The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed by the Indian Parliament on December 11, 2019. It requires Indians to prove their citizenship based on ancestral residency by producing requisite documents. As outcomes from a similar exercise in the north eastern state of Assam revealed, such a process can lead to an unprecedented humanitarian emergency.In the rest of the country too a large number of people and communities do not have access to the documents. The Act grants citizenship to persons of minority religions from neighbouring Muslim majority countries of Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and who arrived in India before 2015.
The claimed intension behind the act was to provide refuge to those who had escaped religious persecution, but its bias was visible: Rohingya Muslims escaping persecution from Myanmar, and Tamils seeking persecution from similar political and religious persecution in Sri Lanka, were not included in the ambit of this law, though both countries are indeed, neighbours, and enough evidence exists of the untold persecutions they have faced. The sentiment was clear. The law intended to provide refuge primarily to Hindus (Jains, Buddhists, Sikh are included in this law) in keeping with the Central government’s vision to create a Hindu Rashtra.
After the act was passed in parliament, mass protests erupted across the country rejecting the this majoritarian vision. The protests drew nation wide as well as international attention to how the law would endanger the rights to citizenship of millions across religious, economic, ethnic and gender identities and further disenfranchise the most vulnerable sections of society. While the movement was joined and supported by people from all walks of life, women were at the forefront to defend citizenship rights and the constitution. Working-class Muslim women played a particularly central role. In many cities, including Delhi, these protests took multiple forms, including peaceful community-led sit-ins, sometimes attended by tens of thousands. They were supported by civil society representatives, poets, artists, musicians, and activists. Each protest took on its own local form, with activities ranging from readings of the constitution to literacy camps for women and poster making for children. These protests on the streets of cities, towns and villages across the country including The Shaheen Bagh sit-in, one of the largest and longest-running anti-CAA protests led by Muslim women, was shut down when the Covid-19 lockdown began in March 2020.
The government proved resolutely unresponsive to the demands made by protestors over the course of two months to roll back the CAA and halt the NPR/NRC. Not a single meeting or dialogue was held by the ruling party with the protestors. On the contrary, the protests were deemed “anti-national” by extra state actors, such as members of the ruling BJP IT cell, active on social media platforms. Supporters of the ruling party held several rallies against the protests, and prominent politicians and mouthpieces of the ruling party issued multiple threats and calls for violence, with slogans such as ‘desh ke gaddaaron ko goli maaro saalon ko‘ (‘shoot the traitors of the nation’). Invocations to shoot the protestors were made by leaders high up in the party hierarchy, such as Yogi Adityanath, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh who too, belongs to the BJP. For the first time in recent memory, there were repeated incidents involving gun-wielding supporters of the Hindu Right threatening protestors at various sites. The judiciary too failed to respond to the over 140 petitions to the Supreme Court challenging the proposed amendment.
In Delhi, as the protests continued and took on new forms, including road blocks, another BJP leader, Kapil Mishra threatened violence against the Muslim community in retaliation to the roadblocks. The speech in which the leader made these threats was widely condemned by the international community and social media platforms like Facebook even used it to illustrate the very definition of hate speech. Shortly thereafter, on February 23, 2020, violence broke out, lasting three days, leaving 53 dead, over 200 injured and extensive damage to property, including shops/businesses, homes and mosques, with Muslims overwhelmingly on the receiving end.
Indian authorities have tried to pin the blame of this violence on those protesting against the CAA-NRC-NPR. To back this narrative, all the action following the violence, including complaints or First Information Reports (FIRs) filed by the police that would initiate investigations, have been against the protesters. This includes FIRs against prominent activists across organisational affiliations to a series of arrests, predominantly targeting Muslim youth, students and activists. By May 2019, more than 1300 had been arrested.
The government is using the COVID-19 lockdown, which has also drastically restricted the functioning of courts, to criminalise dissent. Since April 2019, the Delhi Police has arrested Jamia Milia Islamia students Safoora Zargar, Meeran Haider, Asif Iqbal Tanha, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita along with activists Ishrat Jahan, Khalid Saifi, Gulfisha Fatima, Sharjeel Imam, Umar Khalid and hundreds of other Muslim youth, while similar actions in Uttar Pradesh has led to the arrests of Aligarh Muslim University students Farhan Zuberi and Ravish Ali Khan.
Police have used draconian anti-terrorism, sedition, and other laws against students, activists, and other government critics to file these politically motivated cases. In some cases, the police filed new charges after activists were granted bail to ensure that they remained in custody, placing them at further risk during the Covid-19 outbreak in overcrowded prisons with inadequate sanitation, hygiene, and access to medical care. The authorities have failed to act against BJP leaders and supporters that incited violence or took part in the attacks on Muslim neighbourhoods.
Police Excesses and Complicity
Whether it is the killing of George Floyd in the United States, or the crackdown on protesters in Lebanon, Hong Kong, or elsewhere, there are increasing concerns about police brutality, and an authoritarian trend targeting minority groups or curtailing basic civil liberties.
