(Delhi) – Indian authorities should drop sedition cases against peaceful protesters opposed to the construction of a nuclear power plant in Tamil Nadu state. At least 3,500 people are facing police investigations into allegations of sedition and “waging war” against the state for protesting against the plant in Kudankulam, according to a recent report by local activists.
Human Rights Watch urged the Indian parliament to repeal the colonial-era sedition law, which has frequently been used by authorities around the country to silence dissent.
“The Tamil Nadu protesters are simply speaking out on an issue of great public concern,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Filing police cases against peaceful protesters happens in China, but should never happen in a rights-respecting democracy.”
Local residents, most in fishing communities, had initially protested against the US$3.5 billion Kudankulam power plant, constructed with Russian assistance, because they feared that nuclear waste pollution could affect their livelihood. Other communities were also concerned about the plant’s adverse effects on health and their livelihoods.
Fresh protests erupted because many had experienced the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and worried about a situation like the meltdown of the Fukushima nuclear plant in Japan in 2011. The recent cases followed these 2011 protests that had delayed construction work at the plant. In March 2012, the Tamil Nadu government decided to resume construction. Activists conducted a hunger strike in the nearby village of Idinthakarai and villagers surrounded the protest site to prevent arrest of the activists.
The government deployed thousands of security forces around the village, creating an effective blockade that prevented the delivery of essential supplies to the villagers, in an apparent effort to compel S.P. Udaykumar, convener of the People’s Movement Against Nuclear Energy (PMANE), to turn himself in to the authorities. The hunger strike was called off on March 28 after the government agreed to address safety concerns and drop charges against the protesters.
PMANE submitted a list of concerns to the national and state governments, but has complained that it has not received adequate assurances over safety and livelihood concerns. Activists recently threatened to resume protests because the government has not kept a promise to drop sedition and other charges against ordinary villagers.
A four-member fact-finding team representing the Chennai Solidarity Group for Kudankulam Struggle found during a visit to Idinthakaari, the center of the protest in March, that the police had filed criminal cases against over 50,000 people since October 2011. Apart from sedition, other charges range from waging or abetting war against the state to disrupting harmony to unlawful assembly. Nearly 200 people were arrested and later released. Two people remain in custody facing charges of sedition and waging war.
India's sedition law, section 124A of the Penal Code, prohibits any words either spoken or written, or any signs or visible representation that can cause, "hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection," toward the government. The Supreme Court, in 1962, ruled that unless the accused incited violence by their speech or action, it would no longer constitute sedition, as it would otherwise violate the right to freedom of speech guaranteed by the Constitution.
“Instead of addressing the concerns of protesters, the Tamil Nadu authorities are using sedition and trumped-up criminal charges against ordinary fisher-folk and farmers,” Ganguly said. “These arrests should be a warning sign to the Indian parliament to repeal the sedition law, which has become a tool of repression.”
Instead of discussing the merits of the nuclear plant with local communities, senior government officials have suggested that the protests have been instigated by Western groups. In February, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that nongovernmental organizations involved in such protests were funded by the United States and Scandinavian countries. “The atomic energy program has got into difficulties because these NGOs, mostly I think based in the United States, don't appreciate the need for our country to increase the energy supply,” he told Science magazine.
Officials appeared to exploit the prime minister’s remarks to investigate several nongovernmental organizations for possible violations of the draconian Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which allows the government to regulate foreign donations to non-profit groups. The act permits the government to close bank accounts and block foreign charitable donations, and includes criminal penalties for violations. Human Rights Watch has long called for the law to be amended so that it does not interfere with basic freedoms of expression and association and so that it cannot be misused to choke the protected activities of civil society organizations.
“Threats of prosecutions or the withdrawal of FCRA approval should not be used by the government to censor and intimidate organizations and activists,” Ganguly said. “By alleging that the protests are instigated from abroad, the government is suggesting that Indians are incapable of speaking out for their own concerns.”