India: Routine Repression of Civil Society

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HRDs Spared Jail

On 29th August 2018, the Supreme Court sentenced five human rights defenders (HRDs) to house arrest. As covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Indian authorities arrested the five in a series of raids on 28th August 2018. The detained individuals ranged from poets and writers to lawyers and trade unionists. Indian authorities justified their arrest by alleging links with Maoist groups. The activists were also well known for their work promoting marginalised community rights in India. During the Court's hearing, Justice DY Chandrachud criticised their arrest by saying:

“Dissent is a safety valve of democracy. If it is not allowed, the pressure cooker will burst.”

The arrests drew widespread criticism from across the globe. After the incident, nine European Parliamentarians urged the European Commission (EC) to cancel agreements with India. In a letter to the EU's top diplomat, the Parliamentarians condemned the police action against the activists. They also blasted the misuse of vague legislation to silence dissent. In particular: 

“...one of the most draconian laws: the UAPA, Unlawful Activity Prevention Act...allows an indefinite detention (arrest) of any citizen the Government suspects of having an intent to commit a crime against the State.” 

In response, the EC reacted to the pleas of the Parliamentarians. The institution cited that the EU delegation in New Delhi had made appeals to Indian officials on humanitarian grounds. The EC went on to reaffirm its commitment to human rights and freedom of expression. After extending their house arrest until 17th September 2018, the Supreme Court cast doubt on the evidence against the activists. At the time of writing, the case continues

UN Chief Highlights Closing Civic Space in India 

On 12th September 2018, the United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres expressed concern over civic freedoms in India. In his annual report, the UN chief highlighted the increased level of threats against independent civil society. In particular, Guterres voiced concern over India's Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). As reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the FCRA placed CSOs in receipt of foreign funding under scrutiny. The legislation was widely viewed as a measure to muzzle dissent from critical groups. The report also documented reprisals against several prominent activists. These included Kashmiri human rights activist Khurram Parvez and lawyer and activist Henri Tiphagne of the Centre for Promotion of Social Concerns and Nobokishore Urikhimbam of the Centre for Social Development. Commenting on the global state of human rights, Guterres said: 

“The world owes it to those brave people standing up for human rights, who have responded to requests to provide information to and engage with the United Nations, to ensure their right to participate is respected..."
HRD Detained After UNHRC

On 9th August 2018, immigration officials detained a human rights defender at Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru, India. Thirumurugan Gandhi, the coordinator of the May 17 Movement, was detained on the basis of a "Look Out Circular" (LOC) issued against him. Gandhi was returning to India after attending the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC). During his attendance at the UNHRC, he spoke about the excessive of force against protesters in Thoothukudi. The clashes in May 2018, left 15 people dead after police used live ammunition on protesters. In June 2018, he also issued statements criticising Indian authorities' use of sedition and detention laws. 

CIVICUS Monitor partner, Human Rights Defenders Alert - India (HRDA) issued an urgent appeal calling for his release. HRDA also questioned the issuance of a LOC on Gandhi in May 2017. The circular was issued after Gandhi was imprisoned for four months after holding a candlelight vigil for victims of Sri Lanka's civil war. At the time, HRDA had submitted a complaint to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD). In November 2017, the WGAD stated that the arrest and detention of Gandhi were in direct violation of articles 3 and 9 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and called for his release. The WGAD also criticised the law he was arrested under. Goondas Act gives police officials the power to detain any person indefinitely without trial in the name of crime prevention.

On 17th September 2018, a Chennai court passed an order against holding the activist under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. The Gandhi will now be held under Section 505 of the Indian Penal Code, which deals with conducting public mischief.

Lawyer Bailed in Corruption Case 

On 9th August 2018, a Magistrate Court in Nagpur granted bail to Satish Uke. The lawyer gained prominence after he petitioned the Bombay High Court demanding compensation for Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya's family. The judge died under unnatural circumstances in 2014. Questions have surrounded the Judge's mysterious death ever since. Uke has also filed a petition accusing the Mumbai Chief Minister Devandra Fadnavis of electoral offences in the 2009 and 2014 Maharashtra assembly elections. 

