India sinking in civic freedoms survey

March 21, 2022

While the world’s attention is understandably focused on the war in Ukraine, other major countries should not stay outside the limelight, e.g. India (conspicuously absent in the condemnation of the aggression) which continues to flaunt human rights. [See e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2022/01/28/anti-terror-laws-in-india-keep-being-used-against-human-rights-defenders/].

On 10 March 2022, The Wire in New Delhi reported that India has been added to CIVICUS’ watchlist of countries that have seen a “rapid decline” in civic freedoms by an independent monitor, highlighting the drastic measures taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to silence critics of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

India and Russia were added to CIVICUS Monitor’s Watchlist. CIVICUS Monitor is an online platform that tracks the latest developments to civic freedoms, including the freedoms of expression, association and peaceful assembly, across 197 countries and territories.

India has remained a “repressed” nation in the ‘People Power Under Attack 2021’ report by the CIVICUS Monitor, along with 48 other countries including Afghanistan, Russia and Hong Kong. Its rating was first downgraded in 2019, “due to a crackdown on human rights activists, attacks on journalists and civil society groups, and the assault on civic freedoms in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir”.

This rating is typically given to countries where civic space is heavily contested by power holders, who impose a combination of legal and practical constraints on the full enjoyment of fundamental rights.

In its report, CIVICUS highlighted several developments that it saw as cause for concern.

In January, the Central Bureau of Investigation conducted raids on Madurai-based human rights watchdog, People’s Watch. The raid came against the backdrop of 6,000 other civil society organisations, including Oxfam, losing their foreign funding licenses under the controversial Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. Greenpeace and Amnesty International are among the civil society groups that have had to close their offices in India.

Meanwhile, scores of human rights defenders and activists remain in detention under the draconian Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and other laws. They include the 15 human rights defenders linked to the 2018 Bhima Koregaon incident who have been accused of having links with Maoist organisations, based on evidence believed to be “fabricated”.

Waiting for bail, 84-year-old tribal rights activist Stan Swamy, who remained in custody since October 2020 in the Elgar Parishad case under UAPA, died in July last year. [Update on this case: The death of Jesuit priest and Adivasi rights activist Stan Swamy in judicial custody will “forever remain a stain on the human rights record of India”, says a new brief by the United Nations’ Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The group had formally adopted its opinion on Swamy’s death during its 92nd session on November 16, last year but made its comments public just this week. The Working Group transmitted to the Indian Government a communication concerning Swamy on May 12 last year, but did not receive any response. India is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR]. In its communication, the Working Group urged the Government to prioritize the use of non-custodial measures at all stages of criminal proceedings, including during the pretrial phase, in the current context of a global pandemic. Furthermore, its source submitted that placing Father Swamy in prison increased his risk of contracting COVID-19 and thus put his life at risk. The failure of the Government to heed these prescient warnings led to his avoidable death in custody, the opinion states.] [https://theleaflet.in/un-working-group-asks-india-to-accord-stan-swamys-family-with-compensation-and-reparations-under-international-law/]

Further, at least 13 activists who were arrested under the UAPA for their work against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) 2019 remain in detention. The slow investigative processes and extremely stringent bail provisions ensure that those detained under the law are held in pre-trial detention for long periods.

“The office raids and foreign funding bans are part of the government’s strategy to harass and silence their critics,” said Josef Benedict, Civic Space Researcher for the CIVICUS Monitor. “The use of broadly worded anti-terrorism laws against activists, journalists, academics, and students, reflect a multi-year decline in the state of civic and democratic freedoms in the country.”

Journalists have continued to be targeted in India for their work in recent months and there have also been concerns about the widespread surveillance of activists, journalists and others critical of the Modi government following the Pegasus spyware expose.

The government must release all human rights defenders detained and come clean about its surveillance of activists and journalists as well as establish an independent and effective oversight mechanism to monitor all stages of interceptions of communications,” said Henri Tiphagne, national working secretary of HRDA – India.

In a letter addressed to Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, 21 members of European Parliament stated, “We, the undersigned Members of the European Parliament, are writing to express our concern over the treatment of human rights defenders (HRDs) in India.” “We have followed cases of HRDs being jailed for their peaceful work, targeted under anti-terror laws, labeled as terrorists, and facing increasing restrictions on their ability to safely mobilize and access funds due to restrictive legislation. We are especially concerned about the safety of unjustly jailed defenders with emphasis on 15 HRDs accused in what is known as the Bhima Koregaon case and 13 defenders currently in jail for their campaign against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).”

They expressed worry that the prominent human rights defender Khurram Parvez remained in detention under the UAPA in one of the most overcrowded and unsanitary prisons in the country for his documenting of rights violations in Indian-administered Kashmir.

Echoing calls by UN experts, they viewed their case as emblematic of the way the Indian government “continues to use the UAPA as a means of coercion to restrict human rights defenders’ fundamental freedoms in the country.” [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/11/23/india-arrests-khurram-parvez-again/]

See also 31 March: https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/03/31/human-rights-watch-submission-universal-periodic-review-india

https://thewire.in/rights/for-rapid-decline-in-civic-freedoms-india-added-to-civicus-monitors-watchlist

One Response to “India sinking in civic freedoms survey”


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