August 31, 2018 | By Sikh Siyasat Bureau
Chandigarh: The crackdown on human rights defenders in India is a grave challenge to the freedom to dissent and violates constitutionally guaranteed human rights, Amnesty International said today.
“What’s unfolding before our eyes is a pattern of crushing dissent by demonizing and criminalizing activists, lawyers and journalists working for some of the poorest and most marginalized communities in India. This raises huge questions over the government’s commitment to protect basic liberties,” said Kumi Naidoo, Secretary General, Amnesty International.
On 28 August, Maharashtra police arrested five activists—human rights lawyer Sudha Bharadwaj, social activist Vernon Gonsalves, activist Gautam Navlakha, activist Arun Ferreira, and poet and journalist Varavara Rao—from different locations across India. Premises of other activists, including Anand Teltumbde and Father Stan Swamy, were also raided simultaneously. On 29 August, a group of activists and academics filed a petition before the Supreme Court seeking the release of those arrested and an independent probe into the arrests.
While hearing the case on 29 August, the Supreme Court observed, “Dissent is the safety valve of democracy. If you don’t allow the safety valve pressure cooker will burst.” The Court also ordered that the arrested persons be placed under house arrest until the next hearing on 6 September.
Previously in June this year, there was a similar crackdown on activists where the Maharashtra Police arrested lawyer Surendra Gadling, Professor Shoma Sen, and activists Rona Wilson, Sudhir Dhawale, and Mahesh Raut. All five of them continue to be in judicial custody under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The UAPA is an anti-terror law that violates several international human rights standards and circumvents fair trial guarantees available under Indian criminal law.
“Over the past three months, there has been a sustained smear campaign against these ten activists, accusing them of working against India and seeking to undermine years of crucial work they have done to cast light on injustice,” said Kumi Naidoo.
These arrests are an extension of a crackdown on anyone who is critical of the state. This includes human rights defenders, journalists and ‘Right to Information’ activists, who have been threatened, harassed and attacked while seeking state accountability. The state has also used preventive detention as a tool to repress dissent.
“India is fast becoming a dangerous place for those demanding accountability from the state. When hard-won rights to expression and peaceful protest are weakened, everyone stands to lose,” said Kumi Naidoo.
Following the clashes between Dalits and ‘right-wing nationalist’ groups in Bhima Koregaon, a village in Maharashtra, on 1 January 2018 over commemoration of a 200-year-old British military victory, Gadling, Sen, Wilson, Dhawale, and Raut were arrested on 6 June 2018 for their alleged links with banned Maoist groups, and for having incited caste-based violence in Bhima Koregaon. Two days after the arrests, the police said that they had seized a letter from one of the activist’s belongings, which mentioned a plot to assassinate Prime Minister Narendra Modi. So far, little evidence has been provided to establish any of these allegations.