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Home > 2021 > RSS is throttling Human Rights in India | Arun Srivastava

Mainstream, VOL LIX No 15, New Delhi, March 27, 2021

RSS is throttling Human Rights in India | Arun Srivastava

Friday 26 March 2021

by Arun Srivastava

The Modi government’s intolerance of foreign institutions’ criticism of its failure to listen to the global concern of the sharp rise in the violation of the human rights and its persistent unwillingness to take action against the violators leading to the erosion of the democratic values in the country, has motivated lawmakers of western countries to push a bill in their respective parliaments decrying the claim of the Modi government of India being a democratic country.

The political leaders of the western countries strong feel that since India under Modi government was inching towards declaring itself as a Hindu Rashtra, the ruling dispensation was in a planned manner ignoring the global concern.

A couple of days back the United States Secretary of Defense, General (Retd.) Lloyd J. Austin was on a three-day visit to India. Though there were many defence deals to be sorted out, he was specifically on the mission to discuss the issue of human rights violation and the measures the Modi government intends to initiate to salvage the situation. On March 19 he met Modi but clarified that he “did not have an opportunity to talk to” Prime Minister Narendra Modi on reports of human rights violations targeting minority communities. The importance of the issue could be gauged from the fact this issue was to come up during the first outreach by the new U.S. administration less than two months after President Biden assumed office.

Ahead of Austin’s visit, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee leader Senator Robert Menendez had also written a letter urging him to raise concerns over “ongoing crackdown” by the Modi government on farmers and journalists, and other issues, including the amendment of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Austin raised the issue of human rights in India during his meetings with Cabinet Ministers on Saturday. He made it abundantly clear during his talk with foreign minister S. Jaishankar. “as the two largest democracies in the world, human rights and values are important and we will lead with these values.” He also raised the violation of human rights of the Muslims in Assam.

IN this backdrop his observation “We have to remember that India is our partner, a partner whose partnership we value. And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions. And certainly we feel comfortable doing that. And you can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and make progress,” ought to be viewed in proper perspective. He also mentioned; “You’ve heard President Biden say human rights and rule of law are important to the U.S. We always lead with our values. As a democracy that’s pretty important to us.”

The new US rulers are not willing to follow in the footsteps of Donald Trump and ignore the partisan approach of Modi government. Significantly Menendez had emphasised that India-U.S. partnership in the 21st century must be based on “adherence to democratic values. India has been trending away from those values”. At some level this remarks reflects lack of trust in Modi.

Earlier the US Congress had held two hearings that largely focused on Kashmir. Several lawmakers criticized India’s actions in Kashmir, including political detentions and communications blockade, and raised concerns over other abuses including the citizenship verification process in Assam. In August, the UN Security Council held a closed meeting on Jammu and Kashmir for the first time in decades. US President Donald Trump offered to mediate and resolve the dispute.

Throughout the year, the UN special procedures issued several statements raising concerns over a slew of issues in India including extrajudicial killings, potential statelessness of millions in Assam, possible eviction of tribal communities and forest-dwellers, and communications blackout in Kashmir. In September, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet expressed concerns over rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

US secretary of defence Lloyd Austin on Saturday said he had discussed violations of human rights in India during his meetings with ministers here, adding that partners ought to be able to have such conversations. Referring to the Freedom House report that downgraded India from “free” to “partly free”, Menendez said: “The Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India.”

Attacks on the democratic institutions and crushing of the human rights have been taking place under a well-planned design. What is most disgraceful and shocking is all these have been happening under the full knowledge of Modi. He cannot pretend to be unaware of the developments. Modi and RSS are determined to crush any independent scrutiny of India’s human rights problems. Modi government froze the assets of Amnesty International, claiming that the organization was in violation of Indian law. The fact is he was feeling irritated by Amnesty’s unfavorable reports on recent riots in New Delhi, India’s human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir, and the passage of recent legislation that could adversely affect Muslims. No prime minister had ever turned vindictive to Amnesty.

At the height of the Kashmir insurgency in 1990, Narasimha Rao, then prime minister, was irritated by criticism of the Indian security forces’ harsh counterinsurgency tactics. Still, he did not create any hindrance in the functioning of the organisation. On the contrary, stung with repeated allegations of rampant human rights violations in Kashmir, his government created the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to examine the charges. It is hard to imagine that Modi would set up this nature of watchdog to monitor his governance. Shockingly his government deprived it of financial support by freezing its bank accounts.

