The personal liberty of the very human rights defenders who protect the rights of others is in danger. Despite 72 years as a democracy, the increasing number of violations of the basic rights of activists and peaceful protestors is embarrassing for India on the global political stage.
This was more so in October 2020, when 1,500 peaceful protestors were arrested during COVID-19. They had bandied together to oppose the Citizenship Amendment Act, but were charged for something a lot more sinister – the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, which has been condemned worldwide. Another example is Father Stan Swamy, an octagenarian tribal rights activist and Catholic priest. He has been imprisoned in the overcrowded Taloja jail, making him the oldest person to be charged under the UAP Act for an incident where he wasn’t even present.
The UN Human Rights office has again urged the Indian government to release the detained human rights defenders. “at the very least on bail”. “We continue to be concerned about the situation of activists detained in India, including in the context of the Bhima Koregaon events,” the UN Human Rights office said last week. Other human rights defenders arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case include thought leaders and lawyers like Shoma Sen, Sudhir Dhawale and Arun Ferreira.
“We encourage the authorities to release these individuals, at the very least on bail while they await trial – in accordance with the High Commissioner’s call to decongest prisons during the pandemic,” the office said.
In October 2020, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet had similarly appealed to the Modi government “to safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups they represent.” She felt “regret at the tightening space for human rights NGOs in particular, including by the application of vaguely worded laws that constrain NGOs’ activities and restrict foreign funding”.
“India has long had a strong civil society, which has been at the forefront of groundbreaking human rights advocacy within the country and globally. But I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices,” she said.
“When a State invokes national security and protection of public order as a reason to restrict the rights to freedom of association, the State party must show the specific nature of the threat or risks posed, and limit its responses to those necessary and proportionate to address such threats or risk. I urge the [Indian] Government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society.”
She called for careful review of the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act) for its compliance with international human rights standards, and to release people charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act “for simply exercising basic human rights that India is obligated to protect.”