Dear Minister Pandor,
We write to express grave concern for the promulgation of discriminatory laws and arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders and democratic activists taking place in the Republic of India. We urge the South African government to take note and join its voice with leading human rights organizations and United Nations human rights experts to press upon the Indian state to release all political prisoners now. As South Africans, we know the pain of state persecution very well. Post-apartheid South Africa’s ethos and constitution demand that we raise our voice and call upon India (our BRICS partner) to respect dissent, desist from using repressive laws, and sacrifice its citizens’ lives to the altar of Hindu supremacist ideology and police excesses.
Large numbers of civil society activists and students who have been arrested in the last few months were protesting against the exclusionary Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that the Indian parliament passed in December 2019. While the Act has passed the test of parliamentary majority, it decries the principles of equality and dignity for all. This letter elaborates the humanitarian crisis that the law threatens to unleash, and the inhumane ways in which the Indian government has been treating those who have opposed it.
Citizenship Amendment Act and its effects
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) became a law in December 2019. The Act associates Indian citizenship with religious identity attacking the basic tenets of egalitarianism enshrined in the constitution. The legislation, in conjunction with the soon to be implemented National Population Register (NPR) to be followed by the National Registry of Citizens (NRC), will enable the persecution of religious and social minorities producing a domino effect of statelessness and disintegration of fundamental human rights. While designed to fast-track citizenship for non-Muslim refugees from neighbouring countries, the CAA threatens life and livelihood of India’s 200 million Muslims as well as other economically and socially marginalised groups in India. The NPR, through its stringent documentation requirements, will isolate and inhibit members of other socio-economically disadvantaged groups from validating their citizenship. Together, the nature of the CAA-NPR and NRC threatens to dispossess people from oppressed castes, the urban and rural poor, the LGBTQIA+ community and religious minorities of India from their cultural, economic and human rights.
The perils of this legislation have already come to light. The Indian Government piloted the national register of citizenship in Assam in the last few years. In August 2019 when the registration process was concluded, approximately 1.9 million people lost their citizenship rights, tearing their families apart. Many have found themselves in internment camps as victims of this legislation that has amplified division and inequality based on socio-religious lines. This unimaginable level of precarity has reached exponential levels under the Covid-19 lockdown where millions of migrant wage workers were stripped of their income and forced into homelessness or faced perilous journeys back to their home states on foot. The actioning of the CAA-NPR and NRC would not only worsen these conditions but block millions of jobless, homeless people from access to healthcare during a global pandemic. As these factors compound experiences of daily inequality, the potential threat to human life becomes inevitable without intervention.
Protests, Dissent and Inhuman Arrests
The latter half of 2019 and the first few months of 2020 saw mass demonstrations against the CAA-NPR and NRC throughout India. Solidarity marches were held across the world, including South Africa. Indian cities saw peaceful sit-ins in which thousands of people from all walks of life, students, poets, artists and especially working-class women participated. In various parts of India, especially the North Indian state Uttar Pradesh, protestors received brutal backlash from law enforcement, and hundreds remained in detention. While the government refused to enter into meaningful dialogue with the protesters, the ruling party and its members and state-sponsored media outlets propagated a counter-narrative deeming the protesters as “anti-nationals” and “traitors” who deserve to be eliminated. Anti CAA protesters thus became a target of the ruling party’s right-wing Hindu supremacist supporters — their hate speech and their violence.
Violence broke out in Delhi on February 23, 2020 leaving 53 dead, over 200 injured and extensive damage to property, including shops/businesses, homes and mosques, with poor and working-class Muslim families overwhelmingly on the receiving end. However, ignoring well-documented instigation of violence by members of Hindu supremacist groups, Delhi police has sought to pin responsibility for the violence on anti CAA protesters. In the state-led effort to criminalise civil rights activism and freedom of speech, police have sought to implicate senior civil-society activists and arrested students and youth activists, particularly those from the Muslim community. The numbers of arrestees are above 700.
