By Afsar Jafri and Mansi Sharma
In the last few years, the culture of impunity has left bloody patches across the secular democratic fabric of India. Repression of dissent is on the rise and perpetrators are free to lynch anyone who dares to keep meat in their fridge or follow their age-old profession of skinning a dead cow. A mere friendly casual talk among fellow travellers in a train compartment can become violent if one dares to express a negative comment about the present government or its policies.
In one case, a mob from the majority Hindu community in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, attacked a Muslim family, searched their fridge, found meat and lynched to death the head of the family, Akhlaq, and brutally assaulted his young son on the pretext that the meat was of a cow (considered sacred in the Hindu religion). That the meat was that of a cow was immediately contradicted by the local government veterinary officer who ascertained that the meat was “of a goat or its progeny.” In the legal case that followed this incident, the meat of a dead animal was perceived to be of more value than the life of a human being. Akhlaq’s family is still being hounded, after they ran away from the village, and is now trapped in lawsuits for allegedly killing a cow.
In the last two years since the right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government came into power, there have been innumerable cases where people from minority communities have been flogged and thrashed or even force-fed cow dung for carrying meat on trains or transporting cattle in a vehicle, even though in some cases they turned out to be farmers who bought the cattle for tilling their farm. The assailants are always the Hindutva supporters. In an incident that happened last July 27 at Mandsaur railway station in Madhya Pradesh, two Muslim women were beaten, punched, and slapped for carrying 30 kilograms of buffalo meat. The women victims are now being labeled criminals, while no action has been taken against the assailants, as they have the support of local right wing leaders.
The state’s failure to ensure accountability by bringing perpetrators to book for their heinous crimes has given rise to a sense of widespread impunity among a particular section of Hindutva supporters who are now attacking even their fellow Hindus from the Dalit community (still considered untouchables in Hindu religion) who are engaged in skinning dead cows. Last July 11, four Dalit youths were stripped, flogged, and thrashed with steel canes in Gujarat for skinning a dead cow by the self-styled cow protection militia, which led to massive protests throughout the country by members of the Dalit community. In protest, more than 25 Dalit youths have attempted suicide in the last 15 days . These are not a few isolated cases of self-immolation by Dalits as a desperate response to a denial of justice. Earlier this year, a bright Dalit research student, Rohith Vemula, took his own life at Hyderabad Central University over the discrimination shown to Dalits like him by University authorities. Rohith was not alone. Nine other students (all Dalits or from Other Backward Class) have taken their lives during the last seven years at the University of Hyderabad alone. The primary reason was the inability of the University to accommodate and provide equal opportunity to the socially marginalized groups.
The Thorat Committee that studied discriminatory treatment against students from Dalit and other marginalized communities at an elite medical institute, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), noted in its 2007 report that “aggression against students from lower castes in every aspect of their daily lives—from the classroom to faculty interaction, and from the hostel and mess to examinations—is making their ostracism from the community activities of the institute a bitter reality.”
Like previous governments, the present government completely fails to listen to the cries of despair coming from the marginalized sections of Indian society. “Instead of assuring social justice to all, the ruling party wishes to use the student unrest in our universities to claim a monopoly on nationalism and tar all of their critics with the same brush of anti-nationalism,” said Sugata Bose, the Trinamool Congress (TMC) member of Parliament, in the Lok Sabha (Lower House) debate on nationalism versus freedom to dissent on February 24, 2016.
Rohith Vemula’s suicide led to a series of student protests across several universities (mostly those funded by the Central Government) that shook the entire nation. Protests against the saffronization of their institute were held at the Film and Television Institute of India (Pune), Jawaharlal Nehru University (Delhi), Jadavpur University (Kolkotta), The Allahabad University, the National Institute of Technology (Srinagar), among others. The government responded by slapping some student leaders with sedition charges and declaring them anti-national. They were put behind bars for supposedly making anti-national speeches and shouting anti-India slogans.
The trampling of human rights in the name of cow protection or pseudo-nationalism is as insensitive as the Indian Army and paramilitary forces firing pellet guns on Kashmiri youth and calling it their least lethal weaponry in dealing with the widespread protests in the valley in late July. This “utmost restraint” method, as claimed by armed forces in Kashmir, for maintaining law and order has permanently maimed many, with several dozens losing their eyesight. According to the Greater Kashmir newspaper, more than 40 people, including a police official, have been killed and nearly 2,000, including 200 members of security forces, have been injured in clashes between protesters and the forces, while 150 local people mostly between 9 to 21 years of age have received injuries to their eyes. Doctors from Delhi who are presently treating the pellet gun victims in Kashmir has said that most of these victims may not be able to see again and they have appealed to the government for pellet gun use to be stopped. Though the opposition parties are hoarse from crying out against the present governments in the State and the Centre for the atrocities in Kashmir, the fact was that pellet guns were first used in 2010 in Kashmir by the National Conference government which was then a coalition partner in the Congress government at the federal level.
