Posts Tagged ‘India’

Positioning China as THE threat, overlooks the bigger issues within democracies

August 7, 2021

Zack Beauchamp in VOX of 28 July 2021 makes a strong but perhaps controversial plea that “In the fight for democracy’s future, Indian and American politics is more important than anything China is doing“:

Donald Trump and Narendra Modi shaking hands while standing in front of US and Indian flags.
Donald Trump and Narendra Modi.

One of the emerging tenets of the Biden presidency is that the United States and China are locked in ideological conflict over the fate of democracy.

In March, during his first press conference as president, he declared that “this is a battle between the utility of democracies in the 21st century and autocracies.” In April, during his first address to a joint session of Congress, he labeled this struggle “the central challenge of the age” — and that China’s Xi Jinping is “deadly earnest about becoming the most significant, consequential nation in the world.”

More recently, in last week’s CNN town hall, he warned that Xi “truly believes that the 21st century will be determined by oligarchs, [that] democracies cannot function in the 21st century. The argument is, because things are moving so rapidly, so, so rapidly that you can’t pull together a nation that is divided to get a consensus on acting quickly.”

Inasmuch as there is a Biden doctrine, the notion that the US needs to protect democracy from China’s authoritarian model is at the center of it. “Biden’s administration [is] framing the contest as a confrontation of values, with America and its democratic allies standing against the model of authoritarian repression that China seeks to impose on the rest of the world,” Yaroslav Trofimov writes in the Wall Street Journal.

Biden’s thinking captures an important insight: that the struggle over democracy’s fate will be one of the defining conflicts of the 21st century. But his analysis is crucially flawed in one respect: China is not an especially important reason why democracy is currently under threat — and centering it is not only wrong, but potentially dangerous.

In countries where democracy is at real risk of collapse or even outright defeated — places like India, Brazil, Hungary, Israel, and, yes, the United States — the real drivers of democratic collapse are domestic. Far-right parties are taking advantage of ethno-religious divides and public distrust in the political establishment to win electorally — and then twist the rules to entrench their own hold on power. Leaders of these factions, like former US President Donald Trump and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aid and abet each other’s anti-democratic politics.

More traditional authoritarian states, even powerful ones like China or Russia, have thus far played at best marginal roles in this struggle.

“Much of the recent global democratic backsliding has little to do with China,” Thomas Carothers and Frances Brown, two leading experts on democracy, write in a recent Foreign Affairs essay. “An overriding focus on countering China and Russia risks crowding out policies to address the many other factors fueling democracy’s global decline.”

This misdiagnosis has real policy stakes. Leaning into competition with China could lead the US to excuse anti-democratic behavior by important partners, like Modi or the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, in a manner reminiscent of US relations with anti-communist dictators during the Cold War. Moreover, too much emphasis on competition with China could distract from the place where Biden has the most power to affect democracy’s fate — the home front, an area in which voting rights advocates increasingly see him as indefensibly complacent.

There are real problems associated with China’s rise. Its increasing military belligerence, predatory economic practices, and horrific human rights abuses in places like Xinjiang are all very serious concerns. But the fact that China is the source of many real issues doesn’t mean it’s the source of democratic erosion worldwide — and positioning it as such will do little to advance the democratic cause.

Democracies are rotting from within, not without

In his public rhetoric, Biden often argues that the US needs to prove that democracy “works” — that it can “get something done,” as he said last week — in order to outcompete the Chinese model.

While he hasn’t spelled out the nature of this competition all that precisely, the concern seems to center on Chinese policy success: that its rapid economic growth and authoritarian ability to make swift policy changes will inspire political copycats unless democracies prove that they can also deliver real benefits for their citizens.

“I believe we are in the midst of an historic and fundamental debate about the future direction of our world,” the president wrote in a March letter outlining his national security strategy. “There are those who argue that, given all the challenges we face, autocracy is the best way forward. And there are those who understand that democracy is essential to meeting all the challenges of our changing world.”

But at this point, the fear of Chinese political competition is mostly hypothetical. While the Chinese government and state media frequently tout the superiority of its political model to American-style democracy, there’s little evidence that these efforts are all that influential globally — and certainly not in the countries where democracy is most at risk.

A look back at the Soviet Union, the last major challenge to the hegemony of liberal democracy, is telling. ln ideological terms, there’s no comparison: Soviet communism was a far more powerful model than Chinese authoritarian state capitalism is today.

CHINA-BEIJING-XI JINPING-JULY 1 MEDAL-AWARD CEREMONY (CN)
Xi Jinping.

Marxist ideals inspired revolutionary Communist movements and governments around the globe, successfully toppling Western-backed governments in countries ranging from Cuba to Vietnam to China itself. By contrast, there are vanishingly few foreign governments or even political parties today openly vowing to emulate modern China. While the Soviets had the Iron Curtain in Europe, modern China’s most notable client state is North Korea — perhaps the most isolated and mistrusted government on the planet.

In the countries that observers worry most about — established democratic states experiencing “backsliding” toward authoritarianism — Chinese influence is minimal at best.

In backsliding democracies, authoritarian-inclined leaders win and hold power through the electoral system for domestic reasons. Corruption scandals in India and Hungary, violent crime in the Philippines, a racist backlash against America’s first Black president: These are some of the key factors in the rise of authoritarian populists, and they weren’t created or even significantly promoted by China.

Elected authoritarians still bill themselves as defenders of democracy while in power — even after they start undermining the electoral system with tactics like extreme gerrymandering and takeovers of state election agencies. Their political appeal isn’t grounded in an overt rejection of democracy in favor of a Chinese model, but rather a claim to be taking democracy back from corrupt elites in the name of the “true” people, typically defined in ethno-nationalist terms.

The ideology driving modern democratic decline is vastly different from the sort that China promotes at home and through official state media. It represents a home-grown challenge inside the democratic world, rather than an externally stoked, Cold War-style threat.

That’s not to say China does nothing to undermine democracy outside its borders. It has, for example, exported surveillance technology and provided training in “cybersecurity” for foreign officials that amount to teaching them tools for controlling public opinion — underscoring its role as a global pioneer in using technology to repress dissent.

Yet even in this area, China’s influence can easily be overstated. Backsliding countries typically do not ban websites outright or arrest online dissidents in the way China does. Instead, they rely on spreading misinformation and other more subtle uses of state power. When they do use more traditional authoritarian tools, they often don’t need China’s help in doing so — as shown by recent reporting on Israel’s NSO Group, a company with close links to the Israeli state that sold spy software to India and Hungary (whose governments allegedly used it to surveil journalists and opposition figures).

In his recent book The Rise of Digital Repression, Carnegie Endowment scholar Steven Feldstein attempts to systematically document the use of digital tools and tactics for undermining democracy around the world. He found that while such practices were indeed becoming more widespread, this is largely due to domestic factors in authoritarian and backsliding countries rather than Chinese influence.

