Human Rights Day 2020: call for action over deterioration of human rights in India

Published on 10 December 2020

A statement from global academics

On Human Rights Day 2020, we the undersigned express our deep concern over the deterioration of the human rights situation in India, in particular the treatment of minority groups (especially Muslims) students, activists and journalists who are denied their constitutional right to dissent and protest peacefully.

Since the present government, led by Narendra Modi came to power in 2014, inflammatory hate speech, vigilante nationalism, and violent acts against Muslims, other minorities, intellectuals and activists have risen dramatically. These have only got more pronounced and virulent in his second term with the promotion of a majoritarian right-wing Hindutva agenda. Examples include revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status in an undemocratic manner leading to arbitrary detentions and widespread human rights violations in the state and beyond.  This was followed by the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) which was passed in December 2019.

The CAA is disturbing because it makes distinctions between groups of people based on religion, pursuing a divide and rule policy that has not been witnessed in India since the partition of 1947.  The omission of Muslims, who make up about 14% of the country’s population (about 200 million people), from the list of approved groups who can apply for citizenship of India is discriminatory and arbitrary. Together with the National Register of Citizens (NRC) the government has an implicit agenda of actively discriminating against Muslims.

At the start of the year, India was rocked by protests against the CAA with students in Delhi and elsewhere playing a leading role in peaceful action. Right-wing groups held counter-protests and BJP leader Kapil Mishra threatened deadly violence against Muslims  that left 53 deadover 200 injured and extensive damage to property, including shops/businesses, homes and mosques, with Muslims overwhelmingly on the receiving end. 

An investigation carried out by Amnesty International India highlighted grave human rights violations committed by Delhi Police during the February 2020 Delhi riots.  However, none of the perpetrators have been brought to justice and recently Amnesty International India was forced to close operations in India due to government reprisals.   In the last year, the Delhi police hunted down peaceful protesters, in particular student activists with hundreds of activists and students in jail on flimsy charges for protesting against the CAA. Many are at grave risk of contracting COVID-19.

This includes IDS alumna Devangana Kalita who is being held on manufactured charges including property damage, assaulting state officials, armed rioting, murder, and the manufacture and sale of arms in four cases relating to the Delhi riots. She has secured bail on three of the four cases against her but remains in jail having also been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). This is a harsh anti-terrorism law which has been evoked to hold activists and journalists without arrest, undermining constitutional and democratic values as well as fundamental human rights. Anyone accused under UAPA is automatically denied bail. Tragically, Devangana’s story is similar to many hundreds of other political prisoners jailed during the pandemic.

Across India, the pandemic has been politicised to target minority groups (such as Muslims, Dalits), suppress dissent, and undermine constitutional values. COVID-19 has been used to legitimise increased government surveillance. This prompted Maria Arena of the  European Parliament’s Subcommittee on Human Rights to call for  “for a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into all human rights violations committed by law enforcement officials’.

Her concern reflects those of the human rights special rapporteurs on the situation in India and a shared call for the authorities to take immediate action.  In this context, it is ironic that India remains a sitting member of the Human Rights Council with the right to protest peacefully enshrined in the Indian constitution (Articles 19.1.a/b).

The Indian government must allow civil society and activists to express dissent and must protect their human rights. We the undersigned stand in solidarity with former IDS student Devangana Kalita, numerous other student activists including Natasha Narwal, Umar Khaled and other political prisoners including journalists.

We call on the Indian government to:

  • release all anti -CAA political prisoners held in prison without sufficient evidence;
  • bring to justice those who have been inciting and abetting violence with fair trials;
  • initiate an independent and rigorous enquiry into the role of the police and politicians in the Delhi violence in early 2020;
  • repeal the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act; and
  • uphold the human rights of all Indian citizens regardless of religion, caste, class and ideological position as enshrined in the Indian constitution and international human rights instruments that India has signed up to.

These visionary young leaders have been fighting peacefully for a better and more just tomorrow.  We call on the Indian government to act on Human Rights Day 2020.

Professor Lyla Mehta (Institute of Development Studies)

Dr Shilpi Srivastava (Institute of Development Studies)

Dr Anuradha Joshi (Institute of Development Studies)

Dr Deepta Chopra (Institute of Development Studies)

Dr Philip Mader (Institute of Development Studies)

Professor Ian Scoones (Institute of Development Studies)

Gerardo A. Torres Contreras (Institute of Development Studies)

Tahira Shariff Mohamed (Institute of Development Studies)

Dr Lars Otto Naess (Institute of Development Studies)

Natasha Maru (Institute of Development Studies)

Linda Pappagallo (Institute of Development Studies)

Dr Wei Shen (Institute of Development Studies)

Dr Amrita Saha (Institute of Development Studies)

Professor Vinita Damodaran (University of Sussex)

Professor Ben Rogaly (University of Sussex)

Professor Naomi  Hossain (American University)

Dr Synne Movik (Norwegian University of Life Sciences)

Dr Laila Kadiwal (University College London)

Dr Rohan D’Souza (Kyoto University)

Dr Subir Sinha (SOAS)

Professor Sruti Bala (University of Amsterdam)


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