Fr Cedric Prakash SJ*
CIVICUS is the well-known global alliance of civil society organisations that strives to promote marginalised voices specifically in the Global South; it has members from over 170 countries. A report which was recently published by them entitled ‘Punished for speaking up: The ongoing use of restrictive laws to silence dissent in India’, highlights the tremendous increase in judicial harassment of activists, journalists, and protesters. The report regards the political environment of the country as becoming increasingly repressive. It speaks about the arrest and detention of activists particularly in the light of the Citizenship Amendment Act and raises concerns about the violations in Jammu and Kashmir. Above all, the report observes India’s slide towards authoritarianism through the conflation of dissent with anti-nationalism and smear campaigns against human rights activists. In 2019, the CIVICUS Monitor had downgraded India’s status on space for civil society from ‘repressed’ to ‘obstructed’
The latest report was compiled based on data submitted by CIVICUS members, civil society groups and human rights defenders in the country. This is coupled with media monitoring of news sources, data from the UN and international human rights NGOs monitoring India. The Asia-Pacific Civic Space Researcher of CIVICUS, Mr. Josef Benedict said at the release of the report that, “It is appalling that human rights defenders are locked up in overcrowded prisons and continuously denied bail despite calls by the UN to decongest prisons and release political prisoners during the pandemic. Holding them at this time puts them at serious risk of contracting COVID-19 and adds another layer of punishment for these activists, who have been detained just for speaking up for human rights”
The report examines the vaguely worded laws that provide broad powers to authorities to make arrests and deprive activists of their right to bail. These are the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, (UAPA), Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, the National Security Act (NSA), and the Public Safety Act (PSA), which is applicable in Jammu and Kashmir. It notes the use of state resources to sustain its persecution of human rights defenders and critics. Benedict added that, “The laws are incompatible with India’s international human rights obligations as well as India’s Constitution. Not only are the laws themselves inherently flawed, but their implementation makes it clear that they have become tools for judicial harassment, rather than for preventing or addressing criminality.”
NGOs, civil society leaders being intimidated since BJP came to power in 2014
India ‘s vibrant civil society, particularly the NGO sector, has for several years been seen as a threat to successive Governments and other vested interests. Since 2014, however, ever since the BJP began to exercise its clout and control on the Government and virtually on all Constitutional bodies in the country – the writing was, time and again, on the wall. Today, in India as the CIVICUS report highlights, NGOs and civil society leaders are intimidated and threatened; attacked and even killed; tedious investigations and fabricated cases were framed against them; police custody and incarcerated in jails- all this and much more. The only apparent fault is that, these groups and individuals have been very zealous in their commitment to the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable in society; they have been vocal and visible in exposing the brutality of a corrupt and incompetent regime and their ilk! Standing up for truth and justice and for the rights and freedoms of all, as guaranteed by the Constitution, seems to be an absolute ‘NO’ where an authoritarian regime is concerned. They leave no stone unturned to ensure that!!
The CIVICUS Report would have been much stronger, if it would have taken into account all that has happened against civil society in India, just in the month of September 2020;there has been a well- orchestrated but frightening campaign intended to denigrate civil society and the significant role being played to promote the values and the freedom enshrined and guaranteed by the Constitution; its efforts to protect the wealth of India’s pluralistic fabric and above all, its courage to stand up against the powerful and other vested interests. In just about a month the nation has experienced of how those who protested the anti-Constitutional CAA were named in fabricated charge-sheets by the Delhi Police for ‘apparently’ fomenting riots in Delhi, last February; some of the civil society leaders like Umar Khalid were even arrested. Then there was a case of Amnesty India having to close down its operations in India; the FCRA being made more draconian and a judge of the Madras High Court simply lambasting those NGOs that take a stand for human rights, justice and peace! The civil society movement in India is not just being muzzled and throttled but being actually murdered in the country today! It is another nail in the coffin where Indian democracy is concerned.
Amnesty winds up its India operations
Towards the end of September, ‘Amnesty International India’ had to wind up its operations in the country, because the Government had frozen its bank accounts. Most thinking Indians clearly see this as an act of reprisal by a vindictive regime who is unable to digest the excellent human rights work being done by Amnesty India. It is also a sign of things to come: this regime brooks no dissent- any group or individual that takes a stand against their undemocratic and anti-Constitutional deeds, is bound to pay the price. We see this reality unfolding ever since the BJP seized power at the National level, in 2014; and even earlier, in those states where they were in control!