“China really wasn’t pushing this technology any more so than other countries were pushing advanced technology or censorship technologies,” he told me in an interview earlier this year. “What I saw — when I spoke on the ground to intelligence officials, government officials, and others — was that there were many other factors at play that were much more determinative in terms of whether they would choose to purchase a surveillance system or use it than just the fact that China was trying to market it.”

The problem with blaming China for democracy’s crisis

Biden and his team recognize that many of the challenges to democracy have domestic roots. But in casting the rise of anti-democratic populism as part of a grander ideological struggle against an authoritarian Chinese model, they conflate two distinct phenomena — and risk making some significant policy errors.

Again, an analogy to the Cold War is helpful here. One of the most grievous errors of America’s containment policy was its repeated willingness to align itself with anti-communist dictators. The perceived need to stop the expansion of Soviet influence consistently trumped America’s commitment to democracy — with horrific consequences for the people of Iran, Argentina, Indonesia, and Bangladesh (to name just a handful of examples from a very long list).

The more China is treated like the new Soviet Union — the principal ideological threat to democracy whose influence must be curtailed — the more likely the US is to repeat that mistake.

Take India, for example. In the past six months, Biden has courted Modi’s government as a potential counterweight to China. “There are few relationships in the world that are more vital than one between the U.S. and India. We are the world’s two leading democracies,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a July 28 press conference in New Delhi.

Yet this is an Indian government that has assailed the rights of its Muslim citizens, strong-armed US social media companies into removing critical posts, and arrested a leading protest figure. Earlier this year, V-Dem — a research group behind the leading academic metric of democracy — announced that India under Modi was an “electoral autocracy,” rather than a true democracy. It’s easy to see how an emphasis on China could lead to these problems getting swept under the rug.

“There has long been a bipartisan consensus in Washington that India is a critical ally in its attempt to check Chinese influence in Asia,” the Indian intellectual Pankaj Mishra wrote in a June Bloomberg column. “In overlooking the Modi government’s excesses, Biden probably counts on support from a US foreign policy establishment invested more in realpolitik than human rights.”

If you take the notion that democracy’s crisis is emerging from within seriously, then it follows that very best thing that Biden could do for democracy’s global future has nothing to do with China or even foreign policy. It’s arresting creeping authoritarianism at home.

Black Voters Matter Protest
Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, and Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA) are arrested during a protest to support voting rights outside of Hart Senate Office Building on Thursday, July 22, 2021.

Biden has acknowledged this at times, writing in his March letter that his global strategy “begins with the revitalization of our most fundamental advantage: our democracy.” And yet that urgency hasn’t translated into action — legislation necessary to safeguard American democracy from the GOP’s increasingly anti-democratic politics appears stalled out. Biden, for his part, has refused to publicly endorse more aggressive action to break the logjam — like abolishing the filibuster for voting rights bills.

The New York Times recently reported that “in private calls with voting rights groups and civil rights leaders, White House officials and close allies of the president have expressed confidence that it is possible to ‘out-organize voter suppression’” — an implausible claim that reflects an administration that, according to activists, has “largely accepted the Republican restrictions as baked in and is now dedicating more of its effort to juicing Democratic turnout.”

Shoring up American democracy after the recent attacks it has suffered should be the top priority of any US government concerned with democracy’s global fate. But for all of Biden’s lofty language about out-competing China and winning the future for democracy, there’s a striking lack of urgency when it comes to the perhaps the most important backsliding country — his own.

In this sense, China has very little influence over the future of democracy globally. The key battles are happening not in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait, but in the legislatures of New Delhi and Washington. If there really is to be a grand struggle for democracy’s survival in the 21st century, it needs to start there.

https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/22590777/biden-china-democracy-voting-india-doctrine

Father Stan’s death: callousness that amounts to murder

July 5, 2021

What many feared has happened, jailed Indian tribal rights activist Stan Swamy has died of a cardiac arrest in Mumbai city. He was 84. He was jailed last year under draconian anti-terror law UAPA in connection with the Elgar Parishad case – his death has triggered a flood of messages on social media from political leaders, intellectuals and other activists. Swamy, the oldest person to be accused of terrorism in India, was arrested in October 2020.

Members of the civil society on Sunday 4 July 2021 had urged the chief justice of the Bombay High Court to intervene and provide relief to ailing activist Stan Swamy. They demanded that the 84-year-old, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease and had been put on ventilator support, should be granted bail immediately and allowed to return to Jharkhand.

Mary Lawlor, Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders shared a similar Tweet, saying it was “horrible news” that Swamy was put on a ventilator: “He’s spent 9 months in jail on unfounded charges. I’m deeply saddened and expect that every possible specialist treatment will be provided to him.”

Mr Gilmore – the European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights, – re-tweeted Ms Lawlor’s post and added: “India: I am very saddened to hear that Father Stan Swamy has passed away. A defender of indigenous peoples’ rights. He was held in detention for the past 9 months. The EU had been raising his case repeatedly with authorities.”

The Jesuit priest, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, was moved to a private hospital in May after he tested positive for Covid. As he was very belatedly released on bail into hospital and was denied critical treatment in detention, he should be considered a death in the custody of the state.

Jharkhand Chief Minister Hemant Soren stated on Monday: Shocked to learn about the demise of Father Stan Swamy. He dedicated his life working for tribal rights. I had strongly opposed his arrest & incarceration. The Union Govt should be answerable for absolute apathy & non provision of timely medical services, leading to his death.

See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/11/the-indomitable-father-stan-swamy-defending-the-adivasis-and-the-dalits-a-cause-of-arrest/

I understand there will be likely a virtual memorial tomorrow, but no details known yet.

A joint statement by important international NGOs (Amnesty International, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, CSW, FIDH, in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, Front Line Defenders, International Commission of Jurists, International Dalit Solidarity Network, World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT), in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders)) was issued on 5 July: https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/india/india-joint-statement-on-the-death-of-human-rights-defender-father

The Government keeps insisting that all was ‘legal’: https://www.mangalorean.com/govt-rebuts-un-says-stan-swamys-detention-was-lawful/

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-57718356

https://scroll.in/latest/999322/as-activist-stan-swamys-heath-worsens-civil-society-members-call-for-bail-specialised-treatment

https://www.outlookindia.com/website/story/india-news-stan-swamys-death-marks-a-tragic-moment-for-indian-democracy-akhil-gogoi/387163

https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/elgar-parishad-case-stan-swamys-death-devastating-eu-un-human-rights-reps-on-stan-swamys-death-2479792

https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/activists-opposition-call-out-custodial-murder-of-stan-swamy-101625494111357-amp.html

https://www.fidh.org/en/region/asia/india/india-joint-statement-on-the-death-of-human-rights-defender-father

https://www.indialegallive.com/column-news/stan-swamy-uapa-unlawful-activities-prevention-act-kanchan-nanaware-varavara-rao-binayak-sen/

https://www.miragenews.com/death-in-custody-of-priest-stan-swamy-is-596431/

https://www.ucanews.com/news/book-tells-story-of-indian-jesuit-who-died-in-custody/94104#

Delhi High Court re-establishes that criticism is not sedition

June 16, 2021

Lawyers have welcomed the decision by Delhi High Court stating that protesters have the right to criticise the government. They also hailed the Court’s verdict defining the lines between criticism of the government and activities that destabilize the country.

