An ever-closing space for dissent: India cracks down on human rights defenders


Crackdown on HRDs

On 28th August 2018, five Indian human rights defenders (HRDs) were arrested in a series of raids. Sudha Bharadwaj in Faridabad, Gautam Navlakha in Delhi, Vernon Gonsalves and Arun Ferreira in Mumbai, and P. Varavara Rao in Hyderabad were detained in the crackdown. Reports note that there may have been some unconfirmed raids and Indian authorities have signalled that further arrests could follow. The activists, ranging from poets and writers to lawyers and trade unionists were detained for alleged links to Maoist groups, who Indian authorities claim were hatching a plan to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The reaction from Indian civil society has been rapid and fierce. Writer, Arundhati Roy commented on the situation by saying: 

"The simultaneous state-wide arrests are a dangerous sign of a government that fears it is losing its mandate and is falling into panic. That lawyers, poets, writers, Dalit rights activists and intellectuals are being arrested on ludicrous charges... while those who make up lynch mobs and threaten and murder people in broad daylight roam free, tells us very clearly where India is headed."

As highlighted by CIVICUS Monitor research partner, Forum Asia, the arrests were legitimised using the Indian Penal Code and Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The UAPA has been criticised for its draconian and vaguely worded provisions which have been used to target human rights defenders and dissidents. As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, these laws were used earlier in June to arrest five other activists in another synchronised raid across India. The event was also reported by the CIVICUS Monitor's research partner for India, Human Rights Defender Alert (HRDA)

Smears Against HRDs

On 4th July 2018, in an attempt to defame human rights defenders, Republic TV, a news channel known for its controversial political coverage, launched a smear campaign against two of the arrested HRDs, Sudha Bharadwaj and Gautam Navlakha. The campaign was based on two fabricated letters, which have not been made public. In addition, a series of false and unsubstantiated claims were also made against the activists. The channel called them “Urban Naxals” and attempted to establish links between them and Kashmiri separatists groups. The story was aired just a few hours before a Pune court heard matters concerning arrest of five other human rights defenders which was previously covered in the CIVICUS Monitor

The Naxalite movement was born on 24th May 1967 in Naxalbari, a small town on the route that links northern Bihar to northern Bengal, where landless peasants angry over scarcity of food, issues of landlessness and bonded labour, attacked a group of police and landlords with swords, bows and arrows. Eleven people were killed in police retaliation the following day and thus began the on-going standoff between the Indian government and the Naxals, which has lasted for over 50 years.

Killing of RTI Activists Continue

As previously covered on the CIVICUS Monitor, Indian activists using the Right To Information (RTI) Act to investigate corruption continue to be brutally silenced. On 1st July 2018, RTI activist, Valmiki Yadav and his associate, Dharmendra Yadav, were shot dead by four unknown assailants in Bihar’s Jamui district. Their deaths are the third instance of killing of RTI activists in the last three months. Valmiki Yadav is alleged to have been targeted after he exposed financial irregularities in public welfare programs and development work in Bihar. A police investigation has been opened into the incident.

The Proposed Right to Information (Amendment) Bill 2018

In the context of a worrying spate of murders against RTI activists, plans are afoot to revise the law governing how Indian citizens access information held by the state. On 17th July 2018, the Modi government announced a proposal to amend to the RTI Act which would reform the Central Information Commission (CIC). Critics claim that the move will erode the independence of CIC, the main body overseeing requests for information by Indian citizens. Many fear this will reduce the ability of Indian citizens to access information. Opposition to the plans has been strong. Civil society organisations and opposition political parties have mounted a fightback against the proposals on social media using the hashtag #SaveRTI


No Country For Free Press

On 5th July 2018, human rights defender and journalist, Rajeev Yadav was reportedly threatened and abused on the phone by the officer in charge of Kandharpur police station, Arvind Yadav. The activist, Rajeev Yadav, claims he was threatened after expressing his concerns over extra-judicial killings by police in Uttar Pradesh (UP). During the call, Yadav claims that he was verbally abused by the police officer who threatened to "pick him from home".

The following day, the aggrieved activist Yadav, wrote to several officials including the Director General of Police, the Chief Justice and several senior officials in the Uttar Pradesh government, providing them with a full transcript of his conversation with the police. It is believed that the threats are connected with the activist's work linking the police station commander, Arvind Yadav, to alleged extra-judicial killings in the region. Rajeev Yadav responded to the threats, saying:

“I am terrified with the threat that any one from the police can kill me [any time]. It is, therefore, necessary in the interest of justice to take notice of the threat and order a departmental and criminal inquiry against the caller.”

This incident occurred just days after two journalists, Hussain Khan and Ram Parmar, were arbitrarily arrested and detained in Maharashtra  while filming a case at the Palghar police station. Police Sub-Inspector Tousif Sayyed took objection to the filming and assaulted Hussain Khan physically. Ram Parmar, who arrived shortly after this incident was also arrested for trying to help fellow journalist. The duo were released shortly after and re-arrested the next day only to be released on bail after four days.

