Delhi: With each passing day, pressure is mounting on the Indian government to release a number of political activists and students who are currently being held under UAPA, TRT World reported. Human Rights defenders say that charges against these detentions are politically motivated attempts to stifle dissent.
A number of politically active students have been detained amid the pandemic in which the country has become one of the worst hit. A couple of those detained are reported to have contracted COVID-19 as well.
Charges have been filed under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) against the students for their alleged role in the Delhi riots in February this year.
Those jailed include Jamia Millia Islamia University students, Meeran Haider and pregnant student activist Safoora Zargar, who has since been granted bail on humanitarian grounds.
Other jailed students include Sharjeel Imam, formerly from Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. Imam has since tested positive for COVID-19 in jail. Another former Aligarh Muslim University student leader and journalist, Sharjeel Usmani, was also arrested for his alleged role in 15 Dec campus violence.
Human rights advocates say they are being targeted for their roles in the protests against recent citizenship legislation, the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
The Geneva-based UN Human Rights has called for the activists’ immediate release. In a recent statement, it said: “These defenders, many of them students, appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA and their arrest seems clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated. Authorities should immediately release all human rights defenders who are currently being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence.”
Other rights groups, including Amnesty International, the Federation for Human Rights and Human Rights Watch also recently wrote to the European Union ahead of its bilateral summit with India in mid-July, where it called on the bloc to raise concerns regarding the deteriorating condition of human rights defenders and “to take India’s deteriorating human rights record thoroughly into account in the reshaping of the EU-India relationship.”
The arrest of the students are among the latest in a series of detentions and bookings of critical voices in recent years, including human rights defender Zafarul Islam Khan and 81-year old poet and activist P Varavara Rao, who was arrested in 2018 for his alleged roles in communal violence that same year. His family say that he has been neglected in jail and are reported to have found him in a delirious state and lying in his own urine in a Mumbai jail. He has since contracted COVID-19.
The crackdown comes amid evidence that implicates political leaders and the police. Most recently, the Delhi Minorities Commission released a report highlighting the complicity of the Delhi police in the riots.
Within the past few days, UAPA was used to arrest Kashmiri student Aqib Ahmad Malik after he reportedly protested against the quality of food in his Kashmir University hostel back in 2018. Police in Kashmir have also arrested Naseema Bano, the mother of a slain militant, under the same act for posing with a gun, and allegedly playing a role in the recruitment of two youth into militancy.
As well as the UAPA, authorities are using other means to crackdown on some of the country’s most prominent political activists, among them, author and columnist Harsh Mandar, who has been named in riot charge sheets as an instigator of the Delhi violence after he filed a petition accusing BJP political leaders of making inflammatory speeches.
Amid the increased pressure on domestic voices, Indian nationals living outside the country are stepping up their efforts to raise awareness of the declining human rights situation internationally.
A Europe-wide student-led organisation, the Collective Against Violation and Abuse of Civil and Human rights (CAVACH), was set up in the wake of the last year’s protests and has been engaging in a number of lobbying efforts since, including with the German and EU Parliaments and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR).
A spokesperson was quoted as saying: “If there was ever a time for Indians to speak up and dissent, it is now. The largest democracy in the world is in danger of turning into a fascist state. Given the clamp down,it is important that the diaspora outside of India raises its voice. While the government tries to create a different image of the situation on the ground, we think that the intervention by international organisations will put pressure on it.”
(With inputs from TRT World)