Using Income Tax, Enforcement Directorate and CBI has been most common tactics of Modi and his government to terrorise his critics. Ford Foundation has also been at the target of Modi government. It is widely believed that the government was angry with its decision to fund a well-known human rights lawyer and activist, Teesta Setalvad, and her work representing the victims of a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister of the state.

The most favourite action of Modi has been to put his critics under jail by slapping charges of sedition. Nine prominent human rights activists were arrested in 2018 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and they are still languishing in the jail on the charges of ‘waging a war against the country’. All nine have worked with the most marginalised people of India, Dalits and Adivasis, and held views opposing the government. On 3 October, 49 renowned celebrities were charged with sedition for writing an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to take meaningful action against hate crimes. In their letter, they had cited government and other independent data to highlight the rise in hate crimes and decline in their convictions.

Besides these nine there are many left and liberal intellectuals and academics languishing in the jails. Shocking indeed the courts have been reluctant to grant them bails. The UN Human Rights office has expressed serious concern about the detention of human rights defenders, including those arrested in the controversial Bhima Koregaon case, and has urged the Indian authorities to release the detainees “at the very least on bail while they await trial”. The 80-year-old poet and human rights defender Varavara Rao, suffering from neurological problems, and the 83-year old tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, afflicted with the advanced Parkinson’s disease are “some of the elderly detainees with poor health”.

Other human rights defenders arrested under the controversial Bhima Koregaon case include lawyers, writers and academics such as Shoma Sen, Sudha Bhardwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonzalves, Arun Ferreira, Anand Teltumbde, and Gautam Navlakha, among others. They are currently detained in the Taloja prison in Mumbai, one of the most crowded prisons in India.

Barely two year back India’s major counter-terrorism law, the UAPA, was amended to facilitate the government to label an individual as a terrorist. But it lacks clarity. It gives an ambiguous and confusing definition of a ‘terrorist act’ but empowers the government with unbridled power to brand any ordinary citizen or activist a terrorist. It stands to implicate individuals for being proactive members of the society, ban critical thinking and criminalise dissent by designating them terrorists. In the same session, the RTI Act was also diluted. The amendments to the Act weakened the independence of the Information Commissions by resting the power to determine their tenure, salary and conditions of service with the central government.

UAPA is an anti-terror legislation, crafted for exceptional circumstances, that has become routinised. UAPA permits detention without charge for up to 180 days, making it a convenient tool to silence dissidents. Such long periods of pre-trial detention circumvent safeguards in the criminal justice system such as evidentiary requirements and burden of proof, and permit the state to punish those suspected of committing crimes without proving these allegations.

Human rights abuses have been rampant, but the India media which has been under the thumbs of Modi has not been showing or publishing the incidents as they have fallen in line. The media has abandoned its primary task of questioning the authorities and arming the common people with the information. It resorts to the tactics of blackout of the basic information. The communications blackout itself is a violation of human rights, as the UN passed a resolution in 2016 condemning the disruption of internet use by governments, since it is so widely recognised how vital the internet is in modern day life.

In Uttar Pradesh state, police continued to commit extrajudicial killings with impunity. Since the BJP state government took office in March 2017 a large number of people have been killed in the state. Recently four UN rights experts raised concerns over the killings, and on police threats against those pressing for justice in these cases. A petition seeking a court-monitored independent investigation was pending in the Supreme Court.

Even the Home Ministry conceded the fact that over 11,000 complaints of human rights violations have been registered against police officials in the financial year 2020-2021, with 5,388 such cases being reported from UP alone. In the last three years, the NHRC has recommended monetary relief of Rs 20.42 crore in 784 cases of police brutality, disciplinary action in 48 cases and prosecution in one case, the data shows.

Last year, 17,229 cases of human rights violations were filed by the NHRC and during 2018-2019, as many as 28,342 cases were filed. During 2017-2018, 26,391 cases were registered by NHRC on complaints about alleged violation of human rights by police officials. According to the statistics, as of January 15, 2021, maximum cases of human rights violations by police personnel were reported from UP, followed by Delhi (940), Tamil Nadu (575), Bihar (562), Haryana (408), Andhra Pradesh (384), Rajasthan (352), MP (341), Telangana (288), Maharashtra (246),West Bengal (231), Odisha (2

Authorities used sedition and criminal defamation laws to stifle peaceful dissent. In October, police in Bihar state filed a case of sedition against 49 people, including well-known movie personalities, for writing an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressing concerns over hate crimes and mob violence targeting minority communities. Following widespread condemnation, authorities closed the case within days. Journalists were harassed, even detained, for their reporting or critical comments on social media, and faced increasing pressure to self-censor.

