India’s Crackdown on Human Rights: Amnesty International and Other Cases
By Maya Garner
India’s human rights record under Prime Minister Modi has continued to deteriorate. When Amnesty International closed its office in the country in September, the case exemplified a worrying trend of the government’s diminishing regard for human rights in the country and for the organizations criticizing those violations. Indeed, just a little over a month later, the Indian government carried out raids against peaceful civil society groups under the guise of counterrorism. In particular, these incidents appear to revolve around the issues of Jammu and Kashmir, and the Delhi riots. These crackdown cases point to an aggressive new policy by the Indian government of not only targeting dissidents, but also organizations aimed at protecting such activists. As such, this recent news is a step toward weakening, or perhaps dismantling, non-governmental human rights monitoring mechanisms in the country.
Amnesty had been a vocal critic of the actions of the Indian government. The organization sought accountability from the government and the Delhi police for human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as in the Delhi riots. However, the prestigious human rights organization had to cease operations in the country upon discovering that India’s Enforcement Directorate had completely frozen the organization’s bank accounts. This recent worrying development comes out of a two-year crackdown on the organization and is “no accident,” according to Amnesty International’s office.
A month after successfully shutting down Amnesty’s work, the Indian government seized the opportunity to escalate its crackdown on critics. On October 28 and 29, the Indian government’s the National Investigation Agency (NIA) conducted several raids of civil society groups, “using counterterrorism operations to silence peaceful dissenters, human rights activists, and journalists” according to Human Rights Watch. In particular, the NIA brought the unfounded allegations of non-governmental organizations directing charitable funds to supporting separatist activities in Jammu and Kashmir. In combination, the authorities also raided the home of an activist outspoken on Delhi police violence. Human Rights Watch also cited the government bringing “increasingly...politically motivated cases” against activists and student leaders, using “broadly worded terrorism and sedition laws” and foreign funding regulations, as in the case of Amnesty.
Over the last two years, Amnesty International has faced a relentless harassment campaign by Indian authorities. The government had previously subjected Amnesty to a 10-hour raid, launched an unfounded investigation into small regular donors, and presented numerous other government-led hindrances to the organization’s work. Amnesty was denied permission to hold a press conference on the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA), which the organization asserts has been misused. Amnesty’s briefing “Tyranny of A ‘Lawless Law’: Detention without Charge or Trial under the J&K PSA” was published online in June 2019. In the briefing, Amnesty called attention to administrative detention without charge or trial on vague or general grounds, as well as the detention of minors and human rights activists. The briefing also included detaining authorities’ failure to follow PSA procedures or to inform detainees of their rights. The PSA is often prioritized by state police over criminal proceedings, which include higher standards for proof. This creates a parallel system wherein the PSA not only coexists with the criminal justice system, but allows for authorities to continue to keep detainees even after the courts have ordered to release them on bail or acquit them. Police makes use of the PSA as a means of guaranteeing detention, often with the attitude that “normal law has not been sufficient to stop you.” A subject’s release on bail is absurdly considered valid grounds to detain them under the PSA instead. In this way, the PSA as a means to circumvent the rule of law and to undermine human rights for the people in Jammu and Kashmir.
Amnesty International’s office and the residences of its directors were raided by India’s Central Bureau of Investigation in November 2019, less than a month after Amnesty testified at a U.S. Congressional hearing on the situation in Kashmir and Jammu. The grounds for the raid came from a report by the Ministry of Home Affairs, alleging (unfoundedly) that the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act had been violated. The FCRA of 2010 regulates foreign financial contributions to NGOs. In 2015 the Ministry of Home Affairs cancelled the FCRA license of Greenpeace under the allegation of anti-development activities due to the organization’s opposition to fossil fuel industries, preventing them from receiving any foreign donations. (To the UN, this particular action clearly conflicts with its 2030 Sustainability Agenda.) Notably, rights experts from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights stated in 2016 that the FCRA is being” increasingly used to obstruct civil society’s access to foreign funding” and that it ”fails to comply with international human rights norms and standards.” In particular, the experts emphasized at the time that “FCRA provisions are being used more and more to silence organisations involved in advocating civil, political, economic, social, environmental or cultural priorities, which may differ from those backed by the Government.” The bill was amended in late 2020 to include mandatory provision of government-issued ID numbers for NGO officials. In light of these facts, the crackdown on Amnesty International comes out of a much larger trend of shutting down human rights organizations and civil society organizations in the country.
In April this year, Amnesty India called for the protection of journalists facing intimidation from repressive laws relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and Amnesty continued to release updates on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir. In late August, Amnesty released an investigative briefing on the held a six-month anniversary of the Delhi riots in February. The briefing, “Six Months Since Delhi Riots, Delhi Police Continue To Enjoy Impunity Despite Evidence Of Human Rights Violations,” pointed to complicity of the Delhi police in the riots. The investigation found “Delhi police officers indulging in violence with the rioters; torturing in custody; using excessive force on protesters; dismantling protest sites used by peaceful protesters and being mute bystanders as rioters wreaked havoc.” Furthermore, the Delhi police arrested several activists, such as students, professors, and human rights activists, who had helped organize legitimate peaceful protests against the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). The police claimed that these subjects were the main instigators of the riots. Amnesty’s briefing, conflicting with statements made by the police as well as implicating the police themselves, was perhaps the last straw for the Indian government. Two weeks later, on September 10, Amnesty came to know that all its bank accounts had been frozen. As the organization ceased its operations and closed its office, it left great cause for concern for those individuals and organizations who continue their work for rights and justice, as civil liberties are being eroded and human rights monitoring mechanisms are steadily shut down. The subsequent raids of civil society groups and individuals speak volumes.