What makes PM Modi unceasingly target human rights activists?

Going by PM Modi’s speeches, he hates civil society. That’s because civil society has been far more effective in questioning the government on human rights violations than the opposition has been.
What makes PM Modi unceasingly target human rights activists?
What makes PM Modi unceasingly target human rights activists?
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On 28th foundation day of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), PM Modi alleged that some people try to dent the country's image in the name of human rights violation, and that people should beware of them. As the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy misrepresented human rights violations in his country, the audience — that had the NHRC chairperson Arun Mishra and other members of the commission in attendance — promptly applauded. And this, in a nutshell, summarises the increasing tacit sponsorship of the state machinery in the erosion of human rights in the country.

India’s record on human rights was far from ideal much before Modi came to power in 2014. But India’s position in the world on many parameters has been nosediving ever since. In March this year, Sweden-based organisation, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) Institute, in its report which measures democracy, classified India as a “electoral autocracy”. Last year, India was classified as highly uncertain. Recently, Freedom House, which is a US-based non-profit organisation, in its annual report on global political rights and liberties downgraded India from a free democracy to a "partially free democracy". And according to the Democracy Index published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, India is a “flawed democracy”. In 2020, 109 of the total 155 internet shutdowns in the world were reported from India.

Most of these surveys are based on how the country is treating civil and human rights activists as well as journalists. While in India, Modi’s BJP has managed to leverage media and social media too to project an image that he's an effective leader, the civil rights movement has managed to attract the attention of international media to the violation of human rights in the country. For example, the farmers’ protests, which a large section of media in India have covered favourably for the government, was highlighted by reputed publications and influencers across the world, where they strongly reproved the government. The arrests and discrediting of ‘foriegn collaborators’ conspiracy notwithstanding.

Modi’s autocratic, strongman image that has won him laurels in India has been viewed adversely on the global stage. And the civil society is instrumental in highlighting the glaring infringement of human rights by Modi’s government — both when he was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and as the Prime Minister of India. 

But even with Modi’s track record on Human rights, his latest statement rings warning bells. Leo Saldanha, an environmental activist working in Bengaluru says when Modi said what he did on the NHRC platform, there was nobody to stand up and say ‘I disagree’. And this is ironic and alarming given that the NHRC was created because the government was violating human rights, he says. “It sends a message to all state human rights commissions, that if people come to you seeking justice, be suspicious. It breeds a climate of suspicion. As a human rights commission, you cannot reject any request for justice saying it is motivated. If the judiciary starts saying everything is motivated, then what is the whole point of an independent judiciary,” says Leo Saldanha. “If there are people who have come just for publicity, then just punish them but don’t bracket everyone who raises a genuine concern as motivated,” he adds. 

Before 2014, when the BJP was in opposition, it often emphasized on the need for appointment of independent persons to the NHRC. And rightly so. And the complete acceptance of Modi’s dangerous comments on human rights by the NHRC shows the body’s subservience. 

Modi’s chequered human rights record

Soon after Modi took over as CM of Gujarat, the riots that broke out in the state, according to official figures, killed 1,044 people, injuring thousands of others, majority from the Muslim community. The Supreme Court constituted Special Investigation Team (SIT) gave a clean chit to Modi, clearing him of complicity in the riots. In 2014, after Modi had taken over as PM, the SC dismissed pleas, challenging the clean chit given to Modi, expressing satisfaction over the SIT report. While the judiciary absolved the state machinery, under Modi, of their alleged role in the riots, the civil society and journalists at the time had extensively worked to expose the government’s role. The state government responded with widespread clampdown on the media that was not favourable to them, by banning television channels that had lambasted the government. 

The Gujarat riots also resulted in Modi’s US tourist visa being revoked in 2005 under the Immigration and Nationality Act, under grounds of severe violations of religious freedom. He was allowed into the US after he became the PM, with a diplomatic visa. The civil society, however, has continued to raise questions and expose the loopholes in the clean chit given, continuing to draw international attention to one of the biggest communal riots to have taken place in independent India. 

