On Human Rights Day, a look at India’s surging human rights abuses

In 2022, the Hindu nationalist-led government’s systematic discrimination of Muslims has continued to intensify amid mounting reports of violence and efforts to restrict Muslim rights

Stock image (Representative photo)
Stock image (Representative photo)

NH Web Desk

The adoption of Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) is marked as Human Rights Day on December 10, and December 2023 will mark the 75th anniversary of its adoption by the United Nations General Assembly.

The 2022 observance will have "Dignity, Freedom, and Justice for All" as its theme. “Dignity and equality in rights, has been under a sustained assault in recent years,” said the United Nations. “As the world faces challenges new and ongoing – pandemics, conflicts, exploding inequalities, morally bankrupt global financial system, racism, climate change – the values, and rights enshrined in the UDHR provide guideposts for our collective actions that do not leave anyone behind.”

However, the Indian society has been witnessing the ballooning of human rights abuses. The state led by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has used repressive laws to silence critics by curbing freedom of expression both offline and online. Minorities continue to be attacked, especially Muslims, even as authorities failed to take action against BJP leaders who vilified Muslims and BJP supporters who engaged in violence.

India is ranked eighth among the countries that are at the highest risk for mass killing in 2022 and 2023, a US-based research organisation has said. (https://earlywarningproject.ushmm.org/reports/countries-at-risk-for-mass-killing-2022-23-early-warning-project-statistical-risk-assessment-results)

In 2022, the Hindu nationalist-led government’s systematic discrimination against the country’s Muslim minority has continued to intensify amid mounting reports of violence—met with impunity—and efforts to restrict Muslim rights. Hindu nationalist leaders have continued to propagate hate speech, including religious leaders’ calls for mass killings of Muslims in December 2021.

According to the Human Rights Watch, Indian authorities brought politically motivated cases, including under draconian sedition and terrorism laws, against human rights defenders, student activists, academics, opposition leaders, and critics, blaming them for the communal violence in February in Delhi as well as caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018. In both cases, BJP supporters were implicated in the violence. Police investigations in these cases were biased and aimed at silencing dissent and deterring future protests against government policies.

Eleven human rights activists continued to be detained under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) anti-terror legislation. Academics Anand Teltumbde, Shoma Sen and Hany Babu; tribal rights activist Mahesh Raut; poet Sudhir Dhawale; lawyers Surendra Gadling and Sudha Bharadwaj; writer Gautam Navlakha; activists Rona Wilson, Arun Ferreira, Stan Swamy Vernon Gonsalves and Sagar Gorkhe; and two members of the cultural group Kabir Kala Manch: Ramesh Gaichor and Jyoti Jagtap were arrested between 2018 and 2020 by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) for their alleged involvement in violence during the Bhima Koregaon celebrations near the city of Pune in 2018.

However, Anand Teltumbde, Gautam Navlakha and Sudha Bharadwaj were granted bail between 2021 and 2022. Eighty-four year old Jesuit priest, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, was the oldest to be accused of terrorism in the same case. He died without being granted bail in July 2021.

In July 2020, the Pegasus Project, an international investigative journalism initiative, exposed the unlawful and arbitrary surveillance of Indian citizens through the government’s alleged use of Pegasus spyware. At least 300 telephone numbers of human rights defenders, journalists, lawyers, government officials and opposition politicians were potentially compromised.

Adding to this Amnesty’s 2021 report underscored that the names of many human rights defenders, including lawyers and academics, were added to the government’s Union War Book as “enemies of state” requiring “surveillance at all times”. The book is a colonial-era document which compiles information related to security threats.

India witnessed 38 government-mandated internet shutdowns during the year. Residents of Jammu and Kashmir suffered the longest internet shutdown on record from 4 August 2019 to 5 February 2021. The region continued to suffer repeated internet shutdowns over concerns for national security and public order. The shutdowns caused economic loss and adversely impacted education and other service provision. They also put human rights defenders at heightened risk of surveillance by government agencies.

In September 2020, Parliament passed amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), the foreign funding law already used to harass outspoken rights groups.              

Hundreds of members of the Muslim Tablighi Jamaat movement, who were arbitrarily arrested by 11 state governments for allegedly violating visa terms and intentionally disregarding Covid-19 guidelines in March 2020, were acquitted by the courts. This is despite India not having Covid guidelines in place by mid-March 2020. The court judgments called the prosecution “malicious” and held that the state governments abused their power and tried to make “scapegoats” of the accused.

In October 2020, several opposition politicians were arbitrarily detained or put under house arrest by the Uttar Pradesh Police for showing their support for four protesting farmers who were killed by a speeding car owned by the junior home minister.

Dalits and Adivasis continued to face widespread abuses. According to official statistics released in September, more than 50,000 crimes against members of Scheduled Castes and 8,272 crimes against Scheduled Tribes were reported in 2020, highlighted the Amnesty report. Dalit and Adivasi women faced sexual violence by men from dominant classes. Many faced discrimination in accessing public services.

There were numerous incidents of excessive use of force by police and security officers. In August, Haryana Police charged on peacefully protesting farmers in the city of Karnal, Haryana, beating them with lathis (batons), and seriously injuring at least 10 farmers. Prior to the lathi-charge, the sub-divisional magistrate of Karnal was seen ordering police officers to “break the heads of protesters” in a video shared on social media.

In September 2020, Assam Police indiscriminately fired on members of the Bengali Muslim community in a forced eviction drive in the village of Sipajhar, Assam, killing a man and a 12-year-old boy. A photojournalist was seen stamping on the body of the murdered man in the presence of police officers who did not prevent the act, in a video shared on social media. After intense public outrage, the photojournalist was arrested.

Following the 2019 abrogation of autonomous status for Jammu and Kashmir, authorities used a public safety law to detain local politicians without trial. Media reports suggested that some of those released were asked to sign bonds agreeing not to engage in political activity after release.

The Public Safety Act (PSA), which applies only in Jammu and Kashmir, permits authorities to detain persons without charge or judicial review for up to two years without visitation from family members. The press reported that the number of PSA detentions rose to 331 from 134 in 2020.

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