Uke was arrested on the 31st July 2018 in connection with crimes he allegedly committed 17 years ago. He was charged with offences pertaining to forgery, cheating and criminal conspiracy. Sources allege that Uke is the lone surviving confidante of Judge Loya. Prior to his death, Judge Loya is alleged to have stated he was under pressure in a case he was presiding over. The controversial Sohrabuddin case implicated several members of the ruling party. These included Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) National President Amit Shah.

Before the Magistrate Court on the 6th August 2018, Uke informed the court that he was asked for papers pertaining to Judge Loya’s case. He also revealed that the police had instructions to harass his family if he failed to cooperate.

RTI Activist Attacked 

On 20th August 2018, unknown assailants on motorbikes attacked a Right To Information (RTI) activist in Nagpur, Maharashtra. Kamlesh Saha was returning to his house on his motorcycle when four unidentified persons attacked him, with the pillion rider on one of the motorcycles kicking Saha off his bike. The activist was badly injured in the attack. Reports note police were reluctant to investigate the incident. Despite Saha attending Lakadganj police station to report the attack, police officials initially refused to register his complaint. It was only after the interference of local Police Commissioner Mr. Upadhya, that Saha’s complaint was recorded.

Saha has alleged that the police officials in charge of the investigation have been hesitant to conduct their enquiry. The activist highlighted CCTV surveillance in the area where the incident took place. The footage is yet to be used. The RTI activist has also alleged that the attack was in response to a recent complaint against a building company. Mr. Saha has filed several RTI applications in the last six years on violations of building construction laws. He has received a number of death threats from an organised crime syndicate operating in Nagpur in response to his activism.  

Peaceful Assembly

Student Activist Attacked

Umar Khalid, a student from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi, made headlines in August. On 14th August 2018, an unidentified assailant carrying a gun confronted the student. Khalid escaped unhurt.

The event took place outside the Constitution Club in New Delhi. The activist was due to speak at an event organised by the NGO, United Against Hate. The event was entitled "Khauff Se Azaadi" (Freedom from Fear). Khalid had a narrow escape after the assailant’s weapon “jammed” leaving the attacker with no other option but to drop it and flee. Khalid addressed the media immediately after the incident. In his statement he said:

“It is very difficult for me to say who is behind the attack, but I want to say one thing - a misinformation campaign has been spread against me in the last two years. Baseless things have been said about me to such an extent in the media, that people have started believing that people like me should be killed. It is ironic that this incident happened to me when I was here for a programme against lynching.” 

police investigation into the incident is ongoing. 

The controversy relates to Khalid's participation in a protest. Umar Khalid, along with former student union president Kanhaiya Kumar and Anirban Bhattacharya were arrested on sedition charges in 2016 following a protest to commemorate the hanging of Afzal Guru. Guru was sentenced to death after being convicted of terrorism offences in 2002. The protest was covered extensively by the media and allegations were made that students had used anti-India slogans. No charge sheet has been filed in relations to this case and all three are on bail. Given the sensitive nature of the case, Khalid had requested police protection nearly two months before this attack. Police claim they were unable to make contact with Khalid to enhance his security. 

Expression

On the 9th August 2018, police arrested Kishorchandra Wangkhemcha, the sub-editor and anchor of Information Service Television Network (IS TV) after the journalist received a call asking him to go to the Imphal West Police Station. Police then informed Wangkhemcha that he was under arrest. Police allege he has spread rumours and made “defamatory”comments on a social media platform against the ruling party. The following day, a Magistrate ordered that Wangkhemcha be held in judicial custody for 15 days. The case was filed under section 505 of the Indian Penal Code

In response, on the 12th August 2018, local journalists organised a protest. After gathering outside the Manipur Press Club, the journalists demanded the immediate release of their colleague Wangkhemcha. The journalists “condemned the arrest as ‘arbitrary’. It was only after the All Manipur Working Journalists’ Union (AMWJU) met with Chief Minister, Mr. Biren Singh and reports emerged of Wangkhemcha’s poor health that he was released on the 13th August 2018.