal. The ruling Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the helm, “operates according to this value system and has rendered the institutions designed to check its overreach effectively powerless.“
Following his keynote remarks, Bal joined a panel discussion with Kalyani Chadha, an associate professor of journalism at Northwestern University's Medill School for Journalism, Media, and Integrated Marketing Communications; Larry Diamond, Mosbacher Senior Fellow in Global Democracy at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and William L. Clayton Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University; and Raju Narisetti, publisher at McKinsey Global Publishing, McKinsey and Company and a member of the selection committee for the Shorenstein Journalism Award, who moderated the conversation.
Holding Power to Account
Over the last decade, Indian media, influenced by intimidation and structural shifts, have significantly limited their scrutiny of the government. Since 2014, India has fallen to 161st out of 180 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index. Actions such as selective licensing, the acquisition of independent networks by oligarchs affiliated with political leaders, and harassment of the remaining independent outlets contribute to the erosion of media independence. Against this backdrop, The Caravan has remained committed to rigorous reporting and speaking truth to power, unwilling to conform to party directives or refrain from political criticism.
In its first iteration in the 1940s, The Caravan distinguished itself as a prominent general-interest magazine. It relaunched in 2010 as India's first long-form journal of politics and culture. Over the past decade, The Caravan has courageously chronicled the ascent of political Hinduism in India, holding power to account and maintaining editorial independence. It has thus drawn the ire of the Indian government for its fearless reporting.
Despite facing threats of violence and incarceration, the magazine and its reporters have conducted vital investigations and published in-depth stories and daring commentaries delving into issues ranging from Hindu supremacist policies and actions to political assassinations, caste and gender injustices, ethnic violence against the Muslim minority, labor disputes, environmental degradation, and the human toll of the COVID pandemic. “Through these endeavors, the magazine's team of intrepid editors and reporters demonstrates the highest level of journalistic integrity and excellence,” said APARC Director Gi-Wook Shin in his welcome remarks at the Shorenstein Award ceremony.
As a fiercely independent monitor of the exercise of power, The Caravan emulates the essence of the Shorenstein Journalism Award. Sponsored by APARC, the Shorensein Award recognizes outstanding journalists and news organizations for excellence in coverage of the Asia-Pacific region. Former award winners include Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa, the founder and executive editor of the Philippine news platform Rappler; Swe Win, a champion of press freedom, human rights defender, and the chief editor of the news outlet Myanmar Now; and Siddharth Varadarajan, the founding editor of India’s news website The Wire.
Democracy-watching organizations categorize and rate democracies differently, but they agree that India today is a "hybrid regime," falling between full democracy and full autocracy. In 2021, Freedom House dropped India’s rating from Free to Partly Free “due to a multiyear pattern in which the Hindu nationalist government and its allies have presided over rising violence and discriminatory policies affecting the Muslim population and pursued a crackdown on expressions of dissent by the media, academics, civil society groups, and protesters.” In the same year, the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project changed India’s classification to “electoral autocracy.” In its 2023 report, V-Dem refers to India as “one of the worst autocratizers in the last ten years.” How did we get to this point?
Bal explained that understanding India’s current social and political scene requires a journey back in time to the birth of the Hindu nationalist movement Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in 1925. Bal recounted how the RSS “supreme guru” Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar — of whom Modi wrote admiringly — shaped the movement’s defining creed as centered around the embrace of a political ideology elevating Hindu hegemony in India, the rejection of the notion of a pluralistic, religiously diverse country, and the refusal to accept the Indian constitution. Modi, a longtime RSS member, rose through the ranks and transitioned to its political wing, the BJP, eventually becoming chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, the year he was elected as India’s prime minister in a sweeping victory.
“The values of India today are those of the RSS,” said Bal, describing how the country’s Muslim community — India’s largest minority — now lives in a widespread climate of discrimination and fear, how legislative checks on executive action have eroded, and how the judiciary has become politicized and quiescent. The Hindu majoritarian ideology, noted Bal, serves political and electoral interests. “Directing hatred against a minority serves as a means for maintaining societal fractures and consolidating power.”
India, concluded Bal, demonstrates all the elements of what Larry Dimond in his book Ill Winds calls “the autocrats’ twelve-step program” — a playbook of creeping authoritarianism, a process that “gradually eviscerates political pluralism and institutional checks until the irreducible minimum condition for democracy is eliminated.”
