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India: Dangerous Backsliding on Rights

Activists, Critics Targeted; Growing Attacks on Muslims, Groups at Risk

Women farmers attend a gathering to mark the first anniversary of their protests against controversial farm reforms at Haryana's Bahadurgarh, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, November 26, 2021. ©2021 AP Photo/Mayank Makhija/NurPhoto

(New York) – Indian authorities intensified their crackdown on activists, journalists, and other critics of the government using politically motivated prosecutions in 2021, Human Rights Watch said today in its World Report 2022. Tens of thousands of people died during a surge in Covid-19 cases, with the government failing to provide adequate health care to those in need.

The clampdown on dissent was facilitated by the draconian counterterrorism law, tax raids, foreign funding regulations, and charges of financial irregularities. Attacks against religious minorities were carried out with impunity under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led Hindu nationalist government. BJP supporters engaged in mob attacks or threatened violence, while several states adopted laws and policies to target minority communities, particularly Christians, Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis.

“The Indian authorities have given up any appearance of tolerating dissent and are using the machinery of the state to silence critics,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “At the same time, the BJP government has created an atmosphere in which minorities feel unsafe, at risk of assault by ruling party supporters.”

In the 752-page World Report 2022, its 32nd edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in nearly 100 countries. Executive Director Kenneth Roth challenges the conventional wisdom that autocracy is ascendent. In country after country, large numbers of people have recently taken to the streets, even at the risk of being arrested or shot, showing that the appeal of democracy remains strong. Meanwhile, autocrats are finding it more difficult to manipulate elections in their favor. Still, he says, democratic leaders must do a better job of meeting national and global challenges and of making sure that democracy delivers on its promised dividends.

The death of a jailed 84-year-old tribal rights activist, Stan Swamy, in July was emblematic of the ongoing persecution of rights activists. Swamy was among 16 prominent human rights defenders arrested on politically motivated terrorism charges related to an incident of caste violence in Maharashtra state in 2017.  

In November the police in Tripura state filed terrorism cases against four lawyers for conducting a fact-finding investigation into communal violence in October in which Hindu mobs attacked mosques and Muslim-owned properties. The police also filed terrorism cases against 102 social media accounts and detained two journalists who reported on the violence, on charges of “spreading communal disharmony.”

The authorities continued to press charges against numerous students and activists, including under counterterrorism and sedition laws, for protesting citizenship law amendments that discriminate against Muslims.

BJP leaders accused farmers, many of them from the minority Sikh community, of having a separatist agenda in protesting amendments to farm laws. Prime Minister Narendra Modi described people participating in various peaceful protests as “parasites,” while party supporters, including a government minister’s son, allegedly attacked farmers in a hit-and-run incident involving an official convoy. The authorities also arrested a climate activist for allegedly editing a document providing information on the protests, and issued warrants against two others. Several United Nations human rights experts raised concerns over government measures to restrict the protests. In November, following a year of protests, the BJP government finally decided to repeal the farm laws.

The Indian news website The Wire, as part of the international collaborative Pegasus Project, reported that Pegasus spyware, developed and sold by Israeli company NSO Group was used to target Indian human rights defenders, journalists, and opposition politicians. The company asserts that it sells the spyware “only to authorized governmental agencies.” The government also enacted new rules that allow for greater control over online content, threaten to weaken encryption, and would seriously undermine rights to privacy and freedom of expression .

In February the government lifted an 18-month internet shutdown in Jammu and Kashmir imposed in August 2019 when it revoked the state’s constitutional autonomy and split it into two federally governed territories. Journalists in Kashmir faced increased harassment and some were arrested on terrorism charges. UN experts raised concerns over abuses in Kashmir, including arbitrary detention of journalists, alleged custodial killings, and a “broader pattern of systematic infringements of fundamental rights used against the local population.”

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