In December 2019, visuals of armed policemen barging inside the Jamia Millia Islamia in Delhi and not even sparing the unarmed students studying in the library, was beamed across news channels. The university had attracted the ire of the Union government and the Delhi police directly under it, for their protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. Seven months after the incident, in June 2020, the NHRC in its report chose to almost entirely focus on a possible ‘conspiracy’ in the protests and in great detail questioned the ‘unlawful’ assembly of students. The report, almost as an aside, commented that the police using force against unarmed students was ‘avoidable’. Once again, human rights defenders have called out the Modi government on the issue. 

The arrests of 16 activists in the Bhima Koregaon case encapsulates the disdain of the Modi government towards civil society. Several activists were arrested after violence broke out during the event marking the 200th anniversary of Battle of Koregaon. The human rights activists arrested were accused of being part of a 'conspiracy to assassinate’ PM Modi.

The UN body — Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) — in January 2021, had urged the government to release the activists who have been imprisoned since 2018, at least on bail. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) continued to snub requests for humane treatment of activists, many of whom are senior citizens, and issued a statement saying, “The framing of laws is obviously a sovereign prerogative. Violations of law, however, cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights.”

As the government continued to stick to its stand, one of the accused, 84-year-old Stan Swamy, passed away in prison, after he was repeatedly denied bail even on health grounds.

And throughout all these instances, the animosity between human rights activists and Modi has gotten amplified. 

Hostility towards NGOs in India not new

The Union government’s acrimony towards the NGO sector is not new. While in India, the previous governments, led by Congress, too have been guilty of going after the sector, the BJP, under Modi has taken it to new levels. Leo Saldanha says that when Congress was in power, there was significant erosion of human rights and now it has become substantial erosion. “The very foundation is being shaken,” he says. 

Aakar Patel, the former head of Amnesty International India says that the state in India has always been hostile towards the idea of an independent civil society. And many of the problems the country is facing are because of the laws passed by the Congress. 

The laws promulgated by the UPA, led by the Congress party, have become the bedrock on which action has been taken against many activists in India today. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) that has been used against scores of activists currently jailed, was first introduced by the UPA in 2008, and further bolstered in 2019 by the NDA government under Modi. The colonial law of Sedition had been sustained by the UPA and used indiscriminately to curtail dissent, and now the Modi government has redefined its use to incarcerate activists and political dissenters too. 

The Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), 2010, made way for an amendment that was passed in 2020 which prohibits “foreign contribution for any activities that pose a danger to national interest.” While the amendment claims that it aims to “facilitate genuine non-governmental organisations or associations, who are working for welfare of the society,” in practice, it has made it onerous for NGOs to function. The multi-agency action against Amnesty International India is another example of how the Modi government has used this law to go after civil society activists. And while Amnesty has not yet been formally charged, the persecution continues, says Aakar Patel.

“So FCRA — which was meant to inhibit foreign funds in politics in India — actually became a law that political parties got out of in 2016-17 and left the NGOs in. Both Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram were guilty of squeezing the NGOs, but the FCRA law was further tightened under Modi to make it practically impossible to receive foriegn funding,” he says. 

“The sedition charges (against Amnesty) were levelled in 2016 and they were later thrown out by the court. In 2017, the accounts were frozen by ED and there have been no formal charges yet. They use the draconian power of the state to make sure that organisations that they don’t like, do not work in India. Even if an organisation has not been formally charged, you cannot function. Because they have the power to randomly come in and stop what you do,” Aakar Patel tells TNM. “There was no reason to send the ED and CBI after Amnesty except that they are the agencies who actually have power. The problem is that civil society does not back off, they are in this because they are invested in their country and believe in what they are doing,” he adds. 

Amnesty is not the only organisation that has faced the wrath of this establishment. A report by Ashoka University’s Centre for Social Impact and Philanthropy (CSIP), in 2019, said that the Union Government cancelled 10,069 FCRA registrations in 2015 and another 4,943 in 2017, majority of which were NGOs.

“Media and civil rights activists will always be considered a threat to an establishment which does not value the Constitution,” says Leo Saldanha. “The number of activists who are in jail now is unprecedented, barring the emergency time. We are going through very dangerous times where the laws that are being passed are increasingly restrictive of just one sector — civil society. Why are similar restrictions not there for the IT and BT sector or even political parties?” he asks.

