Modi and Human Rights

In his first 100 days…

1. Free Speech and political expression under attack.

Three weeks after Mr. Modi & his right-wing Hindu nationalist party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), won the elections in May 2014, a college principal in Kunnamkulam, Kerala, was arrested following a complaint by a member of the BJP. The principal, with some of his students, had featured Modi’s picture in the college magazine under a list of “negative faces” along with that of Osama bin Laden, Adolf Hitler, George W. Bush, etc. The Police seized the printing press and computers used to design the magazine, along with hundreds of copies. Those arrested were later released on bail but face charges of defamation and criminal conspiracy. Conviction could bring stiff fines as well as prison terms.

In the weeks following the elections of May 2014, there were several instances of such criminalization of dissent:

  • In Bhatkal, Karnataka, an MBA student, Syed Vaqas, was arrested along with four of his friends for sending a message that caricatured an election slogan of the BJP.
  • Also in May 2014, police in Bangalore arrested a man for sending a photograph on his phone depicting Prime Minister Narendra Modi on a funeral pyre.
  • In Goa, Devu Chodankar, a 31-year-old naval engineer was arrested for his alleged inflammatory comments against Mr. Modi posted on social media. 

All of these men were arrested for “cyber defamation” under the draconian section 66A of the Information Technology Act. Such repeated threats and police actions are, predictably, leading to self-censorship in political dialogues. Amnesty International, in a statement dated June 26, 2014, deplored what it described as “a growing trend of intolerance towards dissent and criticism“… “especially when it concerns the new Prime Minister.” 

In one of the more tragic outcomes of such sanctioned intolerance on the streets, members of a radical Hindu group, the Hindu Rashtra Sena (“Army of the Hindu Nation”), attacked and killed Mohsin Sadiq Shaikh, a 24-year old Muslim IT professional, in the city of Pune. Claiming outrage over morphed pictures of right-wing Hindu political leaders and Hindu gods which were shared on social media, activists of radical Hindu groups indulged in violence and arson damaging more than 200 public transport buses and private vehicles. Mr. Shaikh was completely unrelated to the morphed pictures- his only “crime” was that he was wearing a skullcap and sported a beard, sartorial choices that are commonly associated with members of the Muslim community.

Prominent citizens and activists have called on Mr. Modi, in the name of constitutionally guaranteed rights to Free Speech and Expression, to stop the use of repressive legislation and have demanded the deletion of such legislation. However, there are no reports to date of any response by Mr. Modi on the subject.

2. State security apparatus and judicial system deployed to target rival politicians, journalists, judges and activists.

Modi’s ascension to power in May 2014 has delivered a jolt to civil liberties. Arvind Kejriwal, the founder of the Aam Aadmi Party, and a political rival to Mr. Modi was arrested on May 21, 2014, under charges of criminal defamation for exposing alleged corruption in land deals by Nitin Gadkari, former president of the BJP. Again, on July 17, the BJP served Mr. Kejriwal a defamation notice demanding Rs. 10 million (over $160,000) as damages for his claim that the BJP was “horse- trading” parliamentarians to form a new state government in Delhi. (As of  September 2014, Mr. Kejriwal has produced a video through a sting operation where Delhi BJP vice-president Sher Singh Dagar and his aide Raghubir Dahiya are seen offering a bribe to a member of Parliament from the AAP party). 

Another case that raises concerns about the Modi government’s assault on judicial independence is that of Gopal Subramanium, a former solicitor general of India. Subramanium enjoyed an impeccable reputation and was specially invited by the Chief Justice in June 2014 to become a judge of the Supreme Court; the other judges in the collegium were unanimous in their choice of Subramanium. However, following a campaign of innuendoes by the CBI (India’s foremost investigating police agency) and the Intelligence Bureau (India’s internal intelligence agency) against him, including malicious leaks to the media, Subramanium voluntarily withdrew his candidature. But he also went public with his claims of a character assassination by the Modi government, charging that the CBI had been asked to “dig up dirt” about him for his display of “independence and integrity”. Subramanium claimed that he was being targeted in retaliation for his role as amicus curiae in the trial of the Sohrabuddin case where Mr. Amit Shah, a close aide of Mr.Modi, is one of the accused in the extrajudicial killing of Sohrabuddin, a Muslim youth from Gujarat. (Amit Shah was Mr. Modi’s home minister in Gujarat, and since has been promoted to the influential position of the party president of the BJP). Mr. Subramanium’s claims were supported by Justice R.M. Lodha, the Chief Justice of India, when he  declared publicly that the decision to drop Mr. Subramanium from consideration was made unilaterally by the government without his own “knowledge and consent”.

