The government has not taken kindly to global criticism about the declining nature of democracy in India. ARUN SRIVASTAVA writes that this intolerance and reluctance to stop human rights abuses and arrests of activists is denting India’s image.


THE government’s intolerance of criticism by foreign institutions’ of its failure to listen to the global concern of the sharp rise in the violation of human rights and its persistent unwillingness to take action against the violators leading to the erosion of the democratic values in the country, has motivated lawmakers of western countries to push a bill in their respective parliaments decrying the claim of the Modi government of India being a democratic country.

The political leaders of western countries strongly feel that since India under the Modi government was inching towards declaring itself as a Hindu Rashtra, the ruling dispensation was in a planned manner ignoring the global concern.

A couple of days back the United States Secretary of Defence, General (Retd.) Lloyd J. Austin was on a three-day visit to India. Though there were many defence deals to be sorted out, he was specifically on the mission to discuss the issue of human rights violations and the measures the Modi government intends to initiate to salvage the situation.

The importance of the issue could be gauged from the fact this issue was to come up during the first outreach by the new U.S. administration less than two months after President Biden assumed office.

Ahead of Austin’s visit, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee leader Senator Robert Menendez had also written a letter urging him to raise concerns over “ongoing crackdown” by the Modi government on farmers and journalists, and other issues, including the amendment of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as the Citizenship Amendment Act.

Austin raised the issue of human rights in India during his meetings with Cabinet Ministers. During his talk with foreign minister S. Jaishankar, he made this abundantly clear: “As the two largest democracies in the world, human rights and values are important and we will lead with these values.” He also raised the issue of violation of the human rights of Muslims in Assam.

He observed: “We have to remember that India is our partner, a partner whose partnership we value. And I think partners need to be able to have those kinds of discussions. And certainly, we feel comfortable doing that.  You can have those discussions in a very meaningful way and make progress.” This ought to be viewed from a proper perspective. He also mentioned, “You’ve heard President Biden say human rights and rule of law are important to the U.S. We always lead with our values. As a democracy that’s pretty important to us.”

The new US rulers are not willing to follow in the footsteps of Donald Trump and ignore the partisan approach of the Modi government. Significantly Menendez had emphasised that India-U.S. partnership in the 21st century must be based on “adherence to democratic values. India has been trending away from those values”. At some level, these remarks reflect a lack of trust in Modi.

Earlier, the US Congress had held two hearings that largely focused on Kashmir. Several lawmakers criticised India’s actions in Kashmir, including political detentions and communications blockade, and raised concerns over other abuses including the citizenship verification process in Assam.

In August, the UN Security Council held a closed meeting on Jammu and Kashmir for the first time in decades. US President Donald Trump offered to mediate and resolve the dispute.

Throughout the year, the UN special procedures issued several statements raising concerns over a slew of issues in India including extrajudicial killings, potential statelessness of millions in Assam, possible eviction of tribal communities and forest-dwellers, and communications blackout in Kashmir.

In September, the UN Human Rights High Commissioner Michelle Bachelet expressed concerns over rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir.

US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin on Saturday said he had discussed violations of human rights in India during his meetings with ministers here, adding that partners ought to be able to have such conversations.

Referring to the Freedom House report that downgraded India from “free” to “partly free”, Menendez said: “The Indian government’s ongoing crackdown on farmers peacefully protesting new farming laws and corresponding intimidation of journalists and government critics only underscores the deteriorating situation of democracy in India.”

Attacks on the democratic institutions and crushing of human rights have been taking place under a well-planned design. What is most disgraceful and shocking is all these have been happening under the full knowledge of Modi. He cannot pretend to be unaware of the developments.

Modi government froze the assets of Amnesty International, claiming that the organisation was in violation of Indian law. The fact is he was feeling irritated by Amnesty’s unfavourable reports on recent riots in New Delhi, India’s human rights record in Jammu and Kashmir, and the passage of recent legislation that could adversely affect Muslims. No prime minister had ever turned vindictive on Amnesty International.

At the height of the Kashmir insurgency in 1990, Narasimha Rao, then prime minister, was irritated by criticism of the Indian security forces’ harsh counterinsurgency tactics. Still, he did not create any hindrance in the functioning of the organisation. On the contrary, stung with repeated allegations of rampant human rights violations in Kashmir, his government created the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) to examine the charges.

It is hard to imagine that Modi would set up this nature of watchdog to monitor his governance. Shockingly his government deprived it of financial support by freezing its bank accounts.

Using the Income Tax, Enforcement Directorate and CBI have been among the most common tactics used by the government to terrorise critics.

Ford Foundation has also been at the target of the Modi government. It is widely believed that the government was angry with its decision to fund a well-known human rights lawyer and activist, Teesta Setalvad, and her work representing the victims of a pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat when Modi was chief minister of the state.

Many critics of Modi have been jailed after charges of sedition were slapped on them. Nine prominent human rights activists were arrested in 2018 under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and they are still languishing in jail on the charges of ‘waging a war against the country’. All nine have worked with the most marginalised people of India, Dalits, and Adivasis, and held views opposing the government. On 3rd October last year, 49 renowned celebrities were charged with sedition for writing an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi urging him to take meaningful action against hate crimes. In their letter, they had cited government and other independent data to highlight the rise in hate crimes and decline in their convictions.

Besides these nine there are many left and liberal intellectuals and academics languishing in jails. Courts have been reluctant to grant them bail.

The UN Human Rights office has expressed serious concern about the detention of human rights defenders, including those arrested in the controversial Bhima Koregaon case, and has urged Indian authorities to release the detainees “at the very least on bail while they await trial”.

The 80-year-old poet and human rights defender Varavara Rao, suffering from neurological problems, and the 83-year old tribal rights activist Father Stan Swamy, afflicted with the advanced Parkinson’s disease were “some of the elderly detainees with poor health”.

Other human rights defenders arrested under the controversial Bhima Koregaon case include lawyers, writers and academics such as Shoma Sen, Sudha Bhardwaj, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Mahesh Raut, Vernon Gonzalves, Arun Ferreira, Anand Teltumbde, and Gautam Navlakha, among others. They are currently detained in the Taloja prison in Mumbai, one of the most crowded prisons in India. (IPA Service)

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