Human rights defenders say Indians must speak up now as the world's largest democracy is "in the danger of turning into a fascist state."
Pressure is growing on the Indian government to release a number of political activists and students - a couple of whom have since contracted COVID-19 - who are currently being held under a draconian anti-terror law in what human rights advocates say are politically motivated attempts to stifle dissent.
A number of politically active students - including a pregnant woman - have been detained amid the pandemic in which India has become one of the worst hit. Charges have been filed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against the students for their alleged role in the Delhi riots in February. Nearly 60 people - mostly Muslims - were killed, thousands were injured, and homes, businesses and mosques were destroyed in some of the worst communal violence the country has seen in decades - testimonials from those affected say the men were shouting slogans in support of the Hindu nationalist far-right group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The nearly week-long riots hit the capital city as Prime Minister Modi hosted US President Donald Trump during his high-profile visit to the country.
Delhi police have accused the students of conspiracy to incite communal violence, and those jailed include Jamia Millia Islamia University students, Meeran Haider and pregnant student activist Safoora Zargar, who has since been granted bail on humanitarian grounds. Other jailed students include Sharjeel Imam, formerly from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), on charges of sedition following his political speeches, while a number of others have been charged. Imam has since tested positive for COVID-19 in jail.
Human rights advocates say they are being targeted for their roles in the protests against recent citizenship legislation, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). Critics say the bill - alongside the controversial National Register of Citizens - is anti-Muslim and goes against the county’s secular constitution.
The Geneva-based UN Human Rights office is among a number of international human rights bodies calling for the activists' immediate release.
In a recent statement, they said: “These defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA
and their arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated. Authorities should immediately release all human rights defenders who are currently being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence.”
Other rights groups, including Amnesty International, the Federation for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch also recently wrote to the EU ahead of its bilateral summit with India in mid-July, where it called on the bloc to raise concerns regarding the deteriorating condition of human rights defenders and “to take India’s deteriorating human rights record thoroughly into account in the reshaping of the EU-India relationship.”
Up until the pandemic’s outbreak, widespread protests both within and outside the country were held in opposition to the CAA, which was implemented in December by India’s ruling Hindu nationalist government, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The bill fast-tracks Indian citizenship to persecuted religious communities who have fled neighbouring countries, but excludes Muslims.
Nabila Hasan is a Human Rights Advocate with India's Supreme Court. She told TRT World, “This government stunt is politically motivated. The students and activists who have been arrested face several serious non-bailable criminal charges, including murder, attempt to murder, rioting and terrorism. These are imposed upon activists for exercising their right to free speech and standing against the persecution of minorities in India. During the pandemic, several students were called for interrogation, endangering their lives and violating social distancing rules. Safoora Zargar was released after serving 74 days in judicial custody. She has several medical issues, so the time and emotional trauma she has gone through while in the prison is absolutely irreparable and no court can compensate her.”
The arrest of the students are among the latest in a number of detentions and bookings of critical voices in recent years with the UAPA, including human rights defender Zafarul Islam Khan and 81-year old poet and activist P Varavara Rao, who was arrested in 2018, along with ten other people, for their alleged roles in communal violence that same year. His family say that he has been neglected in jail and are reported to have found him in a delirious state and lying in his own urine in a Mumbai jail. He has since contracted COVID-19. Within the past few days, UAPA was used to arrest Kashmiri student Aqib Ahmad Malik after he reportedly protested against the quality of food in his university hostel in Indian-administered Kashmir, also in 2018.
The UAPA is a colonial-era act used by the British to target crimes they considered to be of a ‘terrorist’ nature. Up until 2019, its remit was only against those who had membership to unlawful and terrorist organisations, but this was expanded last year.
Avinash Kumar is the executive director at Amnesty International India. He told TRT World: “It was amended allowing the government to designate an individual as a terrorist without trial. Besides being in absolute violation of international human rights law and the Constitution of India, this amendment opened the floodgate to further harassment of human rights defenders and activists. UAPA has become a tool for the governments to keep the accused in jail for prolonged periods of time. Touted as a counter-terrorism law falling within the realm of the criminal justice system, UAPA is more allied with the concept of preventive detention.”
Hasan added: “The UAPA gives a clear indication as to how the current government has found a new weapon to crackdown on dissenting views and silence any voice which tries to vocally oppose its inherently unjust and unconstitutional policy decisions. These students have been arrested under the false and vague charges and without having any prima facie evidence against them.”
The crackdown comes amid evidence that implicates political leaders and the police - most recently, the Delhi Minorities Commission released a report highlighting the complicity of the Delhi police in the riots.
Kumar said: “Until recently, political leaders such as Kapil Mishra and union ministers such as Anurag Thakur who publicly used slogans such as “Shoot the traitors” were spared even a mention in the FIRs and charge sheets filed regarding the riots. Similarly, the police officers who were recorded on video torturing and using excessive use of force on young Muslim men and asking them to sing the national anthem have not yet been prosecuted. The uni-dimensional equation of the riots by the Delhi Police with students and activists who peacefully protested against the CAA have been arrested for their alleged role in orchestrating the Delhi riots while excluding the role of the Hindu nationalists indicates that the charges are politically motivated.”
As well as the UAPA, authorities are using other means to crackdown on some of the country’s most prominent political activists, among them, author and columnist Harsh Mandar, who has been named in riot charge sheets as an instigator of the Delhi violence after he filed a petition accusing BJP political leaders of making inflammatory speeches.
Amid the increased pressure on domestic voices, Indian nationals living outside the country are stepping up their efforts to raise awareness of the declining human rights situation internationally.
A Europe and India-wide student-led organisation, the Collective Against Violation and Abuse of Civil and Human rights (CAVACH), was set up in the wake of the last year’s protests and has been engaging in a number of lobbying efforts since, including with the German and EU Parliaments and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
A spokesperson told TRT World. “If there was ever a time for Indians to speak up and dissent, it is now. The largest democracy in the world is in danger of turning into a fascist state. Given the clamp down,it is important that the diaspora outside of India raises its voice. While the government tries to create a different image of the situation on the ground, we think that the intervention by international organisations will put pressure on it.”
Amnesty spokesperson Kumar added: “While the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic, it is extremely cruel of the government to arrest and imprison a person using repressive laws just because they have been critical of the government. Laws like the UAPA and sedition have no place in the country whether there is a pandemic or not. In fact, the current pandemic presents an opportunity to the government to immediately end this ongoing crackdown on dissent and free speech, which has created a climate of fear across the country. The first steps towards this is to repeal these laws.”