Govt’s action against Amnesty India condemned
Following the closure of Amnesty India, fifteen international human rights organizations, in a strongly-worded statement, condemned the Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India and pledged to continue support for local human rights defenders and organizations against the recent crackdown. The Indian government’s actions against Amnesty India are part of increasingly repressive tactics to shut down critical voices and groups working to promote, protect, and uphold fundamental rights, said the statement by the Association for Progressive Communications, Global Indian Progressive Alliance, International Commission of Jurists, CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation, Front Line Defenders, FORUM-ASIA, Foundation the London Story, Hindus for Human Rights, Human Rights Watch, International Service for Human Rights, Minority Rights Group, Odhikar, South Asians for Human Rights (SAHR), International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and World Organisation Against Torture (OMCT) in the framework of the Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders.
Politically-motivated cases against human rights defenders, govt critics
The BJP-led government has accused Amnesty India of violating laws on foreign funding, a charge the group says is politically motivated and constitutes evidence “that the overbroad legal framework is maliciously activated when human rights defenders and groups challenge the government’s grave inactions and excesses.” The BJP government has increasingly cracked down on civil society, harassing and bringing politically motivated cases against human rights defenders, academics, student activists, journalists, and others critical of the government under sedition, terrorism, and other repressive laws. These actions increasingly mimic that of authoritarian regimes, which do not tolerate any criticism and shamelessly target those who dare to speak out. With growing criticism of the government’s discriminatory policies and attacks on the rule of law, the authorities seem more interested in shooting the messenger than addressing the grievances. Women’s rights activists and indigenous and minority human rights defenders have been especially vulnerable. The recent action against Amnesty India highlights the stepped-up pressure and violence felt by local defenders on the ground, regardless of their profile. The authorities have repeatedly used foreign funding regulations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), a law broadly condemned for violating international human rights law and standards, to target outspoken groups. United Nations experts on human rights defenders, on freedom of expression, and on freedom of association have urged the government to repeal the law, saying it is “being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.”
Will NHRC statement over Amnesty India remain a lip service?
Besides, the fifteen organisations referred to above, several other concerned groups and individuals have lambasted the Government for the closure of AI. Interestingly, in an unprecedented development the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), issued a notice to the Union home secretary over Amnesty International India winding up its operations in the country because of an alleged witch-hunt by the government. A statement from the NHRC said, “According to media reports, after the complete freezing of its India bank accounts, the Amnesty International Organization in India has reportedly halted all the work in which it has been engaged in the country, the NHRC said in a statement. The National Human Rights Commission has taken Suo motu cognisance of the matter and directs the issuance of the notice to the Home Secretary, Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India, calling for their comments on the allegations levelled by the Amnesty International as mentioned in the news report. It is alleged that this is the latest in the incessant witch-hunt of human rights organisations by the Government of India over unfounded and motivated allegations.” Given the fact that several statutory bodies, like the NHRC (which are expected to be independent and non-partisan) are ‘controlled’ by the Government, one cannot help wondering if the NHRC statement would remain at lip-service!
Draconian amendments in FCRA to prevent Christian NGOs to get foreign funds
Then we have the draconian amendments to the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). A myth is being propagated by this Government and their ilk (like their crony capitalist friends) that only NGOs (and that too mainly Christian ones) receive foreign money; that the money received from abroad is being used for ‘conversion’ and other ‘anti-national’ activities! Convenient bogeys for a regime which is on the backfoot on their miserable performance in governance! Even on the floor of Parliament, an MP of the ruling party, had to denigrate all Christians with that pathetic and false commentary on Rev Graham Staines – who was murdered by those who subscribe to the ‘Hindutva’ agenda! The hard truth is that the Government is also heavily dependent on foreign money, on imports etc (one cannot deny this! – in the height of the Chinese incursions into India, Modi and his Government apparently took a loan of more than Rs. 9000 crores from the Chinese. Secondly, several organizations based in foreign countries which support the Hindutva Agenda have been sending voluminous amounts of money to their Indian counterparts to further their anti-democratic acts in the country; these of course will not be touched!!!”
