By Abdul Bari Masoud
New Delhi: Releasing its annual report on the state of minorities in South Asia, the South Asia Collective said “India has become a dangerous and violent space for Muslim minorities,” ever since the governing Hindu nationalist party BJP-led India’s federal government has made amendments to the Citizenship Act last year which excludes Muslims from the ambit of citizenship.
The 349-page report examines the state of civic space and personal liberties accessible to citizens, especially religious minorities, living in South Asian countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
The report titled as ‘South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020’ made damning remarks on India while stating that the civic space is under threat the world over, but in India’s case it was unique in terms of the “alarming setbacks” that have “taken place at an extraordinary pace, over the span of a few years”.
“In December 2019, an amendment in the Citizenship Act was passed which opened a pathway for a category of illegal immigrants, specifically leaving out Muslims. In the run-up to the legislation, the government also declared its intentions to create a National Register of Indian Citizens, which would have the potential to render many Muslims stateless.”
It underlines that since the BJP came to power in May 2014 , it has “unveiled a new and now frontal attack on religious minorities and other vulnerable groups. This has had a chilling effect on civic space for Muslims and Muslim-community-based organisations and activists specifically, it added.
“Hate crimes against minorities have seen a spike – taking the form of mob lynching and vigilante violence against Muslims, Christians, and Dalits. BJP also strengthened and expanded a series of discriminatory laws and measures that target religious minorities. These include anti-conversion laws, blamed by human rights groups for empowering Hindutva groups to ‘conduct campaigns of harassment, social exclusion and violence against Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities across the country’.60 Laws ostensibly meant for the protection of cows continue to provide institutional backing for similar campaigns against Muslims and Dalits.”
The report noted that the situation has “exacerbated significantly” since BJP returned to power with a “brute majority” in May 2019 as it in quick succession, it enacted a slew of measures aimed at signalling to Muslims “particularly its will to brutally subjugate”.
It noted that in Uttar Pradesh, 22 people were shot dead on a single day to crush the anti-CAA protest.
“Such trends continued throughout the nation. Legislative assembly elections in Delhi in February 2020 provided the BJP with an opportunity to delegitimise the anti-CAA protests through communal polarisation. Throughout the campaign period, BJP leaders, including senior ministers and MPs, resorted to crude dog whistling, seeking votes for the party by reviling Muslims and referring to anti-CAA protestors as ‘anti-nationals’, ‘traitors’ and ‘terrorists’. Though the party lost the elections badly, the Islamophobic tenor of the campaign created a fertile ground for the further targeting of Muslims”.
The report also noted that the using the cover of Covid-19 pandemic the BJP government systemically target Muslim youth and activists.
“Under the cover of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Indian government has begun systematically targeting Muslim youth and other prominent activists using draconian security laws and preventive detention measures. The attempt has been to silence the democratic voices that had so remarkably emerged among Muslims and civil society in India to challenge the democratic backsliding that CAA 2019 represented”.
It also stated that access to information has also been affected under BJP rule.
Delhi based Software Freedom Law Centre reported that India has seen a dramatic rise in yearly internet shutdowns, from six in 2014 to 106 in 2019.
“The Indian government has reportedly submitted the number of content takedown requests to social media platforms, and at least 50 people—mostly Muslims—were arrested for social media posts in just 2017 and 2018 alone.”
Alongside, the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, which regulates foreign donations to entities in India, has been “further weaponised against progressive and minority NGOs”, it noted.
“BJP rule has been characterised by the open targeting of several high-profile NGOs, with foreign funding freezes being the weapon of choice. In 2019, the BJP government further tightened the FCRA rules, requiring individual office bearers of NGOs to declare once every five years that they had not been prosecuted or convicted for promoting religious conversions, and that they were not likely to engage in ‘propagating sedition’ “, the report added.
It also underlined that the space for free expression has also narrowed under BJP rule. Quoting a recent report, it said that just during the national Covid-19 lockdown between 25 March and 31 May 2020, at least 55 Indian journalists faced arrest, physical assaults, destruction of property, threats or registration of FIRs.
It also alleged that the BJP government has also used India’s enforcement agencies including the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to target especially high-profile NGOs. “Along with attempts to prevent groups working on critical issues, human rights defenders have also reported being subject to threats and intimidation by state agencies and ideological groups aligned to them”.
The report also found that India’s civil society actors, which include human rights lawyers, activists, protestors, academics, journalists, liberal intelligentsia, have “increasingly been under attack” for speaking out against “government excesses and majoritarianism”.
Besides, human rights defenders have increasingly come under attack for “protesting discriminatory laws and practices have faced restrictions, violence, criminal defamation, detention and harassment”, the report said.
On media gag, the report stated that ,“Instances of censorship of TV news channels have also come to light, with bans on channels that broadcast views critical of the government. There have not been any instances of similar actions being taken against pro-BJP channels that regularly broadcast hateful content.”
It further highlighted the alleged human rights violation in Jammu and Kashmir since last year when the Centre abrogated the erstwhile state’s special status under Article 370 of the Constitution.
“The case of Muslim-majority Kashmir – where regressive constitutional changes in August 2019 were accompanied by a communication blackout, mass detentions, and a movement lockdown –demonstrates how civic space can be sought to be completely erased, within a formal democratic framework,” it stated.
It said that while civic space in conflict-affected Kashmir has always been restricted, the “most recent round of attacks on ‘basic freedoms’ were, however, quite unlike anything before in their being all-encompassing and systematic”.
While making a host of recommendations, the South Asia Report called on the Government of India to abide by international commitments agreed upon by the country and to remove all legal contradictions existing in various laws of the country and to criminalise discrimination of all forms against minorities. It also urged the international community to encourage India to abide by its own constitutional guarantees.