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India Punishes Internationally Recognized Activists

Arbitrary Arrests, Bogus Charges Further Tarnish Government’s Reputation

Alt News co-founder Mohammed Zubair being produced at the Patiala House Court by police in New Delhi, India, June 28, 2022. © 2022 Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

At the G7 summit last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to defend freedom of expression, civil society, and religious freedom. Yet back at home, his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led government, which has long promoted majoritarian Hindu nationalism at the expense of the rights of Muslims and other minorities, was renewing its crackdown on rights defenders.

Officials in several BJP-governed states have demolished property owned by Muslims in response to protests or communal clashes provoked by Hindu religious processions, often led by BJP supporters. There is little effort, however, to prosecute government supporters who commit abuses.

The government has always downplayed criticism of its systemic discrimination; but now that it is causing dismay among key trading and strategic partners, it is taking stronger action: not to end the abuses, but to clamp down on critics who are able to reach a global audience.

In June, Delhi police arrested Mohammed Zubair, cofounder of an independent fact-checking website Alt News, accusing him of hurting Hindu sentiments in a 2018 Twitter post. The police opposed bail, seized his electronic devices, and secured a 14-day custodial sentence while they undertook their investigation. Many believe that Zubair is being punished for exposing the controversial remarks of a BJP politician about the Prophet Mohammed that led to angry condemnation by India’s Supreme Court and from several Muslim governments. A Hindu tailor was brutally murdered by two Muslim men over the politician’s remarks.

Authorities also jailed internationally recognized activist Teesta Setalvad, accusing her of criminal conspiracy, forgery, and other crimes, in an apparent reprisal for pursuing justice for the Muslim victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The attacks on Muslims, which caused an international outcry, led to the conviction of numerous BJP leaders and supporters. Teesta was detained on June 25, a day after the Supreme Court denied a petition seeking the prosecution of Modi and other senior leaders.

Earlier this month, Pulitzer-winning Kashmiri photojournalist, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, said that Indian immigration authorities prevented her from flying to Paris, but gave no explanation. Scores of journalists and activists in Jammu and Kashmir have faced police interrogation, raids, threats, and arrest, for reporting human rights violations. Many have been stopped from international travel, a violation of their rights to freedom of movement.

India’s partners should not let the government’s expressed commitments to human rights go unchallenged. This is important globally, but also to send a message to India’s activists that the world is watching and supports them.

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