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’
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, (including the Judiciary) - 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.
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 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!
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 AI in India.
Following this, fifteen international human rights organizations, in a strongly- word 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.
The Bharatiya Janata Party 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 ex
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!
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! A bloody and calculated murder of India’s civil society- but the struggle will continue relentlessly!
*( Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist/writer Contact: email@example.com )