Aneesha Mathur in India Today of 16 June 2021 reports that -with the Delhi High Court rapping the government and Delhi Police over imposing UAPA on activists in connection with the clashes, following the anti-CAA protest – lawyers and jurists have said the verdict was significant since it has tried to define the line between criticism of the government, which is a Constitutional right, and activities that destabilize the country.

Former Supreme court justice Madan B Lokur welcomed the High court verdict.: “The judgment is welcome. It’s about time the courts told the State that draconian laws like the UAPA, NSA, sedition and so on may be used, if at all, very rarely and only if there is clinching evidence. Draconian laws cannot and must not be abused otherwise our braveheart judges will strike down arbitrary actions. The Delhi High Court has opened the door for interference and other High Courts should follow quickly while recognising that human rights are for humans and not the faceless State,”.

See also; https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2018/10/07/india-attacks-on-human-rights-defenders-abound-under-unlawful-activities-prevention-act/

Senior advocate Dushyant Dave told India Today TV that the court had “not said anything new but laid down the law on the facts of the case.” Dave also called for “proactive and expeditious” movement from the judiciary on similar cases, and said that the activists “had lost one year of their life,” for no reason.advertisement

We are the world’s largest democracy. We will not be able to call ourselves a democracy if such laws are used to suppress dissent.” Speaking to India Today TV, Dave said despite “rule of law”, India had “become a police state.”

“Not only is BJP government abusing UAPA, but the Congress government also abused POTA and thousands were put in jail,” said Dave.

Lawyer Vrinda Grover also said the HC verdict was “significant” since there has been indiscriminate use of the law in recent years.

“Over the last few years, we see the police frequently using UAPA and sedition to silence critical citizens’ voices by placing them behind bars under stringent anti-terror law. The High Court has pierced through the indiscriminate use of UAPA by the police and unwarranted labelling of activities as terrorism. The Court has reiterated that non-violent contestation of government policies and laws is a constitutionally protected right to protest. Finally, the court has also reminded that if the speedy trial is not possible they must be granted bail,” said Grover.

He added: “In this context, we must raise the issue of incarceration of 16 human rights defenders in the Bhima Koregaon case under UAPA for almost three years and the trial is yet to commence. The judiciary must intervene and not allow the criminal legal machinery to be used by the State to suppress fundamental freedoms of citizens, otherwise democracy is in peril.”

“Anti-terror laws are made very strict because they are meant to handle terrorism cases. The government must balance the right of the citizens to protest and criticise with the need of the state. But governments tend to treat criticism as sedition and anti-national, which is wrong. The two judges have shown courage in calling this out,” said Senior advocate Geeta Luthra.

Former Law Commission chairman, Justice BS Chauhan said that while the potential for misuse “cannot mean repeal of an act”, there is a “need to define the contours of the law, as the UAPA is a wide provision” as it was meant to combat serious threats.advertisement

“Courts need to define contours of sedition and UAPA otherwise they can cover freedom of speech and expression,” said Chauhan.

https://www.indiatoday.in/law/story/wrong-to-treat-criticism-as-sedition-lawyers-welcome-delhi-hc-verdict-quashing-uapa-case-against-activists-1815309-2021-06-16

Wrap up 46th session of UN Human Rights Council with key resolutions on Belarus and Myanmar and more

March 29, 2021

UN Photo/Jean-Marc FerréA general view of the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council in session. 24 March 2021

The UN’s top rights forum passed resolutions condemning abuses of fundamental freedoms in Belarus and Myanmar on Wednesday, in response to ongoing concerns over the human rights situation in both countries.

The ISHR and another 15 organisations (see below) produced as usual their reflections on the key outcomes of the 46th session of the UN Human Rights Council, as well as the missed opportunities to address key issues and situations including pushbacks and other human rights violations faced by migrants and refugees, and the human rights situations in Algeria, Cameroon, China, India, Kashmir and the Philippines.

They welcome some important procedural advances such as the possibility for NGOs to make video statements, which should be maintained and expanded after the pandemic for all discussions, including in general debates. …They are concerned by the renewal for another year of the ‘efficiency’ measures piloted in 2020, despite their negative impact on civil society participation in a year also impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. We urge States to reinstate general debates in the June sessions, to preserve their open-ended nature, and maintain the option of video intervention also in general debates.

Environmental justice:

They welcome the joint statement calling for the recognition of the right of all to a safe, clean, healthy and sustainable environment that was delivered by the Maldives, on behalf of Costa Rica, Morocco, Slovenia and Switzerland and supported by 55 States. We call on all States to seize this historic opportunity to support the core-group as they continue to work towards UN recognition so that everyone in the world, wherever they live, and without discrimination, has the right to live in a safe, clean and sustainable environment.

We welcome the joint statement that was delivered by Bangladesh, on behalf of 55 States, calling the Council to create a new Special Rapporteur on human rights and climate change. We believe this new mandate would be essential to supporting a stronger human rights-based approach to climate change, engaging in country visits, normative work and capacity-building, and further addressing the human rights impacts of climate responses, in order to support the most vulnerable. This mandate should be established without further delay.

Racial Justice: Over 150 States jointly welcomed that the implementation of HRC Resolution 43/1 will center victims and their families. They urge the Council to respond to the High Commissioner’s call to address root causes of racism including the “legacies of enslavement, the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans, and its context of colonialism”. The Council must answer to the demands of victims’ families and civil society’s, and establish – at its next session – an independent inquiry to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement in the United States and a thematic commission of inquiry to investigate systemic racism in law enforcement globally, especially where it is related to legacies of colonialism and transatlantic slavery.

Right to health: The resolution on ensuring equitable, affordable, timely, and universal access by all countries to vaccines in response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a welcome move in highlighting the need for States not to have export and other restrictions on access to safe diagnostics, therapeutics, medicines, and vaccines, and essential health technologies, and their components, as well as equipment  and encouraged States to use all flexibilities within TRIPs. However, a revised version of the resolution tabled was further weakened by the deletion of one paragraph on stockpiling of vaccines and the reference to ‘unequal allocation and  distribution among countries”. The specific deletion highlights the collusion between rich States and big pharmaceuticals, their investment in furthering monopolistic intellectual property regimes resulting in grave human rights violations. The reluctance of States, predominantly WEOG States who continue to defend intellectual property regimes and States’ refusal to hold business enterprises accountable to human rights standards is very concerning during this Global crisis.

