Arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment and attacks on activists and critics in India persist

Arbitrary arrests, judicial harassment and attacks on activists and critics in India persist
Photos clockwise: Academic Dr. Anand Teltumbde; and activists Mugilan; Shehla Rashid and Thokchom Veewon

Election began in India on 11th April 2019 in India with a seven-phase election that ends on 19th May 2019. Human rights groups have called on candidates and political parties contesting India’s parliamentary elections to commit to strengthening human rights protections. This include pledging to protect freedom of expression and assembly by ending the abuse of sedition and criminal defamation laws.

However, over the last few months, authorities continuously used restrictive laws such as Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and the Sedition Act to harass, criminalise and detain activists and silence dissent. Cases have also been documented of torture and ill-treatment of activists by the police, attacks on journalists and at least one case of an activist that has gone missing.


Public intellectual Dr. Anand Teltumbde faces judicial harassment

On 2nd February 2019, Maharastra police officials took public intellectual and academic Dr. Anand Teltumbde into custody. The arrest violated an earlier Supreme Court order of 14th January 2019 that granted Teltumbde protection from arrest until 11th February 2019. He was released hours later after a court rejected the application for remand and declared the arrest ‘illegal’. However, Teltumbde has alleged that he continues to receive threats of arrest in connection with the Bhima Koregaon violence (see below) of January 2018 although he was not present there.

Previously in August 2018 law enforcement officials raided Teltumbe’s home in Goa, where he is a faculty member of the Goa Institute of Management. The raid was reportedly in connection with his alleged links to the Bhima Koregaon violence. The Maharashtra police also claimed that he was involved in a Maoist plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. They charged him under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, a law that makes it extremely difficult for the accused to obtain bail.

According to the international NGO, Front Line Defenders on 11th February 2019, the Bombay High Court extended Teltumbde’s interim protection period until 22nd February, the scheduled date for the next hearing of his plea for anticipatory bail. The date of the hearing has since been postponed multiple times. The bail application hearing is now scheduled for 7th June 2019.

On 1st January 2018, hundreds of Dalits had gathered in Bhima Koregaon village in the Pune district of Maharashtra to commemorate a 200-year-old battle in which Dalit soldiers of the British army defeated the ruling Peshwas. A day before, there was public meeting which led to violent clashes which left one person dead and several injured.

As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, activists and intellectuals who participated in the public meeting were subsequently arrested nationwide under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in June and August 2018. Authorities alleged that those who were arrested had incited Dalits, leading to the violence in Bhima Koregaon. Those arrested include Surendra Gadling, Rona Wilson, Shoma Sen, Sudhir Dhawale and Mahesh Raut were detained in June 2018 and remain imprisoned in Yerwada Central Jail in Pune. Sudha Bharadwaj, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira, Varavara Rao are under house arrest while Gautam Navlakha was released on bail. Human rights groups believe these charges have been fabricated as part of the government efforts to clampdown on dissent.

In October 2018, UN human rights experts had expressed concern that the charges were “being used to silence human rights defenders who promote and protect the rights of India’s Dalit, indigenous, and tribal communities”.

Environmental activist in Tamil Nadu goes missing

Activist Mugilan, who alleged that senior police officers were involved in deadly police violence during a protest in Thoothukudi has remain missing since 15th February 2019.

On 15th February 2019, social activist Mugilan and his colleague Ponnarasan addressed a press meet in Chennai. At the meet, Mugilan released a report and a video titled, ‘Sterlite Hidden Truth’ which implicated Inspector General of Police Shailesh Kumar Yadav and Deputy Inspector General of Police, Kapil Kumar Saratkar in having a role in the police violence during a protest on 22nd May 2018 against the Sterlite Copper plant, in which 13 protestors were shot (see previous Monitor update). Locals have accused the Sterlite Copper plant of polluting the air and water supply . It claimed the lives of 13 people At the end of the press conference, Mugilan and Ponnarasan met a few friends and left to the Egmore Railway Station at night. Ponnarasan left to Karur on the Mangalore Express train while Mugilan took another train to Madurai.

