(New York) – The Indian government increasingly harassed, detained, and prosecuted activists, journalists, and others critical of the government or its policies, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2021. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government brought politically motivated cases, including under broadly worded sedition and counterterrorism laws, against human rights defenders, student activists, academics, opposition members, and other critics. It blamed 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 implicated in the violence were not prosecuted. Police investigations were biased and aimed at silencing dissent and deterring future protests.
The authorities also used foreign funding regulations to target outspoken groups for their human rights work. “The Indian government seems determined to punish peaceful criticism using draconian laws, while sending a broader message that chills dissent,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of addressing growing attacks on Muslims, minorities, and women, Indian authorities increased their crackdown on critical voices in 2020.” In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights. Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights.
The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort. The February communal violence in Delhi killed at least 53 people, with over 200 injured, properties destroyed, and communities displaced in targeted attacks by Hindu mobs. While a policeman and several Hindus were also killed, the vast majority of victims were Muslim.
The attacks came after weeks of peaceful protests against the Indian government’s discriminatory citizenship policies. Violence broke out after BJP leaders openly advocated violence against the protesters, while witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity.
The Delhi Minorities Commission reported that the violence was “planned and targeted,” and found that the police were filing cases against Muslim victims, but not taking action against the BJP leaders who incited it. The government continued to impose harsh and discriminatory restrictions on Muslim-majority areas in Jammu and Kashmir, after revoking the state’s constitutional status in August 2019 and splitting it into two federally governed territories. Scores of people remained detained without charge under the draconian Public Safety Act, which permits detention without trial for up to two years.
The government also clamped down on critics and journalists. The Covid-19 pandemic made access to the internet crucial. However, even after the Supreme Court said in January that access to the internet was a fundamental right, the authorities permitted only slow-speed 2G mobile internet services, leading doctors to complain that it hurt the Covid-19 response. Crimes against Dalits increased, in part as backlash by members of dominant castes against what they might perceive as a challenge to caste hierarchy. Crimes against women increased too. In September, a 19-year old Dalit woman died after being gang-raped and tortured, allegedly by four men of dominant caste in Uttar Pradesh.
The authorities’ response highlighted how women from marginalized communities faced even greater institutional barriers to justice. The intensifying repression in India resulted in international criticism, including by the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, who raised concerns over human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, arrests of activists, and restrictions on civil society.
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