Attempts to undermine HRC mandate: They regret that once again this Council has adopted a resolution, purportedly advancing ‘mutual beneficial cooperation’ which seeks to undermine and reinterpret both the principle of universality and its mandate. Technical assistance, dialogue and cooperation must be pursued with the goal of promoting and protecting human rights, not as an end in itself or as a means of facilitating inter-State relations. We reiterate our call on all States, and especially Council members, to consider country situations in an independent manner, based on objective human rights criteria supported by credible UN and civil society information. This is an essential part of the Council’s work; reliance on cooperation alone hobbles the Council’s ability to act to support the defenders and communities that look to it for justice.

Country-specific resolutions: They welcome the new mandate for the High Commissioner focused on the human rights situation in Belarus in the context of the 2020 Presidential election. It is now essential for States to support the High Commissioner’s office, ensuring the resources and expertise are made available so that the mandate can be operationalised as quickly as possible. Immediately afterwards, on 24 March, 2021 the Human Rights House Foundation published a call by 64 Belarusian and international human rights organisations, welcoming the resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Council mandating the High Commissioner to create a new robust monitoring and reporting mandate focused on accountability for human rights violations in Belarus that have taken place since 1 May 2020. In so doing, the Council demonstrated its determination to hold Belarusian authorities to account. This mandate needs immediate action. We urge the international community to support this critical next step. The mandate should provide a complementary and expert international mechanism to regional accountability processes already under way. Furthermore, it should assist in the identification of those responsible for the most serious violations for future prosecution. [https://humanrightshouse.org/statements/civil-society-organisations-call-for-the-immediate-operationalisation-of-hrcs-new-mandate-on-belarus/]

They welcome the renewal of the mandate of the Special Rapporteur on Iran, and urge Council to consider further action to hold Iranian authorities accountable, in view of the systematic impunity and lack of transparency surrounding violations of human rights in the country.

They welcome the call for additional resources for the Special Rapporteur on Myanmar, increased reporting by OHCHR as well as the work of the IIMM. Lack of international monitoring on, the imposition of martial law in Myanmar to prosecute civilians, including protesters, before military courts, the dangerous escalation of violence by the Tatmadaw and the widespread human rights violations amounting to crimes against humanity demand more efforts to ensure accountability.

They welcome the renewal and strengthening of the OHCHR’s monitoring and reporting mandate on Nicaragua, in a context of steady human rights deterioration marked by the Government’s refusal to cooperate constructively with the Office, over two years after its expulsion from the country. The adopted resolution lays out steps that Nicaragua should take to resume good faith cooperation and improve the situation ahead of this year’s national elections. It is also vital that this Council and its members continue to closely follow the situation in Nicaragua, and live up to the resolution’s commitments, by considering all available measures should the situation deteriorate by next year.

They welcome the increased monitoring and reporting on the situation of human rights in Sri Lanka. However, in light of the High Commissioner’s report on the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation and Sri Lanka’s incapacity and unwillingness to pursue accountability for crimes under international law, the Council should have urged States to seek other avenues to advance accountability, including through extraterritorial or universal jurisdiction.

While they welcome the extension of the mandate of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan (CHRSS), they regret the adoption of a competing resolution under the inadequate agenda item 10. This resolution sends a wrong signal as myriads of local-level conflicts and ongoing SGBV and other violations of fundamental rights continue to threaten the country’s stability. We urge South Sudan to continue cooperating with the CHRSS and to demonstrate concrete progress on key benchmarks and indicators.

They welcome the report by the Commission of Inquiry on Syria on arbitrary imprisonment and detention and reiterate the recommendation to establish an independent mechanism “to locate the missing or their remains”, and call on States to ensure the meaningful participation of victims and adopt a victim-centered approach, including by taking into consideration the Truth and Justice Charter of Syrian associations of survivors and families of disappeared when addressing arbitrary detention and enforced disappearance.

Country-specific State statements: They welcome States’ leadership and statements on human rights situations that merit the HRC’s attention.

They welcome the joint statement on the situation in Ethiopia’s Tigray region and urge all actors, including the Ethiopian Federal Government, to protect civilians and ensure unhindered humanitarian access. Those responsible for crimes under international law, including Ethiopian soldiers, members of armed militias and non-State groups, and Eritrean soldiers involved in Tigray, must be held criminally accountable. The HRC should mandate an independent investigation and reporting by the High Commissioner.

For the first time in seven years, States at the HRC have united to condemn the widespread human rights violations by Egypt and its misuse of counter-terrorism measures to imprison human rights defenders, LGBTI persons, journalists, politicians and lawyers and peaceful critics. They welcome the cross-regional joint statement by 32 States and we reiterate our call supported by over 100 NGOs from across the world on the HRC to establish a monitoring and reporting mechanism on the situation.

They welcome the joint statement by 45 States focused on the human rights situation in Russia, including the imprisonment of Alexi Navalny and the large number of arbitrary arrests of protestors across Russia. The statement rightly expresses concern for shrinking civil society space in Russia through recent legislative amendments and Russia using its “tools of State” to attack independent media and civil society.

In the context of mounting international recognition that Israel imposes an apartheid regime over the Palestinian people, they welcome Namibia’s call for the “restoration of the UN Special Committee on Apartheid in order to ensure the implementation of the Apartheid Convention to the Palestinian situation.” See also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/01/18/israel-and-apartheid-israeli-human-rights-group-stirs-debate/]

For the future:

The next session will receive a report on pushbacks from the Special Rapporteur on human rights of migrants. The Council must respond to the severity and scale of pushbacks and other human rights violations faced by migrants and refugees in transit and at borders and the ongoing suppression of solidarity, including by answering the High Commissioner’s call for independent monitoring. The Council’s silence feeds impunity, it must build on the momentum of the joint statement of over 90 States reaffirming their commitment to protection of the human rights of all migrants regardless of status.

While the OHCHR expressed deep concern about the deteriorating human rights situation and the ongoing crackdown on civil society in Algeria, and called for the immediate and unconditional release of arbitrarily detained individuals, the Council has remained largely silent. As authorities are increasingly arbitrarily and violently arresting protesters – at least 1,500 since the resumption of the Hirak pro-democracy movement on 13 February, they call on the Council to address the criminalisation of public freedoms, to protect peaceful protesters, activists and the media.

Cameroon is one of the human rights crises the Council has failed to address for too long. They condemn the acts of intimidation and reprisal exercised by the Cameroonian government in response to NGOs raising concerns, including DefendDefenders. This is unacceptable behavior by a Council member. The Council should consider collective action to address the gross human rights violations and abuses occurring in the country.