However, Mugilan did not reach Madurai the next day. Sources indicate that Mugilan’s phone was switched off at around 1.45am the following day at Olukkur in Villupuram. His family allege that he has been abducted by the state for exposing the high-ranking police officers in the Thoothukudi case.

Mugilan, an activist with the Tamil Nadu environmental protection movement, has been one of the most vociferous voices on environmental issues in the state. He has been in the forefront of various struggles, including against illegal sand quarrying. He had been facing over 15 cases including sedition.

In March 2019, human rights lawyer and activist Henri Tiphagne filed a habeas corpus petition in the Madras High Court shortly after Mugilan went missing. The court has ordered the police to trace Mugilan and submit a report. A further hearing is due on 4th June 2019.

Human rights defender in West Bengal detained on trumped-up charges

According to Front Line Defenders (FLD), on 19th March 2019, the Chief Judicial Magistrate's Court ordered the detention of human rights defender Samiul Biswas at Krishnanagar District Jail. He had been arrested the previous day by the Border Security Force (BSF) of the Mahakhola Border Outpost near the India-Bangladesh border in West Bengal on charges of theft relating to his “possession” of Bangladeshi currency and a Bangladeshi SIM card, the evidence for which is believed to have been falsified. According to FLD, "given the prevalence of smuggling on the border, the charges appear to be an effort to slander the defender by implicating him in illegal activity".

Samiul Biswas is a volunteer of Banglar Manabadhikar Suraksha Mancha (MASUM) who has been instrumental in documenting human rights violations committed by the BSF and other state agents along the India-Bangladesh border. He has also been active in mobilising the local community to resist the alleged torture and illegal restrictions on movement carried out by the BSF.

On 8th March 2019, MASUM filed a complaint to the National Human Rights Commission on behalf of Samiul Biswas regarding the illegal and forceful confiscation of his bicycle by the BSF on 29th January 2019 and the denial of access to his home by BSF officers since 16th February 2019. The BSF’s actions have prevented the human rights defender from transporting goods to his shop, which has impacted his livelihood and that of his family. Their actions have also prevented the activist from staying in his home and he has been forced to stay with several different friends. The human rights defender also feared for his safety following the threats and intimidation from the BSF.

After MASUM filed the complaint, Samiul Biswas was summoned by the Deputy Superintendent of Police for questioning on 13th March 2019. The deputy reassured him that the matter would be investigated and that his safety would be assured. However, on 18th March 2019, Samiul Biswas was detained for three hours by the BSF at the Hathkhola BSF camp, during which he was allegedly slapped by officers and subsequently charged.

UN calls for release of human rights defender Dr. Saibaba

In April 2019, UN experts called on Indian authorities to release human rights defender Dr. G.N. Saibaba, a person with disabilities whose health is seriously deteriorating and who reportedly continues to be held in solitary confinement at a Maharashtra prison.

Saibaba has been a leading voice defending the rights of religious minorities, adivasis (tribals) and Dalits. He was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2017 for “waging war against the State”, among other charges. On 25th March 2019, his application for bail and suspension of sentence on medical grounds was rejected by the Bombay High Court. According to the UN, Saibaba’s health problems require immediate and sustained medical attention and are reaching a point of being life-threatening.

Social activist detained and tortured in Odisha

On the night of 7th March 2019, Tapan Padhi, a founder member of Mission Justice, an organisation that advocates for the rights of marginalised communities in the state of Odisha, and a member of the state-level Right to Information network Odisha Soochana Adhikar Abhijan (OSAA), was visited by the Inspector in Charge (IIC) of Chowdar police station. The officer reportedly asked Padhi to accompany him to the police station for an enquiry to which Padhi obliged. He was then instructed to hand over all his electronic devices, including his phone and his laptop to the officer.