The police used excessive force, arbitrary detention, and politically motivated charges against those that criticized the government, equating dissent against policies to being unpatriotic. From attacking peaceful protests; inflicting violence upon protesting students, and damaging university property, as in the case of Jamia Milia Islamia; complicity in the violence perpetrated allegedly by right-wing student body ABVP on students at Jawaharlal Nehru University; or the failure to prosecute violent groups that back the government; the police appeared to be backing the political ideology of the ruling BJP instead of complying with their obligation to fairly uphold rule of law. There is photographic evidence that implicates the police in its inaction while trigger-happy right-wing shooters opened fire at protestors, and as actively backing Hindu mobs when they targeted Muslims in the Delhi violence. Yet, far from facing reprimand or disciplinary action, there has been no independent inquiry to even identify the police personnel responsible for rights violations.
There has also been a visible difference in the response of the police between BJP-ruled states, and those governed by opposition parties. In Uttar Pradesh state in particular, the police opened fire at Aligarh Muslim University, arrested several protesters, framed innocent by-standers with false charges based on their religious identity, and violently attacked and looted homes in Muslim communities, and even put up billboards accusing peaceful activists of violence.
United Nations as well as international health experts have urged governments to work quickly to reduce prison populations because of a heightened risk of Covid-19 due to close proximity, inability to practice social distancing, a lack of adequate sanitation and hygiene, a high incidence of underlying medical conditions, and lack of adequate medical care. Governments also have the responsibility to protect prison staff who risks exposure and infecting their own families and communities.
Yet, the authorities in India have continued with these political arrests and opposing bail. Government lawyers even opposed bail for Safoora Zargar who had medical complications linked to pregnancy, forcing her to remain in prison for nearly 10 weeks.
The police has also coerced witnesses, and used forced and fabricated confessions in some cases, with entire sentences and words repeated verbatim across testimonies, to implicate peaceful protesters, activists, and human rights defenders. For a detailed report on the role of the police please see Manufacturing Evidence – How the Police is Framing and Arresting Constitutional Rights Defenders in India.
Abuse of laws such Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), Sedition, or the National Security Act (NSA)
People exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, including against the Citizenship Amendment Bill are accused under the sedition law, the UAPA, and the preventive-detention National Security Act (NSA).
The UAPA relies on a vague definition of ‘terrorism’ that can be interpreted to encompass a wide range of non-violent political activity, allowing the state to criminalise dissent and political protest. It empowers the government to declare an organisation as ‘terrorist’ and ban it, such that mere membership of such a proscribed organisation becomes a criminal offence. Furthermore, it allows detention without clearly defined charges for up to 180 days and police custody can be up to 30 days. It also creates a strong presumption against bail and anticipatory bail is out of the question. It creates a presumption of guilt for terrorism offences merely based on the evidence allegedly seized. The Act was amended in 2019 to extend the powers of the government to tag individuals as terrorists if they are found to commit, prepare for, promote or be involved in ‘acts of terrorism’.
According to the last available data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), as of 2018 there were 1,182 cases registered under UAPA. The NCRB has also found that between the years 2016-2018, over 75% of the cases under the UAPA ended in either acquittal or discharge, which underlines that a majority of those detained and charged under the act were in fact innocent. And yet, this act continues to be abused to curtail free speech and dissent.
Prior to its application on anti-CAA protesters, it had similarly been used to detain activists for an event organised by Dalit Rights groups in Bhima Koregaon, in Pune, in January 2018. The event was violently attacked by right-wing groups, after which mass protests took place in Mumbai and Pune. As in the case of the Delhi pogrom, the violence was blamed upon those organising the event rather than on those who disrupted it. Eleven activists (WHAT IS THE LATEST FIGURE?) have been detained, some for more than two years, without a conviction, far exceeding the provisions of the law that allows only 90 days of detention. Meanwhile, two right-wing leaders against whom similar charges have been levied for the same case are out on bail.
Crackdown on Women Activists
The protests against CAA-NPR-NRC were extraordinary because women of different ages, backgrounds, and life experiences stood together and strengthened a collective movement for constitutional rights for all. At such a time, the state clampdown on women’s voices, and the state excesses upon women protesters, highlights the grave nature of the State’s attitude towards women. Activists Shoma Sen and Sudha Bhardwaj have been falsely arrested for the events of Bhima Koregaon in January 2018 have been kept in prison despite ill health. Kashmiri activists Asiya Andrabi, Sofi Fehmeeda, Nahida Nasreen, Hina Bashir Beg and Insha Jan are currently in Tihar Jail despite the pandemic.
Despite pervasive inequities, India, for decades, has been recognized internationally as a democracy with independent institutions that secure human rights. Those values are now under attack as democracy is being systematically dismantled. There is urgent need for international action against an increasingly authoritarian regime. The current clampdown on dissent comes amidst violence against minorities, reduced space for religious freedom, a crackdown on independent media and civil society, curbing freedom of expression, and abuses against women.