India heads list of COVID-related abuses by authorities: Report

UK magazine ‘The Economist’ which anchored the report referred to selective local clamp down by PM Narendra Modi’s govt, singling out neighbourhoods which had held protests, many of which were Muslim

Photo Courtesy: Social Media
Photo Courtesy: Social Media

K Raveendran/IPA

US think-tank Freedom House has catalogued the abuse of power by governments all over the world in the name of fighting the coronavirus pandemic and heading the table is India. Perhaps a point of consolation is that the likes of United States, the United Kingdom and China are keeping company.

A worldwide Freedom House survey reported government abuse of power as one of the three issues most affected by the coronavirus outbreak. Officials and security services perpetrated violence against civilians, detained people without justification, and overstepped their legal authority. Governments are also using the pandemic as a justification to grant themselves special powers beyond what is reasonably necessary to protect public health. They have then exploited these emergency powers to interfere in the justice system, impose unprecedented restrictions on political opponents, and undermine crucial legislative functions.

Freedom House research found evidence of police violence against civilians in at least 59 countries. Detentions and arrests linked to the pandemic response were noted in at least 66 countries and governments with both a relatively active opposition and weak checks on their own power perceive a greater need and opportunity to resort to violence.

Experts also detailed crackdowns on opposition figures or the judiciary in some countries. Parliaments have been hamstrung by health restrictions and emergency laws, and at times manipulated for political purposes.

Abuses of power during the pandemic have had a disproportionate impact on communities that were already marginalized. Among the experts surveyed, 29 percent said a lack of protection for minorities and vulnerable populations was one of three issues most affected by the coronavirus response; 25 percent said new or increased restrictions on ethnic and religious minorities have been put in place as a result of the coronavirus outbreak in their countries of focus.

In some cases, these groups suffered disproportionately because their status put them at greater risk. But the dearth of accountability precipitated by weakened independent media or acquiescent legislative and judicial branches has allowed both state and non-state actors to discriminate against certain groups with impunity.

In some countries, lockdown measures have been applied in an openly discriminatory manner to specific segments of the population. The report quotes news media to the effect that Black people and people of Asian descent are detained at higher rates than white residents under new police powers. Cases of minorities being targetted for police violence in the pretext of fighting COVID.

The report also throws light on how governments and societies have continued to use marginalized groups as scapegoats, blaming them for spreading the virus. It cites labelling of India’s Muslims as ‘superspreaders’ and subjecting them to ‘a vicious hate campaign’ in response to news of an Islamic religious gathering in New Delhi that was linked to an outbreak of the pandemic.

The same was the case in Sri Lanka with some members of government blaming Muslims ‘for people not being able to celebrate the Sinhala and Tamil New Year,’ and the media highlighting cases where the patients were of a minority community’.

Freedom House reported an escalation of abuses by governments and other actors against vulnerable groups in several countries as international attention remained focused on combating the coronavirus. It particularly mentioned Myanmar, where the International Court of Justice has ordered the government to prevent genocide against the Rohingyas, but the military intensified attacks in ethnic areas, causing mass displacement and grave human rights violations.

UK magazine The Economist has anchored the Freedom House research to produce an even more damning report on India in terms of Covid-related abuses. It details how the protests against ‘proposed changes to citizenship laws that would discriminate against Muslims and potentially render millions of them stateless petered out after a curfew was imposed in response to COVID-19, since it was no longer possible to occupy the streets’.

The magazine referred to alleged selective local clampdown by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist government, singling out neighbourhoods which had held protests, many of which were Muslim and how heavy police barricades locked in residents for weeks.

The magazine also criticised the suspension of Question Hour in parliament on the plea that ‘legislative time was too precious to waste on noisy debate’. Reference has also been made to the opposition walkout, which allowed the Modi government to ram through 25 bills in three days and the suspension of the session eight days before time.

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