On the way to the police station, the officer informed Padhi that he was being taken to the Panikoli police station, 20 miles away in Jajpur and not the Chowdar police station. A fact-finding team found that while in detention for two days, Padhi was tortured by police officials and held in custody for two days. He had further alleged to the fact-finding team that the police officers threatened to file false cases against him under the Arms Act and even threatened to kidnap his wife and daughter. Sources claim that Padhi’s efforts to register Mission Justice as a political party is what provoked the attack on him. On 5th April 2019, the Odisha Human Rights Commission (OHRC) intervened and sought a report from the Jajpur district superintendent of police (SP) on the alleged police torture of the social activist.

Peaceful assembly

Youth activist attacked by police and right-wing group at Allahabad University

On 12th February 2019, during a student protest at the Allahabad University, youth leader of the Samajwadi Party, Richa Singh was brutally attacked by the Allahabad police and members of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), a right-wing student organisation affiliated to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Sources allege that Richa was physically assaulted by the police officers and left bleeding and unconscious on the road. Richa suffered injuries in her jaw and head.

The police subsequently filed charges of "instigating violence on campus and misdemeanours" against Richa Singh, which human rights groups believe were fabricated. The protest was organised by the Allahabad University against the Uttar Pradesh government’s move to prevent Akhilesh Yadav, the former Chief Minister of the State, from flying to Allahabad from Lucknow to speak at the university.

This is not the first incident of police violence against Richa Singh. In, 2017 she was subjected to state violence while protesting against the visit of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister, Yogi Adityanath’s visit to the university. Yogi Adityanath is also the founder of a Hindu youth militant group called the Hindu Yuva Vain which has managed to stir communal tensions in the state of Uttar Pradesh by attacking cattle traders and targeting churches. Human Rights Defenders Alert has appealed to the National Human Rights Commission on behalf of Richa Singh on both incidences and has yet to receive a response.

Indigenous activist in Odisha arrested for his activism

In March 2019, Lingaraj Azad, an activist was arrested by the police in Kalahandi district related to protests he was involved in Cuttack district’s Trilochanpur village. Human rights groups believe the cases have been trumped up because of his anti-mining activism. He has since been released on bail.

Azad is an indigenous tribal activist from the Kalahandi District of Odisha who has been struggling against bauxite mining in Niyamgiri area of Kalahandi and Rayagada districts in Odisha, where Dongria Kondh (indigenous tribal community) are due to be forcibly displaced from the thirty villages due to bauxite mining.

According to the national network for the protection and promotion of human rights defenders, Human Rights Defenders-Alert, Dongria Kondh, is a vulnerable indigenous tribal group that resides in the Niyamgiri hill range, in Odisha. The Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), which is a public sector company allowed Sterlite Industries, owned by Vedanta Corporation to mine bauxite from the Niyamgiti area which was opposed by the Dongrias Since then the tribal group formed an association called “Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti” (NSS), to oppose the mining.

After a landmark Supreme Court verdict in 2013, the mining came to a halt. The court said forest clearance to the mining project, which had been withdrawn by the Environment Ministry in 2010, could be given only after taking the consent of the village councils, in the region. However, Sterlite Industries along with OMC is now allegedly trying to re-start the mining by displacing the Dongrias. Azad has been leading the NSS and has faced harassment from the police.

Economist and activists detained briefly for holding meeting without a permit

In March 2019, noted economist Jean Dreze and two other activists working on the right to food, were detained by the Jharkhand police for two hours, allegedly for organising a meeting without permission. The activists alleged that the police initially said a case would be filed against them for breaking the law. They were eventually released without any charges.

Dreze told the media that he was invited to a meeting for right to food and pension, organised by a local non-profit, in Jharkhand's Garhwa district. He said the organisers had sought permission in writing from the district administration ten days before the event. As the administration did not respond, the organisers decided to go ahead with the meeting. One of the activists later told reporters that the police had asked them to "sign a bond that says we have no complaints against the government".