This reality is something the world still needs to realize about India, said Bal.
A Paradoxical Media Landscape
The question of how liberal India’s democracy has ever been is subject to debate. But there is no doubt that the vibrancy of the country’s civil society has massively eroded, said Diamond, the co-editor of a forthcoming volume titled The Troubling State of India's Democracy (University of Michigan Press, 2024). Behind the appearance of the formal architecture of Indian democracy lie pervasive fear, self-censorship, inability to hold the government accountable, and the evisceration of independent institutions, Diamond argued. The ruling party has majority support but such that is "grotesquely manufactured through an unlevel playing field,” and people, businesses, and institutions are afraid to support the opposition “because they could be wiped out.”
Kalyani Chadha pointed out that tension has often characterized the relationship between the news media and the government in India and that the Indian Constitution has never provided adequate protection for freedom of speech. She argued against the widely accepted narrative that has tended to define India’s post-globalization media almost exclusively in terms of growth and expansion. In reality, she said, the Indian news media industry is a complex and paradoxical terrain, marked by both the growth of outlets and audiences and the emergence of structural trends that threaten Indian journalism, like commercialism, escalating cross-media holdings, and politicized ownership.
Chadha noted that the Indian media market is heavily reliant on government advertisements for revenue, which makes it susceptible to pressures and controls.“If survival comes from government advertising, then you’ll toe the party line.” She emphasized that these structural trends precede Modi’s rise to power but have been exacerbated in recent years by the increasing politicization of media ownership, as politicians, their families, and proxies have begun to acquire and operate media outlets.
The Caravan, by contrast, maintains its independence thanks to a robust subscription model, putting its readers at the forefront of its business model. But none of it would be possible, says Bal, without the rare support of an independent publishing house, Delhi Press, that gives The Caravan shelter.
Additional challenges make this a uniquely difficult time for the free press in India. They include the government’s emphasis on undermining and delegitimizing the press and the weaponization of social media against opposing voices, said Bal. In the past, he explained, there were limits to political power that helped the mainstream media exercise its independence and oppose efforts to suppress it. Nowadays, substantive checks on executive power are absent, and journalists come under threat simply for doing their job.
A Route to Democratic Revival
Granted, India’s political condition is not irreversible. “Illiberal popular projects can be halted and reversed,” emphasized Diamond. He highlighted the urgency of defending the constitutional court, advancing the integrity and professionalism of the civil service, and mobilizing civic and democratic engagement.
There are also actions the United States and other Western countries can undertake to help strengthen Indian democracy, Diamond explained. First, at the government level, strike a better balance between, on the one hand, the pursuit of economic and strategic partnerships in seeking supply chain independence and countering China and, on the other hand, “the rejection of unnecessary, gratuitous, mindless deification of the ruling party and Modi without regard to what is happening to human rights and the Constitution in India.” As an example of the latter approach, Diamond cited the Biden administration’s treatment of Modi’s June 2023 U.S. visit, during which he was feted with a welcome ceremony and state dinner and invited to address a joint session of Congress.
Moreover, said Diamond, people-to-people exchanges and strengthening cultural, educational, and professional ties between Indian and U.S. communities can help socialize citizens to the principles of democratic governance. He also urged the audience to subscribe to The Caravan and other independent news organizations on the frontlines of the struggle for press freedom. Chadha further stressed the essential role of independent journalism outlets like The Caravan: while they remain small, they are pivotal to documenting India’s social and political realities, providing space for marginalized populations to share their experiences and facilitating critical public opinion.
At the closing of the discussion, the panelists offered rays of hope for the path forward from their unique vantage points. Diamond highlighted the continuation of the structure of competitive elections in India and predicted that, in the near term, it will be difficult for the BJP to create a comprehensive party hegemony. He expressed his sense of encouragement by the diversity of Indian society, whose vibrancy, initiative, and creativity, combined with the expansion of education, can help the country’s democratic revival.
In this context, Chadha noted that supporting scholarly examination of Indian media — an area that remains remarkably underresearched — can improve the public understanding of what is happening in the country.
For Bal, the idea of an inclusive India — “a large country pulling in different directions and staying together” — remains a beacon of hope for the future. “We do journalism for that purpose,” he said.