The shocking coda to the Gopal Subramanium story is that in July 2014, Mr. Amit Shah’s lawyer, Uday U Lalit, was elevated to the position of a Supreme Court judge. These chain of events have been described by the media as the “Gujaratization of the highest judiciary,” a reference to the use of political power by the ex ecutive during Mr. Modi’s tenure in Gujarat, and the subsequent erosion of public confidence in the judiciary such that the Supreme Court has transferred several key and critical cases out of the state.

Previously, in Gujarat…

1. Suppression of dissent

Gujarat has earned a sordid reputation for the violent suppression of all forms of dissent, including that of workers, religious minorities (particularly Muslims) and other exploited and oppressed sections of society.  Dissenters who have challenged the Modi government, including former BJP minister Haren Pandya and Right to Information activist Amit Jethwa, have been mysteriously killed. With only 5% of India’s population, 22% of the murders and 20% of the assaults of RTI activists in recent years have occurred in Gujarat, which has only two RTI (Right to Information) Commissioners compared to eight in Maharashtra and nine in Tamil Nadu.

2. Harassment of those defending victims of Hindu chauvinism

Activists like Shabnam Hashmi from the group ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy) who are involved in organizing against Hindu chauvinism have been repeatedly targeted and harassed. In January 2012, Hashmi was detained by the Gujarat police when she was on her way to a public meeting in Godhra where she was to address a gathering.  Again, in April 2014, Hashmi was attacked in the city of Rae Bareli by BJP workers. She was threatened and manhandled while she and her associates were distributing leaflets about Modi’s development record in Gujarat. The BJP party workers also grabbed the leaflets but no action was taken against them although the whole incident took place barely 100 metres away from the Gadaganj police station!
Human rights defenders such as Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, with the organization Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) which has been at the forefront of the struggle to secure justice for the victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, have been harassed and intimidated by law enforcement with trumped up charges.

Mr. Modi’s targeting of whistleblower cops such as Indian Police Service (IPS) Officer Sanjiv Bhatt and ex-DGP R. B. Sreekumar, and human rights activists such as Fr. Cedric Prakash, have been well- documented and are further examples of attempts to derail the efforts to deliver justice to the victims of Gujarat 2002.

3. Rewarding mass murderers

One of the worst episodes of mass killing and brutality during the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms conducted by the RSS and its affiliates with the support of Modi’s state administration was in Naroda Patiya, Ahmedabad. The individual who led this carnage which resulted in not less than 90 dead men, women and children, Maya Kodnani , was a BJP politician close to Modi. She incited the mob to rape women and murder men and children, reportedly egging them on by distributing swords. Unperturbed by the enormity of her involvement in the brutalities, Modi appointed her Minister for Women and Child Development in 2007. It was only after a painstaking investigation (that supported the brave struggle of human rights activists on behalf of victims and survivors) brought charges against Kodnani that she was subsequently imprisoned, facing first a death sentence which was then commuted to a life sentence. With the ascent of Modi at the center, Kodnani was granted bail for reasons of “ill health” by the Gujarat High Court. Similarly, Babu Bajrangi, who gloated on camera about enjoying the brutal murder of Muslim men, women and children, was sentenced to life in prison and after Modi’s election granted temporary bail ostensibly for health reasons. As if these two cases of mass murderers being rewarded weren’t enough, yet another individual close to Modi was also granted bail in the months following Modi’s election. Swami Aseemanand, one of the most high profile RSS leaders is under investigation for a series of terrorism charges involving bombing trains, marketplaces, shrines in multiple sites across India. He had originally become a highly respected RSS leader as a result of his efforts mobilizing RSS mobs to carry out anti-Christian pogroms in the Dangs district of Gujarat in the late 1990s.