In recent years, sedition has been weaponised and used routinely against critics of ruling governments. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau for 2019 confirm this observations. Ninety-three cases of sedition were filed in 2019, a 165% jump from 35 in 2016. In 2019, 1,226 UAPA cases were filed, a 33% increase from 2016. Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) defines sedition as any signs, visible representations, or words, spoken or written, that can cause “hatred or contempt, or excite or attempt to excite disaffection” towards the government. Sedition was used by the British against critics of the British administration. In Independent India, it has become a tool to curb freedom of speech and expression.

Though the Supreme Court in the Kedarnath case made it clear that the offence of sedition cannot be made out unless the accused person incites people to violence against the government established by law or with the intention of creating public disorder. But the situation has deteriorated to such an extent that even people are framed under sedition for staging a school play which criticised the prime minister, for saying that “Pakistan is not hell” and for writing to the prime minister about mob lynchings.

The progress of sedition and UAPA cases reveals that the police are invoking these offences indiscriminately. In 2019, in 9% of the sedition cases (pending from previous years and filed in 2019), the police closed the case because of insufficient evidence or because the accused was untraceable. Eleven per cent of UAPA cases (pending from previous years and filed in 2019 in the same year) were closed for the same reason. Charge-sheets were filed in only 17% of the sedition cases and 9% of the UAPA cases. The conviction rate in sedition cases in 2019 was 3.3% and for UAPA cases it was 29.2%. India has low conviction rates (average conviction rate in 2019 for crimes committed under IPC was 50.4%) but these are abysmal even by that bar.

96% sedition cases filed against 405 people after BJP’s 2014 victory. Around 149 people were accused of making “critical” or “derogatory” remarks against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and 144 against Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath. This figure is for the period from January 1, 2010, and December 31, 2020. Six sedition cases were filed during the ongoing farmers’ agitation, 22 after the Hathras gangrape, 25 amid protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in 2019 and 27 after the Pulwama terror attack. Those charged with sedition included Opposition leaders, students, journalists, academics and authors. Twenty-two of the sedition cases related to the anti-CAA protests were registered in BJP-ruled states. In the case of Pulwama attack, 26 of the 27 sedition cases were also filed in states where BJP is in power. Bihar, Karnataka, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu accounted for nearly 65% of all sedition cases registered during these Modi rule.It also found a 28% increase in sedition cases registered each year during Modi’s term in office between 2014 and 2020, as against the United Progressive Alliance’s second term.

The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (UNWGAD) has termed the arrest and custody of Jamia Millia Islamia student Safoora Zargar a violation of the Universal declaration of human rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. Recently Shiv Kumar a young trade unionist was arrested for fighting for the workers. He was brutally assaulted in the police custody.

Concerns over the security forces’ human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir have raised a barrier before Germany’s small arms exports to India. German regulations and covenants restrict, and often prohibit, arms sales to nations or regions where their use might cause direct or collateral damage to civilian populations and institutions.Two Indian security officials familiar with the bar on German small arms producers said these companies had failed to obtain export licences from their government on account of the “poor human rights record” in Kashmir.

India was the world’s second-largest importer of major arms between 2014 and 2018 and accounted for 9.5 per cent of the global imports, according to a report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute in 2019. According to the report, Russia accounted for 58 per cent of Indian arms imports between 2014 and 2018, while Israel, the US and France too increased their arms exports to India during this period.

India has slipped further to rank 53 out of 167 nations in the Democracy Index 2020, earning itself the stripes of a ‘flawed democracy’. India’s slide has coincided with the political ascendancy of Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party: the nation’s score has fallen from a peak of 7.92 in 2014 — the year democratic India gave Modi his first term in power — to an alarming 6.61 in 2020. Surprisingly instead of amending his style of functioning Modi blames others for showing him poor light. A month back Modi on the floor of Lok Sabha has claimed that there is an international conspiracy — a ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’ — at work to defame the nation. Civil liberties, one of the hallmarks of democracy, are facing an unprecedented crackdown from the authorities, pulling India down the ranking. The sustained assault on dissent, the introduction of a religious test for citizenship, the emergence of a pliant media and, allegedly, a passive judiciary, the Centre’s discernible apathy towards parliamentary deliberations and collective consent — the passage of the controversial farm laws are one example — prolonged periods of internet shutdown and so on may have all contributed to what the Index says is ‘democratic backsliding’ in the Indian context.

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