They echo the calls of many governments for the Council to step up its meaningful action to ensure that concerns raised by civil society, the UN Special Procedures and the OHCHR about the human rights situation in China be properly addressed, including through an independent international investigation. We also regret that a number of States have taken an unprincipled approach of voicing support to actions, such as those by the Chinese government, including in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, through their national and other joint statements.

They call for the Council’s attention on the rapid deterioration of human rights in India. Violent crackdowns on recent farmers’ protests, internet shutdowns in protest areas, sedition and criminal charges against journalists reporting on these protests, and criminalisation of human rights defenders signal an ongoing dangerous trend in restrictions of fundamental freedoms in India. We call on India to ensure fundamental freedoms and allow journalists, HRDs and civil society to continue their legitimate work without intimidation and fear of reprisals. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/29/also-un-calls-on-india-to-protect-human-rights-defenders/]

We once again regret the lack of Council’s attention on the human rights crisis in Kashmir. Fundamental freedoms in the Indian-administered Kashmir remains severely curtailed since the revocation of the constitutional autonomy in August 2019. Raids in October and November 2020 on residences and offices of human rights defenders and civil society organisations by India’s anti-terrorism authorities in a clear attempt at intimidation have further exacerbated the ongoing crisis. We call on the OHCHR to continue to monitor and regularly report to the Council on the situation in both Indian and Pakistani administered  Kashmir, and on Indian and Pakistani authorities to give the OHCHR and independent observers unfettered access to the region. [See also; https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/09/forgotten-kashmir-something-has-to-be-done/]

Nearly six months since its adoption, the Council Resolution 45/33 on technical assistance to the Philippines has proven utterly insufficient to address the widespread human rights violations and persistent impunity. Killings in the war on drugs continue, and attacks on human rights defenders and activists have escalated. The killing of nine unarmed activists on 7 March 2021 clearly demonstrates that no amount of technical assistance will end the killings as long as the President and senior officials continue to incite violence and killings as official State policy. It is imperative that the Council sets up an international accountability mechanism to end the cycle of violence and impunity in the Philippines. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2021/03/09/philippines-killings-continue-and-de-lima-stays-in-jail/]

Watch the statement: 

*The statement was also endorsed by: Franciscans International; Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR); International Commission of Jurists (ICJ);  International Movement Against All Forms of Discrimination and Racism (IMADR); Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA); African Centre For Democracy And Human Rights Studies; International Federation for Human Rights Leagues (FIDH); MENA Rights Group; International Lesbian and Gay Association; Impact Iran; Ensemble contre la Peine de Mort (ECPM); Siamak Pourzand Foundation; Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS); ARTICLE 19; CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

NOTE: The 47th regular session of the Human Rights Council is scheduled from 21 June 2021 to 9 July 2021.

https://www.ishr.ch/news/hrc46-civil-society-presents-key-takeaways-human-rights-council

Human Rights

Clooney Foundation for Justice to observe trial of Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan

March 2, 2021

On 25 February, 2021 the Clooney Foundation for Justice announced it will monitor the trial of award-winning Kashmiri journalist Aasif Sultan who has been detained in Kashmir for over two and a half years and faces the death penalty if convicted. [See https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/02/15/trialwatch-finds-its-feet-in-2019/.

Sultan is a journalist who wrote stories about human rights and political issues for the Kashmir Narrator. He has been imprisoned since his arrest in August 2018 and was only indicted 5 months later. He is now charged with supporting a terrorist group (the Hizbul Mujahideen) and conspiring to kill a police officer, and if convicted after trial, faces the death penalty. Press and human rights organizations believe the charges actually stem from Sultan’s coverage of a Kashmiri militant killed by Indian security forces, whose killing set off anti-government demonstrations in Kashmir in July 2016. The indictment cites Sultan’s social media posts and possession of letter pads of the Hizbul Mujahideen in his home as evidence of his involvement with the banned group. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), after CPJ called for Sultan’s release in The Washington Post, the Jammu and Kashmir police responded on Twitter that Sultan was not being held for his work but for “hatching a criminal conspiracy, harbouring and supporting terrorists who martyred a police constable.”

Sultan, who has received the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award from the American National Press Club in 2019, featured in TIME magazine’s 10 ‘Most Urgent’ cases of threats to press freedom around the world last year.

Sultan’s trial is restarting after multiple delays by the State, including absences by key prosecution witnesses,and again afterthe2 019 revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status. He is one of a number of journalists in Kashmir who appear to have been detained, investigated, and/or prosecuted in connection with their journalistic activities under Indian counterterrorism and related laws. Detained for over two and a half years in Kashmir Central Jail, where COVID cases have been mounting since the summer of 2020, Sultan’s next bail hearing is scheduled for February 26, 2021. The Clooney Foundation for Justice calls on the authorities to ensure that Sultan’s bail hearing is conducted in accordance with international human rights law and any proceedings against him respect his human rights, including his right to a fair trial and to freedom of expression.

https://thewire.in/media/clooney-foundation-to-monitor-trial-of-kashmiri-journalist-detained-for-over-2-years

India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka are all in the same rickety boat when it comes to human rights

December 17, 2020

TRT World published a summary of a report by the South Asia Collective “India and Pakistan no different on how they treat minorities”. Please note that Turkish Radio and Television Corporation is the national public broadcaster of Turkey. One looks there in vain for information on human rights violations in Turkey itself. Still the report referred to (produced with the financial support of the European Union and the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation) is of interest:

The past ten years have been abysmal for minorities and civil rights activists in South Asian countries including India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, according to the South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020. 

Governments have introduced repressive laws that curb freedom of expression, persecute journalists and bar people from organising peaceful demonstrations, says the report published by the South Asia Collective, an international group of activists and NGOs. Some laws disproportionately target minorities such as Muslims in India and Sri Lanka, and Christians in Pakistan.  One policy that transcends almost all the regional governments is their attempt to restrict the role of NGOs – especially if they receive funding  from abroad. 

India, where minorities have faced state-sanctioned violence since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was re-elected last year, has handicapped foreign NGOs by setting limits on how they can spend money received from international donors.  Most of the affected NGOs are the ones that work in areas which highlight abuse of power, government indifference towards the plight of minorities, and the brutality of security forces. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/06/istanbul-court-jails-four-human-rights-defenders-on-terror-charges-seven-acquitted/]

“BJP rule has been characterised by the open targeting of several high-profile NGOs, with foreign funding freezes being the weapon of choice,” the report said. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/29/amnesty-feels-forced-to-shut-sown-its-india-office-amidst-govenment-pressure/]

New Delhi's discriminatory amendment to citizenship law has further alienated India's Muslims.
New Delhi’s discriminatory amendment to citizenship law has further alienated India’s Muslims. (AP Archive)

Other policy changes such as requiring NGOs to register with income tax authorities every five years are a similar tool of “administrative harassment”. ..