In another shocking incident, on 17th July 2018, Swami Agnivesh, a former member of the Haryana Legislative Assembly and former cabinet minister for education, was attacked by a violent mob in Pakur, Jharkhand for expressing his views on eating beef. The 80-year-old, saffron-clad activist who is best known for his work against bonded labour through the “Bonded Labour Liberation Front” was beaten, kicked and shown black flags by members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) and Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha (BJYM). They believe, “that his version of Hinduism was too soft, too forgiving.” Swami Agnivesh had this to say after the attack: 

“I survived just with the grace of God. The mob would have killed me. I thought I was finished.” 

The social activist plans to approach the Supreme Court as no arrests or progress has been made in the case almost 15 days after the incident. On the same day, the Supreme Court of India, urged the government to pass a new anti-lynching law and to stop the spread of Internet rumours after dozens of people were killed in a string of mob attacks fuelled by social media.

Religious tension over cows and the use of beef has been a flashpoint for violent confrontation in India in recent years. According to an IndiaSpend content analysis of the English media between 2010 and 2017, as many of 97% of violent attacks were reported after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014. Similarly, half the cow-related violence – 30 of 60 cases – were from states governed by Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Most worryingly, of the 25 Indians who died as a result of this violence over the eight-year period, 84% were Muslim.

In an incident related to the issue of mob violence in India, on 19th June 2018, police officials barged into the house of Mohammed Arif in Mewat, Haryana without a warrant. Arif was visiting Punhana, a district also in Haryana. Arif is well known for his work with Aman Biradari, an organisation which provides socio-legal support to the families of lynching victims. During the raid, the police alleged that Arif was in possession of illegal arms but failed to produce any evidence to substantiate this claim. Reports allege that Indian security forces also intimidated and threatened his family before leaving the premises.

Peaceful Assembly

Arbitrary Arrests and Detention Of Women Defenders

On 12th July 2018, Dalit-rights activists Durga Jha and Varinita Sinduria from Raipur in Chhattisgarh were called to appear at the Mana police station by the Station House Officer (SHO) in connection with charges emanating from their involvement in an anti-Modi protest in June 2018. When they reached the station on 12th July, they were forced to wait for a full morning before being taken to the court. Despite appealing for bail, their applications were rejected and they were both held in custody. The two are facing charges indicated in a First Information Report (FIR) filed by police officers following the initial arrests in June. That FIR indicated that the activists were being investigated under several provisions of the Indian Penal Code: section 151 (Knowingly joining or continuing in assembly of five or more persons after it has been commanded to disperse), section 107 (abetment) and section 116 (Abetment of offence punishable with imprisonment).

Their arrest related to a protest that took place on 14th and 15th June 2018. The activists were involved in a mobilisation that waived black flags and raised slogans against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Raipur, after being denied permission to protest inside the airport. Durga Jha and Varinita Sinduria were among 14 protesters arrested for their role in the protest. On 18th June 2018, the 12 men were granted bail. Yet, the WHRDs, Durga Jha and Varnita Sinduria were not brought to court. The 12 men who were present in the court were rearrested and sent to judicial custody. Meanwhile, the two women remained in jail for a further two days without explanation and were released on 20th June 2018.

Saffronisation of Education Institutions

Recently, concerns have been raised over the politicisation of education in India. There has been growing alarm over the role of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) attempts to revamp the educational curriculum. The RSS is widely viewed as a right-wing, Hindu nationalist, paramilitary volunteer organisation that is loosely affiliated to the ruling party, the BJP. The RSS has constantly criticised the previous Congress government for ignoring Hindu culture and tradition in the nation-building process even labelling the textbooks published under the Congress regime, “left-leaning”. The “Saffronisation’’ of education has been at the apex of their reform agenda. Their aim is to purge textbooks of “foreign’’ influences, and to promote “patriotism’’. Many fear this is leading to a closure of space for critical thought in India's education system. 

For example, in April 2017, it was reported that: 

“The very idea of what universities are meant to be is under severe attack in India...the government seems to ensure that high positions at universities are only occupied by those who lean towards the RSS and promote its agenda."

In this context of growing tension of educational reforms, protests by students and civil society have been met with violence. On 16th and 19th July 2018, police violently disrupted a group of protesting students at Manipur University. The police used baton charges and fired tear gas at the members of the Manipur University Student’s Union (MUSU), other student groups & civil society groups without provocation. The protestors were demanding the removal of the Manipur University Vice Chancellor, Professor Adya Prasad Pandey for alleged mismanagement, misappropriation of funds and failure to discharge his duties. The Government of Manipur suspended internet and telecom services in the state, in an attempt to restrict sharing of information about the protest and human rights violations taking place.