As the country celebrates its 74th Independence Day, the Government of India must stop criminalising dissent and immediately release all the young peaceful protesters who are being subjected to intimidation, harassment and arrests for their participation in anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) protests, said Amnesty International India on the eve of the launch of its ‘Right To Dissent’ Campaign on Friday.
“India has the world’s largest youth population but instead of listening to these voices, instead of engaging with these voices, the Government is trying to suppress them through a brutal crackdown on dissent. Students are accused of being ‘anti-nationals’ for disagreeing with government policies and peacefully protesting against them. This is a good time to remind the Government that the Supreme Court of India in 2018 said that ‘dissent is the safety valve of a democracy’. It is time to act on it,” said Avinash Kumar, Executive Director, Amnesty International India.
In Delhi, that witnessed communal riots in February 2020, many students who took part in the peaceful anti-CAA protests are either being arrested and jailed under draconian anti-terror laws or subjected to intense intimidation and harassment as they are called in for interrogation during the COVID-19 pandemic. Amnesty International India has called for repealing the CAA. It is a bigoted citizenship law that discriminates on the basis of religion. The law is specifically exclusionary towards Muslims.
At least five students remain jailed in Delhi – Asif Iqbal Tanha, Devangana Kalita, Gulfisha Fatima, Meeran Haider and Natasha Narwal, besides many others across India. Several others have either been released on bail or issued notices and interrogated by Delhi police which accuses them of murder, attempt to murder and rioting.
Cases have also been filed against the students under draconian sedition laws and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). The government often uses the UAPA to harass, intimidate and imprison those who are critical of the government. The slow investigative processes and extremely stringent bail provisions under this law ensure that they are locked up for years without trial, turning the process into punishment.
Speaking to Amnesty International India, a student who was interrogated by the Delhi police, on the condition of anonymity said, “The police told me – you are a Hindu, why are you protesting? Muslims are ruining your head. They are spoiling the Hindu students, why are you getting involved in all this?”
Another student who was issued a notice by the Delhi police told Amnesty International India, “I am now staying in my hometown which is far away from my college in Delhi. The police called me and said that I should come to Delhi immediately for questioning. I told them there is a lockdown because of the COVID-19 pandemic and it will be difficult for me to travel. I was then told that I should contact them whenever I reach Delhi. My parents are very concerned about me now. I just took part in some protests but now I and so many other students I know of are being targeted because of this.”
Since December 2019, there have been various reported incidents of the police entering college campuses across the country and allegedly resorting to violence against students, using batons and tear gas.
On the condition of anonymity, a student who recently received a notice from the Delhi police told Amnesty International India, “It actually feels like I am living in a dystopian world. Why else would any 19 or 20-year-old be subjected to this? Yes, I took part in the protests in Delhi. But look at what the police have done. One of my classmates has been seriously injured by the police. The police came inside our campus and unleashed terror on the students. We raised our voice because we as citizens of this country have fundamental rights that allow us to raise our voice. We did not do or say anything illegal. Our entire protest was within the ambit of the law”.
The police have been brutal on dissent in most college campuses, specifically those dominated by Muslims or encouraging diverse opinions, including Jamia Milia Islamia University, Aligarh Muslim University, Gujarat Vidyapith, Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages University, Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad and Jawaharlal Nehru University besides others.
“This crackdown is an attempt to extinguish dissent by the students. The space for saying what you think and demanding a better world is fast disappearing and we need to protect it. Amnesty International India will be launching the ‘Right To Dissent’ campaign on 15 August. The campaign will demand the release of those who are unlawfully imprisoned under draconian laws for speaking truth to power. It will challenge unfair laws and call for the Government of India to stop the suppression of people’s freedom of expression and opinion. The government must engage and not arrest,” said Avinash Kumar.
The ‘Right To Dissent’ campaign will go live on Amnesty International India’s website, www.amnesty.org.in on 15 August, Independence Day.