The intimidation is not limited to NGOs as journalists reporting on creeping BJP authoritarianism often feel the wrath of the state.   “…between 25 March and 31 May 2020, at least 55 Indian journalists faced arrest, physical assaults, destruction of property, threats or registration of FIRs (police reports),” the report said. 

New Delhi increasingly relies on internet controls to curb dissent. Internet shutdowns jumped to 106 in 2019 from only six in 2014 as authorities used different laws to control the flow of information.  Kashmir faced a complete internet blackout for months after the Muslim-majority region’s nominal autonomy was withdrawn last year…

India is also using the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to target Dalits, a caste of Hindus who face widespread discrimination under the country’s hierarchical caste system… Changes in the Citizenship Act that target Muslim migrants and the brutal police reponse to subsequent protests — in which 22 people were shot dead in Utter Pradesh state in a single day — further illustrate the worsening status of minorities in India. 

In neighbouring Pakistan, India’s archrival, minorities and those activists trying to help them, fare no better. 

“NGOs and INGOs (international NGOs) are subject to extensive regulation involving multiple, lengthy procedures of registration, security clearance, and approvals for funding,” the report said.

The Christians and Hindus in Pakistan regularly complain that young girls are forced to convert to Islam.
The Christians and Hindus in Pakistan regularly complain that young girls are forced to convert to Islam. (AP Archive)

In recent years, Islamabad has increased vigilance on NGOs which it fears might be working on a foreign agenda to promote dissent.  What will particularly bother Pakistan’s policymakers is the report’s focus on how the country’s Blasphemy Law, meant to protect religious sentiments, continues to be misused against minorities. 

In reality, the law explicitly discriminates against Ahmadiyas since parts of it criminalise public expression of Ahmadiya beliefs and prohibit Ahmadiyas from calling themselves Muslims, praying in Muslim sites of worship and propagating their faith.”  Just this week, a report by the United States Commission on International Rights Freedom pointed out that Pakistan accounts for nearly half of the incidents of mob violence against alleged blasphemers.  

At times, people accused of blasphemy are killed in court in front of police and lawyers.   Christians, another minority, are frequently targeted while authorities do little to protect them.  For instance, a church constructed in the Toba Tek Singh district of Punjab province had to be sealed in 2016 after local Muslims agitated against it.  This alienation doesn’t stop at the places of worship – young Chrsitan students are continuously harassed by their peers to convert to Islam, the report said. 

Similarly, Sri Lanka witnessed rising levels of intolerance towards minorities in recent years, especially as successive governments tried to pacify extremist Buddhists to garner their votes.  Muslims in Sri Lanka have felt a wave of discrimination and official apathy after the suicide attacks that killed more than 200 people last year.  “After the Easter attacks, Muslims, particularly a large number of Muslim men, were arrested seemingly without reasonable cause.” Jingoistic government-aligned media has helped paint Muslims as the villain in Sri Lanka. 

The incitement of hatred and vitriol by media outlets continues unabated. For example, Muslim Covid-19 patients were identified by their faith, unlike other patients, and blamed by the media for spreading coronavirus.” 

https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/india-and-pakistan-no-different-on-how-they-treat-minorities-42419

For 30 years Parveena Ahangar has fought for justice against disappearances in Kashmir

November 30, 2020
Parveena Ahangar
Parveena Ahangar

Several weeks ago authorities in Indian-administered Kashmir raided the home and offices of Parveena Ahangar, a local human rights defender, over alleged “terrorist funding,” sending shockwaves in NGOs operating in the region. [see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2017/09/30/parveena-ahangar-and-parvez-imroz-in-kashmir-awarded-rafto-prize-2017/]

The “iron lady of Kashmir” said that in 30 years of activism, the October raid by the Indian National Investigation Agency was the first time such brazen action was taken against her, calling it “saddening.”

On the eve of International Women Human Rights Defenders Day, Anadolu Agency spoke with Ahangar, who is chair and founder of the Association of Parents of Disappeared Persons (APDP), a group seeking justice for victims of enforced disappearances in the Indian-administered region.

“For the last three decades, nobody has raised questions on my work and integrity. This is for the first time that the Indian Investigating Agency wants to prove otherwise, but I will not budge what I am committed to before my God,” Ahangar said in her office in Srinagar.

In 2017, the Indian National Investigation Agency started pursuing a case against pro-freedom activists and groups, claiming that they were getting money from undisclosed sources and using it to fund terrorist activities Since then, many raids have been carried out across the region..

Ahangar’s son, Javed Ahmed Ahangar, was abducted Aug. 18, 1990, by the Indian army and consequently disappeared. He was a Class 11 student at the time. Overtaken with grief, she looked long and hard to find him, but to no avail. She took the legal route and filed various petitions, but that did not help.

In 1994, she formed the association of Parents of Disappeared Persons when the government and every other institution failed to deliver justice in her son’s case and other victims.

I am myself a sufferer. My 18-year-old son who was abducted by the Indian Army in 1990 has not been returned to me, and there are hundreds of mothers who are still waiting for their sons but have not been returned. I’m fighting for the return of our sons,” said Ahangar.

She said for four years she fought the legal battle to find his whereabouts. “I saw hundreds of mothers waiting at the doors of these institutions pleading for the same but the reply used to come ‘untraced’ with no accountability. Where are our sons, I am asking the Indian government.”

According to APDP figures, 8,000-10,000 people in the disputed region have disappeared with no trace.

In an in-depth peer-reviewed study, Lubna Mohiuddin (1997) observed that despite no formal declaration of a state of emergency, the presence of Indian troops in the region shot up from 0.15 million in 1990 to 0.7 million by 1997, which aggravated human rights abuses in the region.

“Despite India being a signatory of multiple international covenants, charters and declarations, violence in Kashmir continues to occur in the form of extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, tortures, burning of houses, and gang-rapes,” the study said.

On Aug. 5, 2019, when India scrapped the limited autonomy of the Jammu and Kashmir region, the APDP documented the Kashmir region as going through one of the worst forms of state authoritarianism and high handedness.

“The Indian Government has continuously asserted that ‘normalcy’ has been returned to Kashmir. But, the testimonies and ground level reports indicate the contrary, as there are still severe restrictions and curtailment of basic human rights of the residents of the Kashmir region,” according to the report.

Ahangar says if India thinks “by taking out raids at my home or at my office will stop me from doing what I have been doing for the last 30 years, it will not happen. I have been hardened by the pain and grief after hearing thousands of stories of people who have been trampled under the foot of oppression for so long.

If I am asking for protection of my and their rights, what wrong I am committing?” she said. “It is a long battle to go. If I have to stand alone, I will and nothing by the grace of God can deter me from doing that.”

On the tenth of every month, the APDP used to hold a sit-in-protest to demand justice against enforced disappearances but after the abrogation of special status and the current pandemic crisis, it has been suspended.

