Ongoing attacks on journalists and activists, as elections draw near

The Indian elections are due before May 2019. In 2018, human rights groups documented a range of violations by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government including the harassment and at times prosecution of activists, lawyers, human rights defenders, and journalists for criticizsng authorities. Draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws have been used to chill freedom of expression. Foreign funding regulations have been used to target civil society groups, critical of government actions or policies.

The government has failed to prevent or credibly investigate growing mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalised communities, and critics of the government—often carried out by groups claiming to support the government. Lack of accountability for past abuses committed by security forces have persisted even as there were new allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings


Journalist killed after being shot at close range

On 9th December 2018, the body of journalist and activist Amit Topno was found by local residents under the Ghaghra Bridge in Jharkhand. According to reports, Amit Topno, from Nichitpur village of Torpa, in Khunti district, was a community correspondent for Video Volunteers Link and was reporting on issues relating to illegal sand mining and the poor implementation of rural schemes for toilet construction in the district. He had also reported extensively on the Pathalgadi tribal movement for the news portal, ‘News Code’ and the arrests of twenty senior tribal rights activists, who were charged with sedition for publishing posts critical of the state government. 

Reports allege that Topno was murdered for his fearless reporting and his social media posts against the sand mafia. The post-mortem report states, categorically, that Amit Topno was shot at close range under his ear. Human Rights Defenders Alert, India, in an urgent appeal to Khaleel Ahmad, the National Focal Point - Human Rights Defenders and Deputy Registrar of the National Human Rights Commission, has sought a thorough, transparent, effective and impartial investigation by the Superintendent of Police and the District Collector and District Magistrate of Khunti and Ranchi district, into the murder of the reporter. HRDA has also urged the state to guarantee the physical and psychological integrity of Topno’s family member, the forum alleges are still under risk and intimidation from the perpetrators.

Manipur journalist jailed for a year under the National Security Act

On 21st November 2018, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha, a journalist and an outspoken government critic in Manipur, was arrested by the Manipur police on charges of sedition after he uploaded a video questioning why the state Bharatiya Janata Party-led government was celebrating a Hindu festival during the National Integration Week, which is observed all across India from the 19th to the 25th of November, to foster and reinforce the strength of public harmony and national integration. He was released on 27th November 2018 after the chief Judicial Magistrate found that the video he uploaded ‘did not seem to be an attempt to disturb peace’.

The very next day, at around 9:30 am, Kishorechandra Wangkhemcha, received a phone call from the Officer In-charge of the Imphal police station asking him to come to the police station as the Superintendent of police wanted to talk to him. At noon, when Wangkhemcha was getting ready to leave to the police station, around six to seven police officials in civilian clothing arrived at his residence and requested he follow them to the station. His wife, Ranjith Devi and brother, Elangbam Romesh followed them. They were made to wait till 5:30pm at the police station. His wife, who left the station at around 5:40pm, was later informed by Elangbam Romesh, that Wangkhemcha was taken to the Manipur Central Jail by the police. His detention report, which was filed three days later, on 1st December 2019, revealed that Wangkhemcha has been arrested under the National Security Act, which allows preventive detention of up to twelve months.

In a joint statement issued on 20th December 2018, the Indian Women's Press Corps, Press Club of India, Press Association and Federation of Press Clubs in India, the organisations said:

“To book individuals under non-bailable and harsh laws for using allegedly intemperate language to criticise government's decisions or individuals in government, is a measure of governmental overreach apart from being a violation of the fundamental right to free speech.”
Detention and assault of journalist in Palghar

On 14th November 2018, the Superintendent of police (SP) of Palghar submitted a report to the National Human Rights Commission on the illegal detention and assault on journalist Hussain Khan. In the report, the SP has alleged that it was Hussain Khan who assaulted and threatened him, a claim that Human Rights Defenders Alert has refuted in its corresponding appeal to the Commission. The forum of human rights defenders has also pointed out the several irregularities in the SP’s report and urged the Assistant Registrar to take immediate action against the police officials involved in the incident.

As previously documented on the CIVICUS Monitor in July 2018, 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.

Scores facing sedition charges

On 14th January 2019, it was reported that the Delhi Police will file a case against ten people, including student leaders Kanhaiya Kumar and Umar Khalid, in a sedition case that involved the use of "anti-national slogans" by Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students in February 2016. They had been arrested in 2016 at a rally to commemorate the anniversary of the execution of a Kashmiri separatist who had been convicted for an attack on India’s parliament.

