The crackdown on activists and civil society in India is part of a disturbing global trend

Colombia-1-629x418Around 900 activists, thinkers and media persons from 109 different countries came together in Bogota, Colombia, this week to share experiences and plan how to resist this global wave of oppression. An Indian civil society viewpoint on how things have shaped up in the country:   

India is witnessing a repressive trend ever since Narendra Modi, member of an extreme right-wing Hindu nationalist organization, came to power in May 2014.. The murder of well-known rationalists, Govind Pansari, and MM Kalburgi, in 2015, and lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq Saifi on suspicion of storing beef are not isolated events. There have been violent attacks on human rights activists, writers and journalists for their sympathies with tribal groups close to extreme left-wing. Protesters in the national capital, Delhi, and Gujarat State, were arrested on charges of an archaic law of sedition.

These attacks have taken place alongside efforts to suppress civil society organizations which have been fighting for against social injustice. Licenses of NGOs are being suspended, and their foreign contributions are being stopped citing technical grounds. One of them is Sabrang, run by social activist Teesta Setalvad, fighting cases of Muslim minority victims of 2002 Gujarat genocide in which 1,200 people were killed. Another is Greenpeace India, which took up cudgels against forced displacement of tribal workers in Central India because of coalmine projects.

In 2005, the Government of India came up with a path-breaking legislation, Right to Information (RTI) Act, making it obligatory for official government machinery to provide information to individual citizens on demand. While this has led to a huge empowerment among citizens, there was also a strong retaliation. More than 300 activists seeking information on government officials, local contractors, politicians, land mafia and other vested interests have been attacked, harassed or murdered. As many as 48 people have lost their lives since 2008. These attacks have lately accelerated.

Events in 2016 suggest that the Government of India, instead of adopting a conciliatory attitude, is all out to suppress any form of protests, branding them as “anti-national.” In February 2016, in Delhi, several students, led by student union president of India’s premier seat of learning, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Kanhaiya Kumar, were arrested and declared “anti-national” for expressing their views against capital punishment.

The sedition law, under which they were arrested, was called by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as “highly objectionable” and “obnoxious”. One of its provisions, Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code, provides punishment for ‘sedition’, enacted by the British to silence all opposition to its autocratic rule. It was used against fighters for India’s freedom Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Mahatma Gandhi, MN Roy, Maulana Hasrat Mohani, and others.

The attack in Delhi happened six months after what is described as social murder of a PhD scholar, Rohith Vemula, of Hyderabad Central University, in South India. Vemula and four of his colleagues, all belonging to the backward Dalit caste, were suspended from the university hostel for holding protest against the extreme right-wing students’ organization, which did not allow screening of a documentary on communal riots. He was forced to commit suicide as senior politicians of the ruling party took active interest in the action against the Dalit students.

The central Indian state of Chhattisgarh has witnessed a sustained attack on journalists and human rights defenders over the last six months. Conditions have been created where arbitrary arrests, threats to life, and organized hindrance to the work of journalists, lawyers, and other human rights defenders have led to a near total information blackout. Local journalists investigating excesses by security forces have been arrested on trumped-up charges and tortured, while their lawyers have been threatened. Four local journalists – Santosh Yadav, Somaru Nag, Prabhat Singh and Deepak Jaiswal –are in jail for their alleged sympathies with tribal supporters of left extremism. Another journalist, Malini Subramaniam, who writes for a prominent news portal, was forced to leave her home following attacks on her home and police pressure on her landlord.

Also in Chhattisgarh, in February 2016, unknown assailants threw chemical substance on the face of a top tribal activist, Soni Sori. They warned her not to file a complaint against a high-ranking police official for an alleged extrajudicial execution. Academic Bela Bhatia and human rights lawyers well-known independent researcher faced intimidation and harassment from so-called vigilante groups for helping tribal women file police complaints of large-scale sexual assault and other abuses allegedly committed by security force personnel.

The crackdown on activists and civil society in India is part of a disturbing global trend as governments from both hemispheres seek to silence dissent. This is hindering the ability of the people, organisations and society to continue to protect human rights. Indeed, basic freedoms of speech, assembly and association are at stake.

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