——

https://www.aa.com.tr/en/asia-pacific/parveena-ahangar-a-story-of-courage-from-kashmir/2059667

https://www.yenisafak.com/en/world/parveena-ahangar-a-story-of-courage-from-kashmirs-iron-lady-3555432

Profile interview with Ahmer Khan, a journalist from J&K with a mission

November 4, 2020

On 18 October 2020 the Week published an interesting interview with Ahmer Khan, an award winning multimedia journalist under the title: “Covering other humanitarian stories helped me process the trauma of J&K, my homeland’’

ahmer-khan Ahmer Khan, multimedia journalist from Kashmir

Ahmer Khan is an award-winning, multimedia journalist from Kashmir. He was nominated for the Emmys 2020 for the Vice News film, India Burning, which focused on the plight of the 200 million Muslims in the country after the rise of Hindu nationalism. Khan is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the Lorenzo Natali Media Prize by European Commission 2018, AFP Kate Webb Prize 2019, and the Human Rights Press Award 2020. He is also among the finalists for the Rory Peck Award 2020. He has contributed to major international publications such as The New York Times, The Guardian, TIME, Al-Jazeera, Radio France International,, The Christian Science Monitor and Vice News, among others. Khan talks to THE WEEK about his career and what it is to be a journalist in Kashmir.

Edited excerpts:

Was it the camera or telling stories through visuals that you were attracted to? 

Well, it was a little bit of both. Kashmir and photography are directly proportional to each other. First, I used to click pictures with a Sony Ericson handset. But I always knew what I was going to do in future. So I studied journalism and worked simultaneously.   

What exactly did your work consist of in ‘India Burning’? 

..I was a local producer of the film and I shot some parts of the film as well. My responsibility was to take care of everything in Assam. From set-up to the execution.

Is there a reason why you work with international media rather than the national media?  

Yes, of course. I have never worked with any Indian organisation purposely. I did not want my stories to get distorted and manipulated the way editors of most of the Indian organisations do. I am grateful that I have found work elsewhere because there is too much saturation and it is hard for stories to get accepted anywhere now.  

How did you establish your name in the industry? 

I think I chose to report outside Kashmir from the beginning. I didn’t restrict myself to Kashmir or even India. I have reported from Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. That is something not everyone does.  

Has living amidst the conflict in Kashmir, in any way, affected you as a person and as a journalist?

Our home is a dystopian state. We all have had encounters affecting our lives forever. My father passed away when I was 10 years old. I think every job/assignment in Kashmir is scary. The fear of uncertainty is always there. 

You deal with more humanitarian stories, you are always in the middle of conflict and turbulence, you report on natural disasters and political disruptions. What is it that drives you to this beat? 

It all comes from the basic human tendency of wanting to explore more of what you have grown up seeing. I grew up in the ’90s in Kashmir when the turmoil was at its peak and then I witnessed the uprising from 2008, 2010 and the following years. I, like any other Kashmiri, witnessed young Kashmiris being killed, tortured and extreme human rights violations on the streets. It is too much to handle and process, but when one looks at the other side of the world, we see pain everywhere and start being grateful for what we have. I think for me, covering other humanitarian stories helped me process the daily trauma of my own homeland.  

How is covering stories in Kashmir different from other places in India?

In Kashmir, everything is way too personal. At times, we have to cover the stories while looking at the dead bodies of our own people. It is hard to keep aside your human side. But covering other human rights stories elsewhere and in mainland India, including Assam and Delhi has surely strengthened me more. Although, in Kashmir, it is getting extremely difficult to work freely as days pass. There is a constant fear of being muzzled for telling the truth. And, I think it’s happening across the South Asian countries.

You deal with a lot of life-threatening situations, you have also been harassed by the authorities. How does that make you feel? 

Most people in the media in Kashmir have faced harassment and intimidation by the state. We have recently seen journalists being booked in stringent terror laws. We are living through one of the most dangerous periods of all times for the Kashmiri press to work. It is natural to feel worried. There is a continuous fear of life for all of us. .. 

You identify yourself as a multimedia journalist. How is covering a story through writing, photography and videography different? 

I am quintessentially a photographer and videographer. I started writing because I know the media nowadays is shrinking into one multimedia space. One skill isn’t enough. So the work adds. When you go to cover the story, you have to shoot, take quotes, video interviews and also make sure that you have got all aspects of the story in terms of text, video and photos. It is hard work but satisfactory in many ways. I also do radio stories. In fact, my Lorenzo Natali Media award was for my first radio story for Radio France International. Being a freelance journalist, you have to keep up with the demands of editors as there is a lot of uncertainty. 

What do you have to say about the mainstream journalism that is turning blasphemous? 

What they are doing is not journalism. It is dangerous and authoritarian. If a journalist does not report about the oppressed, undermined or underprivileged, he or she is just doing PR. …

https://www.theweek.in/leisure/society/2020/10/18/covering-other-humanitarian-stories-helped-me-process-the-trauma-of-jandk-my-homeland.html

Also UN calls on India to protect human rights defenders

October 29, 2020

UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, has called for the Indian government to protect the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs in India. She praised India for being at the forefront of the fight for human rights but cautioned that vaguely worded laws may put that in jeopardy.

Her Tuesday 20 October 2020 statement comes as a response to worrying uses of the Indian Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FRCA) which various UN bodies have been worried is overbroad and vague in its objectives. Additionally, it prohibits them from receiving foreign money for “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest.” This can and has had an impact on the right to freedom of association and expression and has prevented foreign NGOs from giving money to Indian causes.

“The FCRA has been invoked over the years to justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts, to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organizations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies,” Bachelet said. Most recently it led Amnesty international to close their Indian offices after they were raided and their bank account was frozen.  [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/09/29/amnesty-feels-forced-to-shut-sown-its-india-office-amidst-govenment-pressure/]

Bachelet, also called for the Indian government to allow peaceful protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act. More than 1,500 people have been arrested because of their protests to this act and many have been charged with violations of the FCRA.

Finally, Bachelet,called for India to review the arrests of human rights defenders who have been arrested under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act for exercising their basic human rights.

[see e.g.https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/10/11/the-indomitable-father-stan-swamy-defending-the-adivasis-and-the-dalits-a-cause-of-arrest/]

https://www.jurist.org/news/2020/10/un-calls-on-india-to-safeguard-rights-of-rights-groups-and-ngos-in-face-of-legislation/

On 9 November came: https://theowp.org/reports/new-frontiers-in-the-suppression-of-human-rights-in-india/

The Indomitable Father Stan Swamy, defending the adivasis and the Dalits a cause of arrest

October 11, 2020

Stan Swamy and the adivasis he supports in an impossible battle for their own ancestral lands are pawns pitted against mammoth mining companies. Falsely branding activists as Maoists is the easiest way to condemn to enable vested interests to finish them off.The Indomitable Spirit of Father Stan Swamy

A file photo of human rights activist Stan Swamy. Photo: PTI

Mari Marcel Thekaekara wrote in the Indian Wire of 10 October 2020 a detailed and personal piece about “The Indomitable Spirit of Father Stan Swamy”

No, it’s not possible,” were my first thoughts when I heard that Father Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest and activist had been arrested – for the second time. His crime? He defended the rights of adivasis being exploited in their homeland Jharkhand.

