Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government stepped up harassment of dissenters and critics in 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in its World Report 2019, released on Thursday.
Modi, said Kenneth Roth, HRW’s executive director, has “failed to halt the demonising of Muslims while attacking civic groups that criticised his rights record or environmental policies”.
The report points out that the government used the draconian sedition law multiple times to target its critics last year, including on Tamil folk singer Kovan, who was arrested for singing songs criticising Modi.
It also tried its best to arrest dissent in all parts of the country.
In December, Manipur-based journalist, Kishorechand Wangkhem was sentenced to one year in detention for allegedly criticising the BJP-led governments at the centre and in Manipur on social media.
And the spectre of sedition is still looming—earlier this week, the Delhi Police finally filed a chargesheet in the infamous JNU case from 2016, naming student activists Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and Anirban Bhattacharya.
The Law Commission had also said in August last year that a person should not be charged with sedition for “merely expressing a thought that is not in consonance with the policy of the Government of the day”.
India, under Modi, seems to be going the Bangladesh way, where the Sheikh Hasina government is infamous for cracking down on free speech. Just ahead of the recently concluded elections in Bangladesh, Reuters reported that journalists were living in fear of ever-tightening media laws and engaging in self-censorship as a result.
Attacks on minorities, Dalits
The report states that mob violence by extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the BJP against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumours that they traded or killed cows for beef.
The Bulandshahr violence also began after an alleged cow slaughter incident. The Uttar Pradesh government, on more than one occasion (see here and here), seemed preoccupied with finding the killers of the cows rather than looking for those behind the violence which left a police inspector and a youth dead.
The government also published the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and the exclusion of over 40 lakh names “raised concerns over arbitrary detention and possible statelessness,” the report stated.
Dalits continued to be discriminated against in education and in jobs, the report states.
Civil Society and Freedom of Association
The report also said that authorities increasingly used the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to target civil rights activists and human rights defenders. It gives the example of the police in Maharashtra arresting and detaining civil rights activists, lawyers, and writers, accusing them of being members of a banned Maoist organisation and playing a role in the Bhima Koregaon violence.
One of the activists, Anand Teltumbde, has written an open letter to the public seeking support after the Supreme Court refused to quash the FIR against him. Arundhati Roy explained that he has been charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which means he can be held without bail for months together on the basis of little or no evidence.
The government, according to the report, also cracked down on NGOs critical of government policies or protesting the government’s large development projects. The government used the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict their foreign funding.
The report also looks at women’s rights and how the numerous cases of rape across the country again exposed the failures of the criminal justice system. It also mentions the #MeToo movement, which took India by storm last year.
“These public accounts, naming the accused, highlighted the failures of due process, lack of mental health services and support for survivors, and the urgent need to fully implement the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013, which prescribes a system for investigating and redressing complaints in the workplace.”
The disregard for basic rights was not unique to India. US President Donald Trump disparaged immigrants and minorities and tried to bully judges and journalists whom he deemed to stand in his way. Russia under President Vladimir Putin continued its multi-year crackdown on independent voices and political opposition.
India’s neighbours are also not faring well. In Pakistan, the government continues to muzzle dissenting voices in NGOs and media on the pretext of national security, the report said. China closed off any possibility of organised opposition to the increasingly one-man rule of Xi Jinping, Roth said.