FCRA amendments are “anti-people”, “retrograde”
The amendments to the FCRA are certainly anti- people ; it is a retrograde step which will have an adverse effect on genuine NGOs which work selflessly for the poorest of the poor by providing them a whole range of services which include educational programmes, Medicare, poverty alleviation schemes , women’s empowerment, environmental protection and other programmes and initiatives which are essential in ensuring that India truly moves ahead in every sphere. The poor, the excluded and other marginalized sections of society are all bound to suffer. Research is an important component of any meaningful initiative; putting a new cap on the administrative expenses is bound to throttle significant work being done for the progress of all Indians and ultimately for the development of the nation. The amendments to the FCRA are blatantly anti- people, anti- poor and anti- women. It is in every sense draconian! The current regime is afraid that the empowerment of these groups will ultimately end their fascist acts.
Amended FCRA a death blow to relief works
Voluntary Action Network- India(VANI),the apex body/national association of Indian voluntary development organizations, strongly feels that the FCRA Bill, 2020 will be a death blow to the development relief, scientific research and community support work of the NGO community as it prohibits collaboration with other Indian organizations. “With limited domestic philanthropy, such guidelines that criminalise activities of even those certified as FCRA compliant, thousands of small NGOs which enable good work and are dependent on legal funds obtained internationally, will shut down, also endangering livelihoods of those dependent on them for a vocation”, VANI said in a statement just before both Houses of Parliament passed the bill, to make it an act!
Unwarranted comments by Madras High Court judge against NGOs/human rights activists
Interestingly but in another significant development, Justice N. Kirubakaran of the Madras High Court, exceeded his brief, made observations about NGOs that have become the bane of the Indian society. Justice Kirubakaran was hearing the bail plea of one Kalai Lingam, accused of placing bombs in Madurai and Thoothukudi districts of Tamil Nadu beneath the car of Narayanasamy, current CM of Puducherry when he was a union minister in 2014.Kalai Lingam was a member of the Tamil Nadu Liberation Army, a banned secessionist organization. Justice Kirubakaran, while rejecting the bail plea considering the serious nature of the crimes committed by Kalai Lingam, made some unnecessary observations about such organizations promoting secessionism and enmity among fellow Indians based on race, religion, region, and language. His observation said, “This kind of fringe elements are stated to be more active in Tamil Nadu and wearing the masks of NGOs, Human Rights Organisations and political groups are trying to create unrest in Tamil Nadu by way of continuous propaganda through media especially social media instigating the people to protest, creating fear psychosis and spreading hatred among the masses”. He went on further to state, “When these elements take Tamil Culture, Tamil Race and Tamil Language as weapons for their sinister plans. Our country is facing more danger in the hands of elements within the country rather than enemy countries. Therefore, the government, as well as the people, should be very cautious about those elements”
He came down heavily on the human rights activists accusing them of supporting “Separatists, secessionist forces and those who celebrate our enemy countries and criminals in the name of violation of human rights. Sometimes these groups themselves make anti-national comments making use of the Right to speech and Freedom of Expression”. About those in the media peddling the narrative of China, he observed “The recent Galwan valley conflict exposed people who are lovers of the neighboring nation, as they openly support the enemy country. These are not giving straight forward news and only disseminate their views with the name of news to mislead people” and expressed worry that these people are a threat to the national integrity and unity and implied upon the government to nip them in the bud. All remarks which certainly did not come under his brief while considering a bail application, but which he made presumably to be on the ‘good books’ of the powerful of this land!
Victimising NGOs not in the interest of India: Aakar Patel
Writing in the ‘Deccan Chronicle’ (29 September 2020), well-known journalist and former head of Amnesty India, Aakar Patel says, “It is not in the interest of India or its people or even the government, to persecute and harass these organisations. Unfortunately, that is what has happened and is happening and the reality is that many of them, already under assault from the State, will have to wind up operations and others will have to scale down. India’s civil society is full of motivated people and much of their work will continue because these individuals are not doing this work because of the money. I have worked with people with a background in investment banking, law and of course the media who have chosen to work in an NGO for much less than in their corporate job. Such Indians will continue their work and it is a shame that they are being hindered”.
That says it all! It is a sad reality in India today: its vibrant civil society is being murdered in a very calculated manner! It is also true, that come what may, the struggle will continue relentlessly!
*(Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist/writer. He can be contacted at [email protected] )