The systematic targeting of the sector also lies in the fact that internationally, the messaging curated by Modi’s propaganda machinery is countered by evidence produced by activists.  Aakar Patel says many issues faced — both by the MEA and by the Union government with several human rights bodies across the world — are because they believe that India is going after human rights bodies that are respected globally. “India needs to realise that there are global entities that you cannot go after and think the world will keep quiet. You cannot go after Harsh Mander and think nothing will happen,” he adds.

Modi’s political opponents have either been coerced or discredited, rendering their allegations against him mostly ineffective. While domestically, activists have been painted as ‘anti-national’ by Modi’s supporters, globally, this projection dents India's projection as a secular, free country. BJP’s pet projects like the CAA, NRC, abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, curtailing of cattle slaughter in many BJP-ruled states have all received scorching scrutiny on the world stage.

“We say we are a civilised society with secularism woven into our law. The issue arises when the rest of the world looks at what you are doing within the country. What India says in the UN or in Geneva is not what is happening in practice. That is a contradiction that the civil society exposes,” says Aakar Patel. 

The civil society has been far more effective in questioning the government on human rights violations than the opposition has been. Political parties tread carefully while condemning transgressions by the majority, but activists are often not bound by such compulsions. 

“The civil society that has opposed Modi is small and failed to stop him. The judiciary is compromised and could not deliver justice to people in Gujarat. The only meaningful opposition to Modi during his rule in Gujarat and in Delhi has come from civil society and not from Congress. Which is why he hates civil society. The world is looking at India in a certain way because of the credible evidence gathered by NGOs. Which is why he hates it. The civil society in India has a voice which is respected in the world,” Aakar Patel adds. 

CM Modi’s equation with activists has influenced PM Modi’s policies

Modi’s uneasy relationship with journalists and civil society dates back to just after he took over as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, say journalists who have tracked his career closely. 

A veteran editor working in Gujarat says that Modi was wary of the English media because in the aftermath of Gujarat riots, human rights activists and voices of dissent got space only in the English media. “While Gujarat Samachar, Sandesh were huge newspapers, and as vernacular media were powerful, they did not give a platform to activists. But Modi never managed to rein in the activists who questioned him, he did not manage to get them on his side. The paranoia got cemented then. I remember distinctly how Teesta Setalvad was at the forefront of all the cases where victims were represented by her lawyers. The FCRA case ended Teesta’s career. Same was done with Shabnam Hashmi and Father Cedric Prakash,” he says, choosing to not be named. 

Portraying an image of being in control was central to Modi’s perception management, and activists who relentlessly questioned atrocities against marginalised communities and minorities made him view them as the main adversaries, says another journalist who worked in Gandhinagar when Modi was CM. 

Going forward, a narrative alleging attacks on Modi’s life was instrumental in painting certain communities as terrorists, thus resulting in polarisation. In 2006, on the sidelines of the release of a book titled NGOs, Activists & Foreign Funds: Anti-Nation Industry, Modi had alleged that a “wealthy” and “influential” class of NGOs “hire PR firms to continually build their image” with “money coming from abroad.” In the speech, Modi declared NGOs as being anti-Hindu and corrupt, furthering the narrative that activists were targeting him. During his tenure in Gujarat, the investigative agencies under Modi propelled theories of several attacks on his life. And when activists raised questions in these cases, Modi’s hostility towards them grew.  “Throughout, from Ishrat Jahan to Samir Khan Pathan and Sadiq Jamal cases, the allegations were that they had come to kill Modi. While none of the activists had anything to do with any of these cases, the questions they raised punched many holes in the conspiracy theories,” says a senior journalist.

A senior journalist who knew Modi from the time he was the General Secretary of the state unit of BJP and was a spokesperson for the party as well, says being the CM of Gujarat itself was just a stepping stone for greater things. So he thought that activists who opposed him were impediments in that plan. 

He continued this theory even after he became PM, as evidenced by his speech in Orissa in 2016 where he said that “he is a victim of a conspiracy by non-governmental organisations to “finish” him and remove his government.” The arrest of 16 activists in the Bhima Koregaon case, where they have been accused of plotting to assassinate Modi on seemingly dubious evidence has highlighted this hostility further. 

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