Indian authorities are increasingly bringing politically motivated cases, including under severe sedition and terrorism laws, against critics of the government, a leading rights group has claimed.
“Indian authorities seem increasingly determined to prosecute without basis peaceful critics of government policies for violence that, by objective reporting, is largely the handiwork of BJP supporters,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director.
“By arbitrarily arresting outspoken activists, the government is not only attempting to silence dissent but also sending a message to supporters that they have free rein to commit abuses against minority communities,” Ganguly said.
The rights group said that on Sept. 13, Delhi police arrested Umar Khalid, an activist, as one of the “main conspirators,” under India’s principal counterterrorism law for his alleged role in communal violence in February that killed at least 53 people and injured hundreds.
HRW said that police in Delhi have also named academics, activists, and opposition leaders as suspects.
On Sept. 7, the National Investigation Agency arrested three members of a Dalit cultural group for giving speeches allegedly inciting caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018. In both cases, supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were implicated in the violence.
The Delhi police also identified others whose names, they said, had come up during the investigation, including: Sitaram Yechury, a well-known opposition politician; Jayati Ghosh, an economist; Yogendra Yadav, an activist and academic; Apoorvanand, a Delhi University professor; and Rahul Roy, a documentary filmmaker.
The arrests have been widely condemned in India and abroad, including by retired police officers and judges, and United Nations experts who said they seem “clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated.”
This month, over 1,000 activists, journalists, academics, and others condemned the Delhi police’s alleged practice of coercing “confessional” statements to falsely implicate people in the February violence. On Sept. 1, Khalid wrote to the Delhi police commissioner alleging that the investigators were putting pressure on his acquaintances to implicate him in the violence.
Since June 2018, the authorities have also arrested 12 prominent activists and academics under the counterterrorism Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act in the so-called Bhima Koregaon case.
Similarly, with respect to the February violence in Delhi, HRW said that the authorities have accused activists, student leaders, opposition politicians, and academics, but failed to act against BJP leaders who advocated violence against those peacefully protesting the citizenship law and policies that discriminated against Muslims in the weeks preceding the violence. Some of these leaders called the protesters “traitors” to be shot, the rights group said.
A July report by the Delhi Minorities Commission said the violence in Delhi was “planned and targeted,” and found that the police were filing cases against Muslim victims for the violence, but not acting against the BJP leaders who incited it.
As HRW and others have also documented, the authorities have shown clear bias in the investigations, arresting peaceful protesters and filing charges, without evidentiary support, of sedition, murder, and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, accusing them of a “conspiracy” to “defame the country in the international arena.”
HRW have called upon India’s authorities to uphold the rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. The government should act to repeal or substantially revise the counterterrorism law as well as repeal the colonial-era sedition law to end the abuses committed under these laws, HRW said.
“The Indian authorities are increasingly using authoritarian tactics to punish peaceful protests, while failing to act against violent attacks by its supporters,” Ganguly said. “This is causing lasting harm to India’s justice system and further shielding the police from accountability for abuses.”