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India: Growing Crackdown on Activists, Rights Groups

Stop Harassing Peaceful Dissenters and Choking Freedom of Association

People celebrate the Indian Supreme Court decision to strike down a colonial-era law criminalizing same-sex conduct, in Bangalore, India, September 6, 2018. © 2018 Aijaz Rahi/AP Photo

(New York) – The Indian government intensified its harassment and at times prosecution of critics in 2018, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2019. Authorities used draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws to silence peaceful dissent, and foreign funding regulations and other laws to discredit and muzzle nongovernmental organizations critical of government actions or policies.

In a landmark decision in September, however, the Supreme Court decriminalized consensual adult same-sex relations, paving the way for full constitutional protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. The ruling opened the door for reform in other countries with British colonial-era sodomy laws.

“The room for dissent in India is getting ever smaller, and anyone who criticizes government actions can become a target,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Authorities seem more interested in silencing activists and journalists than in addressing the problems they bring to light.”

In the 674-page World Report 2019, its 29th edition, Human Rights Watch reviewed human rights practices in more than 100 countries. In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth says that the populists spreading hatred and intolerance in many countries are spawning a resistance. New alliances of rights-respecting governments, often prompted and joined by civic groups and the public, are raising the cost of autocratic excess. Their successes illustrate the possibility of defending human rights – indeed, the responsibility to do so – even in darker times.

Police in Maharashtra state arrested 10 civil rights activists, lawyers, and writers, accusing them of being members of a banned Maoist organization. By the end of the year, eight were still in jail and one was under house arrest.

Numerous journalists and media organizations faced costly defamation lawsuits, including for their reporting on a controversial deal by the government to procure planes for the Indian Air Force that allegedly benefitted businessman Anil Ambani’s Reliance Group.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first report on the human rights situation in Kashmir in June. The report focused on abuses since July 2016, when violent protests erupted in response to the killing of a militant leader by soldiers. Instead of confronting human rights failures and addressing grievances, the government dismissed the report.

There were repeated incidents of mob violence, including by extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) against minority communities, particularly Muslims. In July, the Supreme Court condemned these “horrendous acts of mobocracy,” and issued a series of directions for “preventive, remedial and punitive” measures.

India’s #MeToo movement gained strength during the year as numerous women, many from the media and entertainment industries, shared their accounts on social media of workplace sexual harassment and assault. The outcry led to pressure to fully enforce the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013, which prescribes a system for investigating and providing redress for complaints in the workplace.

The Indian government made no improvement in promoting human rights in international forums. Instead, the government faced increasing criticism throughout the year from UN experts for failing to address sexual violence, discrimination against religious minorities, targeting activists, and lack of accountability by security forces. The UN special rapporteur on racism called the government’s decision to deport seven Rohingya Muslims back to Myanmar in October a “flagrant denial of their right to protection.”

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