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In India, Speaking Out on Abuses Carries a High Price

Authorities Misuse Laws to Punish Critics, Religious Minorities

A student wearing a face mask stands next to a display of placards at a women-led protest against a new citizenship law in Bangalore, India, March 8, 2020. © 2020 AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi

This week, police in India’s Jammu and Kashmir region arrested an activist and politician, Talib Hussain, for publicly questioning the security forces’ killing of a Kashmiri man in October. Instead of investigating Hussain’s allegations, the authorities accused him of “promoting enmity between different groups” and “spreading rumours or fake news.”

Hussian’s arrest highlights the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government’s growing intolerance of criticism. The authorities routinely abuse laws to punish peaceful dissent, including under India’s counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA).

Members of minority communities, especially Muslims, are particularly vulnerable to state repression. Last month, the police arrested several Muslims for celebrating Pakistan’s victory in a cricket match against India. The BJP chief minister of Uttar Pradesh state said they should be charged with sedition. Police in Kashmir filed cases under the UAPA against students at two medical colleges for cheering after Pakistan won the match.

Indian authorities are also using terrorism charges to quell independent investigations or fact-finding efforts by civil society groups, and prosecuting activists and journalists who question or criticize the government.

Earlier in November, police in the northeastern state of Tripura filed a terrorism case against four lawyers who conducted a citizen investigation into communal violence last month in which Hindu mobs attacked mosques and Muslim-owned properties. The police also filed terrorism cases against 102 social media accounts, some of which appear to have been targeted because they were critical of state failures in response to the violence.

Numerous students and activists continue to face charges for protesting 2019 citizenship law amendments that discriminate against Muslims. Fifteen prominent human rights defenders are facing politically motivated terrorism charges related to an incident of caste violence in Maharashtra state in 2017.  

The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has urged the government not to detain people for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. In June, the Delhi High Court, while granting bail to three student activists jailed under the UAPA, said, “in its anxiety to suppress dissent, in the mind of the State, the line between the constitutionally guaranteed right to protest and terrorist activity seems to be getting somewhat blurred.”

The Indian government should recognize that no democracy can succeed or survive without accountability for rights violations. Those exposing the truth should be encouraged, not silenced.  

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