[see also; https://www.indcatholicnews.com/news/40747]

Father Swamy has been accused of having links to a Maoist plot connected to the Bhima Koregaon case and was arrested by the National Investigation Agency on Thursday night. The rights activist is one of the gentlest and kindest men I have ever met. So the entire premise – for anyone who knows him – is entirely ludicrous. Funny even, if it were not so tragic. He has Parkinson’s disease. His hand shakes when he raises a cup of tea to his lips. He speaks so softly, you have to strain to hear him.

Social activists hold a protest after the arrest of Father Stan Swamy by the NIA in the Bhima Koregaon case, in Ranchi, October 9, 2020. Photo: PTI

He assures his interrogators that he has no connection with Maoists. He believes in peaceful, non-violent protest. I believe him. Because I know that his integrity is above reproach.

I heard of Father Stan Swamy in the early seventies, because he was among the first people I knew who advocated living with the adivasi community in Jharkhand to understand their lives and their problems; to help find solutions and a way forward. I went there in the early seventies while still in college to write a story for our student magazine.

On a more personal note, Stan Swamy, introduced my husband, also named Stan, to the adivasi world. He shared Father Swamy’s hut in a Ho village in Jharkhand. My husband always told young activists:

“Gandhiji’s non violence was not merely moral or religious. It was strategic. Gandhi was a brilliant general. Oxymoronic though that sounds. He understood that the fight for freedom could not be won by violence because mere ordinary Indians, even if they poured out on the streets with justice on their side, with God on their side, could never win. Even if there were thousands or lakhs of people marching in protest, they could never match the might of the state. Before 1947, the British could bring out the artillery and finish us off. One wrong step could have changed the course of our history. But the entire world watched India’s non violent battle for independence, open mouthed. Non violence was a new word, a new tactic, made in India. The world sympathised and empathised. Gandhi’s strategic non violence was the most brilliant weapon in our war for Independence’

The same scenario is playing out today. And the average activist understands that putting ordinary villagers, adivasis, Dalits or women in the line of fire is counterproductive and unfair. We learnt this strategy from Gandhi and Jayaprakash Narayan.

In recent times, it has become the norm to equate the word activist with ‘anti-national’. But who is an activist? What do they do?

It’s quite simple. All over India, there are thousands of people who took up the cause of fighting for social justice for the poor, the marginalised and the voiceless. These people were inspired by the brightest and best minds in our country – from Gandhiji to Vinobha Bhave to JP.

Post Independence, when the battle for freedom was won, Gandhi urged his followers to go out and continue the fight for freedom. This time, it was to free the poorest from hunger and poverty, to teach and educate, to weave and spin, to spread harmony and peace. Thousands rallied to his call and Gandhi ashrams were filled with people determined to continue the freedom struggle on a new battlefield – India’s villages.

The sixties saw the rise of the Dalit movement. New leaders emerged. Gandhi raised the question of untouchability in the early days of the Independence movement, but his ‘Harijan’ epithet was subsequently dismissed  by Dalits as patronising. Dalit power became a clarion call, drawing inspiration from the African-American Black Panther movement. Dr B.R. Ambedkar showed the way.

The term activist gained popularity during the JP movement and during the fight against the Emergency in the mid seventies. After the Emergency, thousands of young patriots, drawing their inspiration from JPs charisma, accepted his challenge to go out and organise the poor, the under privileged and the vulnerable; to fight for their rights. This period saw a proliferation of human rights defenders, though the term was not used till later.

Women and men dedicated their lives to fighting for Dalit rights, adivasi rights, womens’ rights, farmers’ unions and fisherfolk movements. These activists evolved in their understanding of rights based movements. They often lived with the communities they worked with. They identified with the people and though many were middle class, they tried to live simpler lives than their parents, than the backgrounds and privileged upbringing they had been born into. They were pleased to be branded activists and wore the badge with pride.

From the fifties and sixties, when Gandhians prevailed, we moved into the seventies where a sea change took place. Global thinking wafted across the world to India. The 1968 student movement in France, Latin American thinking, Marxist ideology – all these gained ground and influenced grass roots workers. The focus changed from the passive Gandhian way – the giving of food, clothes, free education and medicine to changing unjust situations at the base. ’Daan’ or mere giving was now passe.  Activists were trained to encourage people to ask who was cheating them and why? So if people were encroaching on adivasi or Dalit land, it was time to establish basic human rights; time to equip people to defend themselves, to fight injustice – non-violently, the Gandhian way, and the strategic way.

Soon, womens’ groups began to take action against dowry deaths and acid attacks, and took to the streets and courts to protest and demand justice. Dalit groups found lawyers willing to fight caste atrocity cases in court. Adivasis had activists urging them to defend their ancestral millennia old homelands from dominant caste landlords who shamelessly cheated them and usurped their lands. Environmentalists and eco-warriors hugged trees and stopped forests from being denuded. A huge green movement began. The protest movements grew from strength to strength.

In reality, these people are defending human rights and saving the Earth for future generations. When it comes to central India and defending tribal land from powerful mining companies, the battle assumes David versus Goliath proportions.

Stan Swamy and the adivasis he supports in an impossible battle for their own ancestral lands are tiny pawns pitted against mammoth mining companies. Falsely branding activists as Maoists is the easiest way to condemn them and to enable vested interests to finish them off.

The frail 83-year-old has trumped up charges levelled against him. Yet he has a core of steel, an indomitable strength that comes with moral conviction and a commitment to truth and to the powerless. As they took him to prison, Stan Swamy announced he would begin a fast. His fellow Jesuits who rushed to the prison with his medicines, say he has refused even a sip of water.

I kept asking why, they would arrest this gentle, kind man. Father Cedric Prakash, who is also a Jesuit and activist, said in a TV interview, “It’s to create a fear psychosis. If they can imprison an 83-year-old who has spent his life committed to the poor, who is safe?”

Asianet phoned to interview my husband Stan. People cautioned him, “You will draw attention to yourself. It can boomerang and have repercussions on your work in the Nilgiris.”

On 17 October: https://www.thetablet.co.uk/news/13484/jesuits-worldwide-protest-against-imprisonment-of-elderly-priest-

On 16 January 2021: https://indianexpress.com/article/india/stan-swamy-bhima-koregaon-stan-swamy-arrest-united-nations-human-rights-7148223/

https://thewire.in/rights/the-indomitable-spirit-of-father-stan-swamy

https://scroll.in/latest/975476/project-to-silence-dissent-all-india-catholic-union-demands-activist-stan-swamys-