A man is arrested during a protest against the new citizenship law in Gauhati, India, December 16, 2019.

© 2019 AP Photo

(New York) – The Indian authorities should immediately order all police to abide by international standards on policing assemblies, Human Rights Watch said today. The police may have used excessive force against demonstrators across the country who have been protesting against the enactment of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act on December 12, 2019. 

The government should establish a credible independent investigation into allegations of excessive force, brutality, and vandalism by law enforcement officials against demonstrators.

“The Indian government should address the concerns raised about the citizenship law instead of trying to shut down the protests with excessive force,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The police should have learned by now that responding to protesters with brutality only encourages more violence.”

The newly amended law grants citizenship only to non-Muslim irregular immigrants from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Protesters, including many university students, called for the law’s repeal, saying it was unconstitutional and divisive.

Six people have been killed since the protests began soon after parliament passed the law on December 11. The protests started in India’s northeast state of Assam, where police fatally shot four people, according to reports. In West Bengal state, the law sparked violent protests in some places. At the same time, peaceful protests were held all over the country, including in Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore.

Police in Assam have arrested 175 people and held 1,460 others in preventive detention, and dozens of people have been injured, including police officials.

On December 15, police in Delhi fired teargas shells against protesting students inside Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia university. The university’s vice chancellor said the police entered the university without permission and targeted students in the university library and hostels, beating up students and some staff. A video of police brutally beating a man as female students try to defend him and chase police away from a residential neighborhood close to the university have also raised concerns over police actions.

The police assert they acted with maximum restraint and were forced to respond after students turned violent, throwing stones and damaging public vehicles. The university’s vice chancellor has sought a high-level inquiry into the violence. The university students also dissociated themselves from the violence in a statement, saying: “We have maintained calm even when students have been lathi-charged [attacked with batons] and women protesters have been badly beaten up.”

Nearly 60 people, including students and police, were injured at the Jamia Millia Islamia protests. Hundreds of people also protested outside the city’s police headquarters in Delhi demanding action against Delhi police. Many students across Indian cities came out in support of the Jamia Millia Islamia protesters.

At Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, hundreds of students clashed with police on December 15, and police fired teargas shells and lathi-charged protesting students. Police officers were also injured in the clashes. Police were seen vandalizing motorcycles outside the university gates at night in apparent retaliation.

The right to peaceful assembly and protest is a fundamental right protected under international law, and one of the cornerstones of a society built on respect for human rights and rule of law. International human rights standards provide that law enforcement agencies should protect and facilitate that right, and should as far as possible apply nonviolent means before resorting to the use of force.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about the police using unnecessary or excessive force against protesters. While some protester action may warrant police use of force, international human rights standards limit the use of force to situations in which it is strictly necessary. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials provide that law enforcement officials may only use force if other means remain ineffective or have no promise of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement officials should exercise restraint and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense and to the legitimate objective to be achieved. Lethal force may only be used when there is an imminent threat to life.

Indian authorities shut down the internet in several districts including in West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh states, contending it was necessary to maintain law and order. India has frequently used internet shutdowns in response to protests, and, as Human Rights Watch and others have documented, these shutdowns have largely been disproportionate, unnecessary, and in violation of India’s international legal obligations including the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

The shutdowns also affect access to essential activities and services, including emergency services and health information, mobile banking and e-commerce, transportation, school classes, reporting on major crises and events, and human rights investigations.

The Citizenship Amendment Act has prompted international condemnation, including from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, which urged the Indian authorities to respect the right to peaceful assembly and to abide by international norms and standards on the use of force when responding to protests. The act was passed amid the government’s push for the National Register of Citizens, a nationwide citizenship verification process that would identify irregular immigrants, which government statements indicate is aimed at disenfranchising and stripping Muslims of their citizenship rights.

“The Indian government failed to grasp the extent of public opposition over erosion of basic rights evident in these protests,” Ganguly said. “The government’s strongest response to the protests would be to repeal the citizenship law and withdraw its plan for citizenship verification that threatens marginalized communities.”