In the last few months, the six-months-pregnant, 27-year-old PhD student, Safoora Zargar, student activists such as Meeran Haider, Shifa-ur-Rahman, Ravish Ali Khan, young feminist activists Natasha Narwal and Devangana Kalita, have been arrested under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Loose evidentiary requirements and stringent bail regulations have meant that the Indian authorities have repeatedly used UAPA to suppress dissent. This law is also being utilised to indict other well-known civil rights advocates such as Gautam Navlakha Anand Teltumbe, Sudha Bhardawaj, Varvara Rao who have been charged along with eight other activists for allegedly inciting political violence. While the case against these activists is weak, these older and highly-regarded human rights defenders have been kept behind bars in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, in spite of their advanced age and ill-health.
The activists continue to be in prison even though United Nations has called for the release of prisoners of conscience to contain the outbreak of COVID-19 within the incarceration system.
Chair of the European Parliament Subcommittee on Human Rights, Centre for Human Rights, American Bar Association, and 31 other international organizations ranging from African Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies to Coalition World Organization Against Torture, have called upon the Indian government to abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to release these prisoners and respect their right to peaceful exercise of freedom of expression.
In a similar vein, on June 26 2020, Special Rapporteurs attached to the UN Human Rights Council noted that Indian “authorities should immediately release all human rights defenders who are currently being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence, often simply on the basis of speeches they made criticizing the discriminatory nature of the CAA.” In May 2020, Frontline Defenders, the prominent international human rights protection group noted: “Treatment of student human rights defenders and supporters and organizers of the anti-CAA protests is a direct reprisal for their peaceful human rights work and exercise of the right to free expression. Their arrests represent an attempt to silence dissent, in particular from minority Muslim voices, and take advantage of Covid-19 restrictions to circumvent protests against their arrests and ultimately further a dangerous and regressive State agenda.”
Situation in India and South African Response
We are concerned that the Indian government’s criminalisation of dissent enmeshes with a broader campaign of censorship and propaganda. South Africans can attest to the violence of censorship, use of law, police torture, confessions under duress and imprisonment to repress those who fight for equality and democracy. This experience and South Africa’s struggle against all forms of group discrimination make it incumbent upon us to speak up today. Partnerships such as BRICS and various bilateral forums offer South Africa an opportunity to call for respect of right to life, livelihoods, peaceful protest and freedom of expression in India. We cannot look the other way when the world’s second most populous country and South Africa’s strategic partner belies agreed upon covenants, hurts its citizens and violates their human and political rights. We call for the immediate release of all anti-CAA protesters and human rights defenders in India and request your urgent attention to this grave matter.
People Against Apartheid and Fascism (PAAF)
People Against Apartheid and Fascism (PAAF) is a collective of individuals from multiple walks of life advocating for human rights in South Africa and beyond. We firmly believe in global solidarity against discriminatory ideologies, repressive regimes and laws that have resurged across the world in the last few years.
To this end, PAAF has sought to galvanize the South African public against the exclusionary Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in December 2019 in India. This week India celebrates its 73rd Independence Day. But independence from colonial rule does not equal political, social and economic freedom. Laws like CAA impinge open ideals such as freedom and equality. Together with other administrative measures, the CAA threatens to render stateless and inflict misery on millions of socially, culturally and economically marginalized people in India. PAAF proudly participated in the vital, non-violent international campaign calling for repeal of CAA and respect for life, livelihood, and human rights in India. We are thus deeply alarmed by the recent clampdown on anti CAA protesters in India, their arrests on feeble evidence, and continued incarceration under draconian laws in the midst of a deadly pandemic. The number of arrestees is more than 700.
South Africa’s apartheid history is replete with instances of violent police practices. We are deeply familiar with unjust uses of law, tactics such as extraction of confession under duress, torture, and manufacture of evidence. We therefore cannot turn our faces away when these practices are once again mobilized against those struggling for equality and democracy. We agree with special rapporteurs of the UN Human Rights Council who noted that human rights defenders in India, many of them students, “appear to have been arrested simply because they exercised their right to denounce and protest against the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), 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.”
We join these UN experts, international organizations such as Frontline Defenders and Amnesty International and concerned people across the globe and demand release of all unjustly detained and arrested anti CAA protesters. It is incumbent upon the Indian government to abide by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, release all political prisoners and respect their right to peaceful exercise of freedom of expression. The Indian government must know that the world is watching; repression and injustice cannot prevail.