Human Rights Watch (HRW), in a letter to the European Union (EU), written amidst EU-India summit on March 30, has said that even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi seeks “greater foreign investment in the private sector for initiatives such as Make in India, showcasing Indian democracy and diversity abroad, it uses laws such as the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to restrict foreign funding for civil society groups.”
Addressed to Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, HRW has said, “Civil society groups face increased harassment and government critics face intimidation and lawsuits. Free speech has come under threat as the authorities target those critical of the government, including students and academics.” Modi reached Brussels for the summit on March 30 for talks.
The letter said, “Activists that question government infrastructure and development projects or seek justice for victims of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat have come under particular pressure”, adding, giving the example of how in January 2015 the government barred Priya Pillai, a Greenpeace India activist, from boarding a flight to London where she was to speak to members of the British Parliament, alleging that her testimony would have portrayed the government in a negative light.”
“In March, the Delhi High Court ruled that authorities had violated Pillai’s rights to travel and to freedom of expression. In November, authorities in Tamil Nadu state, where Greenpeace India’s registered office is located, cancelled the organization’s registration”, the letter said.
“Indian authorities also targeted activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, in what appeared to be acts of politically motivated intimidation, accusing them of violating the FCRA and receiving funds illegally, among other allegations”, the said.
It added, “Setalvad is well-known for her work supporting victims of the 2002 Gujarat riots and for seeking criminal charges against scores of officials, including Prime Minister Modi for his alleged involvement in the riots as the state’s then chief minister.”
“Meanwhile”, the letter said, “Free speech increasingly is coming under attack, prompting condemnation from scholars and activists around the world. The authorities used the draconian sedition law to arrest students and activists for alleged anti-national speech.”
It pointed out, “Other overbroad and vaguely worded laws such as criminal defamation and hate speech laws are used to harass and prosecute those expressing dissenting, unpopular, or minority views.”
“In several cases”, the letter said, “When interest groups that claim to be offended by books, movies, or works of art pushed for censorship or harassed authors, the government has allowed them a ‘heckler’s veto’ rather than protecting those under attack.”
Urging the EU to ask the Government of India to repeal the sedition law and amend the FCRA “so that it does not interfere with the rights to freedom of expression and association and cannot be misused to choke the protected peaceful activities of civil society organizations”, the letter asked the EU to also move towards protecting the “rights of minorities”.
Noting how “some leaders of the ruling BJP have made “inflammatory remarks against minorities while militant Hindu groups, who often claim to be supporters of the Modi government, threatened and harassed Muslims and Christians, in some cases even physically attacking them”, the letter said, “Six Muslims were killed by Hindu vigilante groups in separate incidents across the country in 2015 and early 2016 in the name of protecting cows.”
Also noting churches were attacked in several states in 2015, prompting fears of growing Hindu nationalist militancy under the BJP government, the letter said, “Dozens of writers protested against sectarianism and the silencing of dissent by returning prestigious literary awards bestowed by the Sahitya Akademi, India’s National Academy of Letters.”
At the same time, the letter said, “The Indian government continued to fail to implement policies to protect Dalits (so-called “untouchables”) and tribal groups from discrimination and violence”, pointing towards the recent report on caste-based discrimination by the United Nations Human Right Council’s special rapporteur for minority issues, which noted “how caste-affected groups continued to suffer exclusion and dehumanization.”
The letter noted, “Atrocities and violence against Dalits had increased by 19 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year and that despite prohibition through legislation”, even as pointing towards how the practice of “manual scavenging” — cleaning of human excreta – a caste-designated occupation, has continued in different parts of India.