India marks its 73rd year of freedom from colonial rule on August 15th, still claiming the mantle of the world’s biggest democracy and a secular state where citizens’ constitutional rights are guaranteed. But those who have been paying attention to India are not celebrating. Covid-19 has given ample cover to an aggressive and targeted clampdown on civic rights and civil society freedoms, even as the Government has distracted the Indian public from its failures to cope with Coronavirus by demonizing and criminalizing democratic dissent against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
Over 1,300 activists and students now face flimsy and untenable charges in dangerous prison conditions for protesting against the CAA. A high proportion are women, and all are at grave risk of contracting Covid. These abuses of human rights are going unnoticed around the world; the longer they persist, the more irreversible India’s democratic retreat becomes. Human rights experts have been calling on the Indian government to reaffirm its democratic credentials and restore civic rights by freeing the protestors. To do so would be in keeping with India’s strong and historic commitment to political freedom – the very freedom celebrated on August 15th, and which was – as every Indian schoolchild knows – won through peaceful mass protest against colonial injustice.
Passed last December, the CAA threatens the constitutional foundation of this secular nation by linking the right to citizenship to a religious identity. This religious discrimination is exacerbated by plans to implement a National Registry of Citizens (NRC) which would require Indians to prove their citizenship and that of their parents or grandparents by providing valid documentation – an impossibility in a society where births and deaths have until recently rarely been recorded. When citizens in Assam were forced to submit paperwork to prove their identity in a state-level test-run of the NRC last August, there was a wave of suicides as nearly two million people despaired at the overnight loss of their citizenship rights.
Mass protests against the CAA
Mass protests erupted across the country to reject the act and the anti-secular vision of the “Hindu Rashtra” (Hindu Nation) to which it seems to be building. Some of the biggest protests, at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi, eventually ended because of the COVID-19 lockdown. The protests continue in physical and digital spaces, and have been joined by people from all walks of life. Women have been at the forefront of protests, which took multiple forms in multiple locations. Civil society representatives, poets, artists, musicians and activists have come out against the CAA.
The government ignored protestors’ legitimate demands, and refused to discuss the issues with protestors. Instead, right-wing groups held counter-protests at which top-ranking ruling party politicians issued violent threats against anti-CAA protestors with impunity. As the protests continued, BJP leader Kapil Mishra threatened violence against Muslims in a speech so outrageous it was widely condemned by the international community. Facebook now uses it as their yardstick measure of hate speech.
Soon after Mishra’s attack on Indian Muslims, on February 23, 2020, violence broke out leaving 53 dead, over 200 injured and extensive damage to property, including shops/businesses, homes and mosques, with Muslims overwhelmingly on the receiving end. Several reports accused the police of being silent bystanders in many instances and even active participants in a few. These are the very police who are now investigating the incidents. Media reports also confirm that the Delhi police is fabricating false statements and forcing those accused to sign them.
Students and activists arrested
Hindu nationalists have tried to blame this violence on the anti-CAA protestors, and most complaints or First Information Reports (FIRs) filed by the police have been against the anti-CAA movement. The Delhi Police arrested Jamia Milia Islamia students Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita along with activists Ishrat Jahan, Khalid Saifi, Gulfisha Fatima, Sharjeel Imam, and hundreds of other Muslim youth, while similar actions in Uttar Pradesh led to the arrests of Aligarh Muslim University students Farhan Zuberi and Ravish Ali Khan. All these arrests have been booked on grossly fabricated charges and bail has been rejected in most cases.
Unable to present concrete evidence linking protesters to the violence, the police appear to have resorted to a draconian anti-terrorism law called the “Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” to intimidate and incarcerate human rights defenders. UAPA relies on a vague definition of ‘terrorism’ that can be interpreted to encompass a wide range of non-violent political activity, allowing the state to criminalise dissent and political protest. It empowers the government to declare an organization as ‘terrorist’ and ban it; it also allows detention without specific charges for up to 180 days.
Covid-19 should not distract from human rights violations
As the world faces the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, global actors committed to social justice have a duty to not let the pandemic distract from violations of human rights, including the right to peaceful. Many Indian citizens are fearing for the very fabric of their democratic nation, as disregard for the truth, stoking of communal tensions and impunity for those who side with the ruling party become the norm. Distraction strategies have allowed the Indian government to avoid scrutiny as the nation reels from a triple crisis—political, economic and health.
The Indian government must uphold the rights of its own citizens and release those arrested on bail. Those arrested are not threats to democracy, they embody the very spirit of it. There is no risk of absconding. There has to be an independent inquiry that looks at the role of the police and politicians who have instigated the violence and the manner in which witness intimidated, journalists threatened and evidence fabricated. Let them defend themselves in the course of a thorough and transparent inquiry.
We thus believe the Indian government must now:
- release all anti -CAA political prisoners held prison without sufficient evidence
- bring to justice and arrest those who have been inciting and abetting violence
- ensure that the Delhi police desists from using coercion during interrogations and from extracting false statements from activists
- initiate an independent and rigorous enquiry to into the role of the police and politicians in the violence
- repeal the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act
The international community must put pressure on the Indian government now. We cannot stand by any longer and let such gross injustice occur in the world’s largest democracy.