Catholic nuns join protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act in Shaheen Bagh, Delhi, on Feb. 6. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj)
Experts from the UN’s Human Rights Council have urged the Indian government to release rights activists arrested for taking part in protests against a controversial citizenship law passed last year.
“These defenders, 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],” said the 13 experts who met in Geneva on June 26.
“The arrests seem clearly designed to send a chilling message to India’s vibrant civil society that criticism of government policies will not be tolerated.”
They said many of those arrested are facing charges simply on the basis of speeches they made criticizing the discriminatory nature of the new citizenship law.
“It is a shame on the country that a prestigious and highly impartial body like the UN Human Rights Council should lambast the Indian government in such a direct way,” Father Cedric Prakash, a Jesuit human rights activist, told UCA News.
“It’s a scathing statement indeed by any standards, especially to a democracy like India where the rights and freedom to dissent and protest should not only be safeguarded but also protected.
“The government of India must pay heed to this significant statement and release all the anti-CAA protesters immediately and unconditionally.”
The UN experts highlighted the arrest of university student Safoora Zargar, who was four months pregnant when she was arrested, as one of the most alarming cases.
She was detained for over two months and allegedly not given adequate medical attention. She was granted bail last week on humanitarian grounds, the experts said.
They said there were allegations of human rights violations and failure of due process in most cases.
“The government should immediately release those defenders who are currently being held in pre-trial detention without sufficient evidence,” they said.
They pointed out that the authorities did not investigate allegations of hate speech and violence by supporters of the CAA.
“Although protests ended in March due to the coronavirus outbreak and the Supreme Court recently issued an order to decongest jails because of health concerns, protest leaders continue to be detained,” their statement said.
The Human Rights Council consists of eight special rapporteurs and five members of the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
The epicenter of the CAA protests in New Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh lasted more than 100 days. The CAA, an amendment to the 1955 citizenship law, is seen as anti-Muslim.
Shaheen Bagh, near Jamia Millia Islamia University, has been a protest venue for a section of people opposed to the CAA and the National Register of Citizens (NRC) since Dec. 15, 2019.
The new law aims to grant Indian citizenship to persecuted minorities from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while blocking naturalization for Muslims.
Muslims see their exclusion from the law, which makes religion the basis of citizenship, as yet another attempt by the Narendra Modi government to marginalize them.
Coupled with the proposed nationwide NRC, the community fears the moves are intended to strip millions of Indian Muslims of their citizenship. People from other disadvantaged caste and gender groups as well as women are vulnerable before the NRC.
Since Dec. 11, 2019, when the law was passed, millions of people across India have rallied against the CAA despite prohibitory orders and a brutal police crackdown in which at least 31 people were killed.
“The UN stepping in will send the message that people have the constitutional right to protest,” Shabnam Hashmi, founder of ANHAD (Act Now for Harmony and Democracy), told UCA News.
“UN interference also shows that what the government is doing is not correct. It is exposed to the world that it is biased against some communities, which is not acceptable in a democratic country,” the Muslim leader added.