The right wing Hindu nationalist government of India, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has attempted to squash all forms of criticism, dissent, and protest in the country. In India, criticising the government or the military is now being treated as an act of sedition. The cost of protesting is so high that one risks losing their livelihood, freedom, and even life for speaking up.
It has been almost two years since Umar Khalid, a young history scholar and activist who completed his PhD from the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru University in India, has been in jail.
Even after months of incarceration, numerous court hearings, and deferment of court orders, his bail plea has been rejected. His crime? Umar Khalid delivered a powerful speech on 17 February, 2020, to a largely Muslim audience, encouraging them to engage in peaceful protests against the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act which was passed by the BJP-led central government of India.
“We won’t respond to violence with violence. We won’t respond to hate with hate. If they spread hate, we will respond to it with love. If they thrash us with lathis (bamboo sticks), we keep holding the tricolour. If they fire bullets, then we will hold the Constitution…”
These were the exact lines in his speech for which Umar Khalid was arrested. BJP leaders accused him of provoking his audience to riot and perpetrate violence. They claimed that he was the “mastermind” behind the communal violence that broke out in East Delhi in February 2020 during Donald Trump’s visit to India. He was charged with India’s sedition law UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and continues to await justice.
In another example, in November last year, world renowned Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez was arrested on charges of “terror funding” and “conspiracy”. Parvez, who is the Programme Director at Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, had published several reports documenting the human rights violations committed by the Indian regime in Kashmir. He had also been a vocal critic of the BJP-led Indian government. Despite international outrage and campaigns calling for Parvez’s release, the activist still remains in jail. These stories are not isolated incidents. They are just two of many such examples of incarceration and state sponsored violence faced by activists, journalists, and Human Rights
Defenders in India for speaking truth to power.
In India Dissent Is Treated as Sedition
What has remained common in all these cases of government repression and incarceration is the use of the draconian UAPA. UAPA is India’s anti-terror law. It is often referred to as the modern day version of colonial laws that sought to prosecute individuals for protesting against the coloniser. The BJP government has weaponised this law to target all forms of dissent in the country. Not just activists or journalists, but even students and workers in the past have been arrested under this law for something as trivial as celebrating the Pakistan team’s win during a cricket match since Pakistan is seen as India’s arch nemesis. Anything that goes against the government’s policies has been termed as an act of “terror”, “sedition”, and a crime against the nation.
What makes this law especially formidable is the fact that it allows the state and its institutions to arrest someone and label them as a “terrorist” based on mere suspicion. The investigation period under this law remains longer than others and those arrested are only allowed to apply for bail after a period of six months. This makes it especially difficult for people to secure bail and in India, political prisoners can remain locked up for years even in the absence of concrete evidence, without getting a fair trial.
In the valley of Kashmir, the Indian regime supplements this provision with the Public Safety Act (PSA), used for preventive detention which allows the police to keep someone detained for as long as two years without pressing formal charges or initiating a trial.
While the government has gone after anyone and everyone who has dared to speak up against its authoritarian policies, it has impacted people from minority communities more. Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis arrested under these laws have faced greater hurdles in accessing justice mechanisms and securing their freedom.
Unsurprisingly, these laws have not been used to arrest Hindu extremists who have given open calls for Muslim genocide or perpetrated targeted attacks on minority communities. With unfaltering support from the BJP led government and Sangh Parivar , these Hindu extremists have gone free.
Impact on NGOs and Civil Society Groups
It is not just independent activists who have fallen prey to the state’s oppressive mechanisms. The Modi regime has also waged a war on non-profits and civil society groups, whose work has sought to challenge their authoritative regime. Amnesty International, while working in India, faced sedition charges in 2016 for documenting human rights violations in Kashmir. Although that case was dismissed two years later, the Indian government put in renewed efforts to halt the organisation’s work. Their offices were raided and bank accounts were frozen in 2020, which eventually forced the organisation to halt its operations in India and lay off all staff members. On the other hand, the former Chief of the organisation, Aakar Patel, has been consistently facing harassment at the hands of the country’s authorities including restrictions
on movement and travel.
Government’s regulatory hold over NGOs has only grown stronger since 2014. Modi’s party has consistently claimed that NGOs in India have been working against the interests of the nation. The crackdown on the country’s NGO sector has led to revocation of foreign funding licenses of close to 20,000 NGOs, most of them working in the human rights domain.
Revocation of the license indicates that these organisations can no longer receive foreign funding, which poses a direct threat to their operation and survival. Earlier in 2021, the government had suddenly ordered for audits in non-profits in an attempt to obtain information about their political affiliations. The government auditors who visited the NGOs were also found questioning the organisation about the religious identity of its employees and its beneficiaries. It was speculated that this information was being used by the government to further oppress and attack NGOs, and restrict their ability to operate.
The Power of People’s Movements – A Sign of Hope
The fear that grips activists and civil society groups in India right now is almost palpable. The government’s fascist politics and heightened surveillance ensures that there is no space where one can feel safe. And yet every day, resistance in India continues. Courageous citizens of the country continue to raise their voices and speak truth to power, while risking their lives. These collective movements hold the key to changing India’s future.
In 2020-2021, farmers from all over India came together to protest against the three laws passed by the central government which aimed at privatising the agricultural sector in India and reducing government intervention. They claimed that the laws would put the poor Indian farmers at the mercy of giant corporations, increasing the chances of exploitation.
Despite all strategies used by the BJP to break up the protests through use of brute force, legal mechanisms and even targeted campaigns through government affiliated media houses which sought to discredit the protestors, the movement continued. The year-long agitation shook the country and it eventually forced the government to repeal the laws in November 2021.
On 9 May, 2022, government bulldozers reached Shaheen Bagh, aiming to demolish Muslim- owned homes and businesses, under the guise of an “anti-encroachment drive”. Shaheen Bagh was the epicentre for citizenship protests and the site for the historic sit-in protests which had taken place from December 2019 to March 2020 against the discriminatory Citizenship Laws passed by the BJP government. The protest was historic because it was led by women from India’s minority Muslim community who put up a firm resistance to the government’s Hindutva policies.
The bulldozers arrived in Shaheen Bagh with the goal to destroy homes, the livelihoods of Muslims, and perhaps also silence the voices of dissent that had emerged from the residents of the area. Yet they weren’t successful. The bulldozers accompanied by armed personnel arrived in Shaheen Bagh only to be confronted by a large number of protesting citizens. Residents stood in front of the bulldozers to halt the demolition drive. Amidst firm resistance and massive outrage the bulldozers were forced to retreat.
These are just two examples of how collective people’s movements in India are firmly resisting the fascist politics of its authoritarian government. Despite the government’s crackdown, people are still raising their voices. People are still fighting for equality and peace. In these troubling times, this serves as a sign of hope.
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