U.S. State Department’s human rights report on India flags curbs on free speech, civil society

Annual human rights report notes ‘lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government’

April 13, 2022 08:38 pm | Updated 10:37 pm IST - New Delhi

Photo: Twitter/@StateDept

Photo: Twitter/@StateDept

In its 2021 Human Rights Report on India, the U.S. State Department has flagged concerns over arbitrary arrests and detentions, extra-judicial killings, violence against religious minorities, curbs on free expression and media, including unjustified prosecution of journalists, “overly restrictive laws” on funding of NGOs and civil society organisations, and “government harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations”, and noted that a “lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity”. Most of these concerns had been raised in previous reports as well.

The country reports on human rights, released by Secretary of State Antony Blinken on April 12, is submitted each year to the U.S. Congress. It is retrospective and contains a country-wise discussion of the state of internationally recognised individual, civil, political and worker rights, as set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international agreements.

The report on India observed that Indian law “prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention but both occurred during the year”, with police using “special security laws to postpone judicial reviews of arrests”. The report also noted that “pretrial detention was arbitrary and lengthy, sometimes exceeding the duration of the sentence given to those convicted”.

Cases of arbitrary detention detailed by the report include that of climate activist Disha Ravi in February 2021, human rights activist Hidme Markam, and the frequent house arrests of former Jammu & Kashmir Chief Minister Mehbooba Mufti.

Noting that the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) “allows courts to deny bail in the case of detained citizens”, the report highlighted the denial of bail to most of the 15 activists incarcerated in connection with the Elgar Parishad Bhima Koregaon protests, and detailed the cases of 81-year-old Varavara Rao and Jesuit priest Stan Swamy who died after “a special NIA [National Investigation Agency] court had rejected multiple bail pleas submitted on medical grounds”.

Also read | Curbs on Indian media continue: 2020 U.S. rights report

Citing media reports on journalists being targeted for surveillance through the Pegasus malware, the report flagged violations of privacy by government authorities, “including the use of technology to arbitrarily or unlawfully surveil or interfere with the privacy of individuals”.

While noting that the government generally respected the right to freedom of expression, it stated that there were also “instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling”. The report highlighted the case of Madhya Pradesh Police arresting stand-up comedian Munawar Faruqui for “offending religious sentiments with jokes he allegedly planned to perform”. It also detailed the government’s order of February 1, 2021 directing Twitter to block accounts of journalists covering protests against the three (later repealed) farm laws.

Other cases that find mention include the arrest of social activist Erendro Leichombam “for a Facebook post critical of a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] leader who advocated cow dung and cow urine as cures for COVID-19”, and Tamil Nadu Police’s arrest of Father George Ponnaiah, a Catholic priest, for alleged hate speech against the Prime Minister and Home Minister.

In a sub-section on academic freedom and cultural events, the report noted that a few Kashmiri academics who wanted to travel internationally to attend conferences were prohibited from leaving the country. It also detailed the warning issued by Madhya Pradesh Police to Dr. Harisingh Gour University over a proposed webinar titled ‘Culture and Linguistic Hurdles in the Achievement of Scientific Temper’ following a complaint by the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), which had objected to the “antinational mentality” of the participants.

In the section on ‘Freedom of Association’, the report highlighted the cases of Amnesty International India, whose assets were frozen by the Enforcement Directorate, and the suspension of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) license of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) for alleged violations.

The State Department’s report on India’s human rights profile comes close on the heels of comments made by Mr. Blinken during a joint press conference with External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, that the U.S. was “monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials”.

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