Dreze is one of the leading development economists, who has been working in India since the 1970s. He has authored a number of books on development and policies in India, some of them with Nobel laureate Amartya Sen.

Academics detained for solidarity gathering in Telangana

On 13th April 2019, Telangana police barged into the NGO Bhavan building and detained around 50 teachers along with speakers, as they gathered in solidarity with veteran poet and activist Varavara Rao who has been detained since November 2018 in connection with the Bhima Koregaon incident (see above) . All connecting roads to the venue were blocked to prevent the public from accessing the place. A few of the detainees were taken to the Ramgopalpet police station and a few others were taken to Nampally police station. Among those detained were Prof. Haragopal, a widely known academic and civil liberties activist, Venugopal Rao, the Editor of Veekshanam, a socio-political magazine and Prof. Katyayani, a member of the Telangana Democratic Front.

These detentions came just days after Vara Vara Rao’s partner Hemalatha penned an open letter to the Chief Minister of Telangana requesting his opinion on the false cases brought on the poet by the government. 


Student activist in Manipur arrested for sedition for criticism of citizenship bill

On 15th February 2019, Thokchom Veewon, the former President and current advisor of the Manipur Student Association (MSAD) in New Delhi was arrested at his residence in Saket by a joint team of Delhi and Manipur police. His sister, who was also present during the arrest, told the media that the Thokchom was not told the reason for his arrest and not even allowed to wear his slippers while the police were taking him away.

When his family members and a few members of the MSAD rushed to the Janakpuri police station, they were informed by the Special Branch of the Delhi police that Thokchom was arrested on charges of sedition under Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code. Thokchom’s family has alleged that the state police had visited his house in Manipur, searched his room, took photographs and threatened his parents. Sources indicate that Thockhom Veewon’s arrest is the result of a series of public demonstrations and online campaigns, led by him, protesting the state government’s decision to arrest journalist Kishorechandra Wangkhem under the National Security Act (NSA) (see previous CIVICUS Monitor update) in November 2018 and the controversial citizenship bill. Thockhom was granted bail on the 17th February 2019 by a Manipur court.

Women activist charged by Uttarakhand police for twitter post

On 17th February 2019, police filed a case against the former vice-president of Jawaharlal Nehru University’s students’ union and activist, Shehla Rashid. The police at the Prem Nagar police station in Uttarakhand filed a First Information Report (FIR), after Rashid tweeted on 16th February 2019 that Kashmiri students are being harassed and assaulted in parts of the country after a terror attack in Awantipora area in Pulwama district of Jammu and Kashmir on 14th February 2019.

Rashid in her tweet had claimed that 15 to 20 Kashmiri women students were trapped in a hostel at Dolphin Institute in Dehradun, while an angry mob stood outside the university to demand their expulsion. Shehla had claimed that police were present at the spot but were “unable to disperse the mob”. She has been charged under sections 505 (to incite any class or community to commit any offence against any other class or community), 153 (indulge in wanton vilification or attacks), and 504 (Intentional insult with intent to provoke breach of the peace) of the Indian Penal Code.

Journalists attacked in Assam

On 25th April 2019, Rajen Deka, a veteran journalist with Assam’s oldest newspapers, Dainik Asom, was ambushed and brutally attacked by a group of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supporters. The attack left him with multiple stitches in his head. Sources say the attack was due to a an article by Deka on a clash between supporters of the Congress party and BJP. He had received several threats on social media after the article was published. On 1st May 2019, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) “urged the Indian authorities to provide better protection to journalists after three attacks on reporters in the northern state of Assam within 48 hours.”

On the same evening as Deka’s attack, Upasana Barua Goswami, a reporter for a TV channel, was the target of violence by four individuals at a restaurant at Tinsukia district. Police arrested her assailants, but the motive is yet to be established. Rajiv Borah, another journalist who runs an online news portal and works for a Guwahati-based TV channel was also attacked and beaten by five individuals two days later in Jorhat. Only one of his assailants was arrested, the police have yet to identify the motive of the attack, stated RSF.