Global human rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) condemned the arrests of two rights activists who have been critics of India’s BJP government policies.
“The government should immediately drop all charges under a counterterrorism law against Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha for allegedly inciting caste-based violence along with other activists during a demonstration in Maharashtra state in 2017,” HRW said.
“Indian authorities are using draconian counterterrorism laws against activists simply for criticizing the government or raising their voices against injustice,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director. “The authorities should immediately release Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha and the other activists wrongfully detained in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon case.”
The police allege that these activists support a Maoist insurgency and at a large public rally on December 31, 2017, they incited Dalits to violence, leading to clashes with supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) the following day. One person died and several were injured. However, the charges filed by police cite flimsy evidence and raise serious concerns that the investigations were politically motivated. Two retired judges, who say they were the “main organizers and sole funders” of the rally, have said that most of the activists arrested in the case had nothing to do with the event.
The authorities charged Teltumbde and Navlakha under India’s principal counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. After the Supreme Court rejected their anticipatory bail pleas, the two men were ordered to surrender by April 14, 2020. Both have been openly critical of the government for failing to ensure social welfare and communal harmony. “In the name of the ‘nation,’ such draconian laws denude innocent people of their liberties,” Teltumbde wrote before he surrendered. “The jingoist nation and nationalism have got weaponized by the political class to destroy dissent and polarize people.”
Nine other prominent activists – Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves, and Varavara Rao – have been detained since 2018 in the Bhima Koregaon case.
While Maharashtra authorities under the former BJP-led state government used the case to jail critics of the government, they did not pursue investigations in cases that implicated Hindu nationalist leaders for inciting the violence.
In October 2019, the social media company WhatsApp, owned by Facebook, informed Teltumbde and at least one lawyer involved in the case that their phones were targeted by surveillance software. They were among 121 users in India who were reportedly targeted with spyware produced by NSO, an Israeli firm, including at least 22 activists, journalists, academics, and human rights lawyers. Although the Indian government denied purchasing the software, the NSO website says its products are “used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”
Indian police have increasingly detained people for dissent, and in several cases used sedition or counterterrorism laws against government critics and social activists, Human Rights Watch said.