In Assam, the police slapped sedition charges against academic and public intellectual, Hiren Gohain, peasant rights leader Akhil Gogoi and journalist Manjit Mahanta. They were charged in connection with a public meeting on 7th January 2019, opposing a Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, 2016, which seeks to provide citizenship to Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Parsis, Jains and Christians who are undocumented, and have fled from Muslim-majority Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Human rights activists have condemned the bill for not covering Muslims. They say 'it will be the first-time religion has been a criteria for nationality in India, which is officially secular'. Critics have also questioned the reasons behind the government's decision to limit the scope of this bill to migrants from Muslim-majority neighbours of India which excludes thousands of undocumented immigrants from Sri Lanka, Nepal and Myanmar.

On 7th February 2019, sedition cases were filed against three Tripura tribal activists for reportedly raising 'anti-India' slogans at a public rally in the headquarters of the tribal areas autonomous district council at Khumlung on 30th January 2019. The rally was organised by the Movement Against Citizenship Amendment Bill, a body comprising several tribal organisations.

Police registered cases of sedition against Indigenous Nationalist Party of Twipra (INPT) general secretary Jagadish Debbarma, Barak People's Human Rights Organisation leader Anthony Debbarma and Indigenous People's Front of Tripura (IPFT) leader Aghore Debbarma after they were reportedly found raising slogans saying "Bye Bye India" and "Hello China" during the rally. Those charged said that the sedition charges on them was an ‘act of "conspiracy’ and the allegations were baseless.

According to human rights groups, the authorities have continued to use laws on sedition, defamation, and counter-terrorism to crack down on dissent.


Right to Information (RTI) activists abducted and killed

In the Indian state of Bihar, just 150 miles away from Jharkhand, Right to Information (RTI) activist, Bhola Sah, was abducted and killed on 23rd December 2018. According to reports, Bhola Sah was supervising the construction of his house in Banarjhop village in Banka district, when a few unidentified persons in an SUV vehicle had called out to him and asked him to accompany them to the local police station under the pretext that the station-in charge had summoned him.

When he did not return home, his family called the police station to inquire about why he had been summoned to the police station, only to be told that Bhola Sah was not called to the police station. His body was later found near an embarkment with several injury marks. Sources allege that Sah was killed for exposing financial irregularities in government social welfare schemes in his ‘panchayat’ (village council). CIVICUS Monitor has reported on several attacks against Right to Information activists in the state of Bihar. This was the fifth killing of an RTI activist in Bihar in 2018.

Two women activists attacked

The two incidents above come just a month after RTI activist, Agnes Kharshiing and her colleague, Amita Sangama, were brutally attacked by a mob in Tuber Sohshrieh in East Jaintia Hills, in the north-east Indian state of Meghalaya. According to reports, on 8th November 2018, the two women visited Tuber to follow up on a complaint Kharshiing had filed against coal-laden trucks parked at Mawiong rim in Shillong, which were later seized by the police. Sources allege that when the two women were returning to Shillong, Agnes spotted some trucks loading coal illegally and took photographs of those trucks. Upon reaching the highway, their car was surrounded by nearly forty people, who snatched away the keys to the vehicle, forced the driver out and sent him away in another vehicle.

The women were dragged out of the car and beaten until they fell unconscious. The driver who was sent away alerted the police about the incident. The police formed two teams and were directed to locate and rescue Agnes and Amita. Two people were subsequently arrested in connection with the attack.

This is the third such incident in 2018 in Meghalaya. Human Rights Defenders Alert - India recorded two more such cases in the months of March and April 2018 from Meghalaya related to illegal mining. On 30th March 2018, RTI activist and President of Jaintia Youth Federation, Pynpoihun Majaw was murdered by unidentified assailants and on 27th April 2018, journalist Patricia Mukhim was attacked.

Civil society targeted by authorities

On 17th January 2019, Human Rights Watch’s annual report stated that the authorities were increasingly using the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to target civil rights activists and human rights defenders. In 2018, police in Maharashtra state had arrested and detained 10 civil rights activists, lawyers, and writers, accusing them of being members of a banned Maoist organisation and responsible for funding and instigating caste-based violence that took place in January 2018. A fact-finding committee found that the 'violence was premeditated by Hindu extremist groups, but police were targeting the activists because of pressure from the government to protect the perpetrators'.

The Indian government also continued to use the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict foreign funding for NGOs critical of government policies or protesting the government’s large development projects. Cases filed by NGOs challenging government decisions to suspend or cancel their FCRA were pending in court.