Read more…

1. Free Speech and political expression

  1. Amnesty International India – Press Release. India: Legal Reform Crucial to Protect Right to Free Speech, June 26, 2014. http://www.amnesty.org/fr/library/asset/ASA20/024/2014/en/f6f8e202-8fec-48a9-b1f9-b07abdacbf8c/asa200242014en.pdf
  2. Arjun Sethi. “The US Government Can Brand You a Terrorist Based on a Facebook Post. We Can’t Let Them Make up the Rules – The Guardian.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/30/terrorist-watch-list-rules-innocent-people
  3. “Bangalore: MBA Student Arrested for Sending Anti-Modi MMS.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.ndtv.com/article/cities/bangalore-mba-student-arrested-for-sending-anti-modi-mms-531214
  4. “Civil Society Flays PMO’s ‘Silence’ on Attacks on Free Speech.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.outlookindia.com/news/article/Civil-Society-Flays-PMOs-Silence-on-Attacks-on-Free-Speech/843607
  5. “Modi Bars Ministers, Bureaucrats from Talking to Journalists – Scroll.in.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://scroll.in/article/666554/Modi-bars-ministers,-bureaucrats-from-talking-to-journalists
  6. “Online Posts against Narendra Modi Spell Trouble – The Times of India.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Online-posts-against-Narendra-Modi-spell-trouble/articleshow/36635876.cms
  7. “Pune: Muslim Techie Killed by Rightwing Mob over Morphed FB Posts – Firstpost.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.firstpost.com/india/pune-muslim-techie-killed-by-rightwing-mob-over-morphed-fb-posts-1555709.html
  8. “Worrisome Curbs on Free Speech Emerge since Modi’s Election – Committee to Protect Journalists.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://cpj.org/blog/2014/06/worrisome-curbs-on-free-speech-emerge-in-india-und.php

 2. Abuse of state security apparatus and judicial system

  1. “AAP Sting Shows BJP Leader ‘talking’ Money to Win Support | The Indian Express.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://indianexpress.com/article/cities/delhi/kejriwal-claims-some-bjp-leaders-poaching-aap-mlas-releases-video/
  2. “Activist Shabnam Hashmi, 5 Others Detained as Narendra Modi’s ‘Sadbhavana’ Fast Begins – The Economic Times.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/activist-shabnam-hashmi-5-others-detained-as-narendra-modis-sadbhavana-fast-begins/articleshow/11567075.cms
  3. “BJP Asks Arvind Kejriwal to Pay Rs 1 Crore as Damages for ‘Defamation.’” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/bjp-asks-arvind-kejriwal-to-pay-rs-1-crore-as-damages-for-defamation-560333
  4. “BJP’s Treatment of Gopal Subramanium Is a Dark Sign of Things to Come – Firstpost.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/bjps-treatment-of-gopal-subramanium-is-a-dark-sign-of-things-to-come-1589973.html
  5. “Citizens for Justice and Peace– Press Release.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.cjponline.org/prelease/06Jan14.htm
  6. “‘Encounter Killings’ of RTI activists…..Gujarat Tops Charts – Times Of India | Blogs.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/the-real-truth/encounter-killings-of-rti-activists-gujarat-tops-charts/
  7. Gopal Subramanium to NDTV – CBI Asked to “Dig up Dirt” on Me – YouTube. Accessed September 18, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TmXmYhWvBJw
  8. “Government Dropped Gopal Subramanium’s Name without My Consent: CJI – The Hindu.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/government-dropped-gopal-subramaniums-name-without-my-consent-cji/article6167083.ece
  9. “Gujarat IPS Officer Sanjeev Bhatt Who Took on Narendra Modi Arrested – The Times of India.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Gujarat-IPS-officer-Sanjeev-Bhatt-who-took-on-Narendra-Modi-arrested/articleshow/10191519.cms
  10. “India’s Defamed Government – Foreign Policy.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://southasia.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2014/07/23/india_s_defamed_government
  11. “India’s New Government Accused of Interfering with Judicial Independence | Reuters.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/06/26/us-india-politics-idUSKBN0F11IR20140626
  12. “Lawyer Uday Lalit, Who Represented Amit Shah, Jayalalithaa, Recommended for Supreme Court.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.ndtv.com/article/india/lawyer-uday-lalit-who-represented-amit-shah-jayalalithaa-recommended-for-supreme-court-556718
  13. PUCL Bulletin. PUCL Condemns IB Report Demand to Central Government: Do Not Criminalise Dissent, July 2014. http://www.pucl.org/bulletins/2014/PUCLjul2014.pdf
  14. “RTI Activist Amit Jethwa’s Murder: CBI Arrests BJP MP.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.outlookindia.com/news/article/RTI-Activist-Amit-Jethwas-Murder-CBI-Arrests-BJP-MP/816132
  15. “Shabnam Hashmi Attacked in Rae Bareli – The Hindu.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/shabnam-hashmi-attacked-in-rae-bareli/article5956647.ece
  16. “The Amit Shah Factor: The Travails of Subramanium and 2 Former CBI Chiefs – Firstpost.” Accessed September 18, 2014. http://www.firstpost.com/politics/the-amit-shah-factor-the-travails-of-subramanium-and-2-former-cbi-chiefs-1591477.html
  17. “”Encounter killings” of RTI activists…..Gujarat tops charts”. Accessed September 18, 2014.  http://blogs.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/the-real-truth/encounter-killings-of-rti-activists-gujarat-tops-charts/