In Kashmir, the armed forces can get away with the crimes against local youths because the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) grants impunity from civilian prosecution for acts committed in disturbed regions under the AFSPA. Besides Kashmir, the law remains in effect in some of the North Eastern states like Nagaland, Manipur, Assam, and parts of Tripura, which have witnessed several cases of repression and killings of the local population by the armed forces. The law gives the armed forces wide powers to shoot to kill, arrest on flimsy pretexts, conduct searches without warrants, and demolish structures in the name of “aiding civil power.” Equipped with these special powers, soldiers have raped, tortured, disappeared, and killed Indian citizens in these states without fear of being held accountable. And these are being accompanied by sweeping curbs on freedom of expression and on media reporting.
Irrespective of the party in power in the Centre, the culture of impunity had always been present wherever draconian laws like the Sedition law and AFSPA were imposed to crush peaceful dissent. Among the two, the Sedition law is one of the most abused laws, which has been used by almost every government against dissenters and human rights and NGO activists, or to silence government critics. This year has seen a steep rise in sedition cases filed across India against democratic dissent or peaceful freedom of expression. As per the media watchdog website The Hoot, 11 cases were booked involving 19 people in the first three months of 2016, which included research scholar Kanhaiya Kumar from JNU, compared to none during the same period in 2014 and 2015.
Section 124A of the Central Law, or the Indian Penal Code, defines a person guilty of sedition as “whoever, by words, either spoken or written, or by signs, or by visible representation, or otherwise brings or attempts to bring into hatred or contempt, or excites or attempts to excite disaffection towards, the Government established by law in India, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, to which fine may be added, or with imprisonment which may extend to three years, to which fine may be added, or with fine.”
Even the previous government under Congress has indiscriminately used the Sedition laws to silence any protests against government projects or peaceful expression. A large number of people in Koodankulam (a small coastal village in Tamilnadu) had opposed the Indian government on the construction of a nuclear power plant, and questioned its safety, transparency and accountability. However, their protest was brutally crushed and in May 2012, sedition charges were brought against 8,956 people in 21 cases, including women and children, and a senior activist of the movement, Dr. SP Udayakumar. Following the major accident at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors in March 2011, the massive peoples’ movement in Koodankulam, Jaitpur (Maharashtra), Gorakhpur (Haryana) was not just against the nuclear plants being set up by the Indian government, but against nuclear energy per se. This was used against activists from these peoples’ movements who were charged with sedition.
Recently, a great misuse of the Sedition law came to light when in March 2014 around 60 Kashmiri students who cheered for Pakistan in a cricket match against India were charged with sedition in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which was ruled by Samajwadi Party. Similarly, in the Congress-ruled state of Kerala, the authorities charged seven youths with sedition in August 2014 when they refused to stand up during the national anthem inside a movie theater.
Another feature of the culture of impunity is seen in the government’s use of another draconian law, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), instead of applying the sedition law, to silence its critics from among the non-governmental organizations. Through the FCRA, the registration of these NGOs that allows them to receive foreign funds can be cancelled. The present regime has used the FCRA law to intimidate activists and organizations very critical of the government. The latest victim among them was the Sabrang Trust, run by Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand, who have fought legal battles to expose the role of the Gujarat government in 2002 when more than 2000 Muslims were slaughtered in the state, then headed by the present Prime Minister of India. Lawyers Collective, another NGO, was also barred by the Home Ministry from receiving foreign funds, for violations of various provisions of FCRA 2010. But the Lawyers Collective condemned the “blatant attempt of the government of India to victimize the organization and its officer bearers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover. It is nothing but a gross misuse of the FCRA Act which is being used to suppress any form of dissent.”
Criminalization of dissent of NGOs and civil rights activists is also rampant irrespective of the government in power, especially when dissent is directed against the issue of corporate looting of natural resources. Greenpeace lost their FCRA because they had raised the issue of violation of rights of forest communities in Singrauli (Madhya Pradesh) as a result of the coal mining activities by Mahan Coal Ltd, a joint venture between Essar and Aditya Birla Group. Greenpeace staff member and activist Priya Pillai was taken off a plane at Delhi airport on 11 January 2015, because her visit to the UK to address British parliamentarians was considered a threat to the country’s economic security by India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB). In another incident, a noted activist in Orissa, Prafulla Samatra, was attacked by the goons of Vedanta, a British company mining bauxite in Dangadeuha Hill, which was being resisted by the local people. The tribal communities in the state of Orissa and Chattisgarh are increasingly facing police repression and attacks by corporate goons for resisting land grabs and displacement as consequence of natural resource mining. Their resistance has often resulted in community members being killed or kept in jail under false allegations that they were involved in Maoist activities.
Since the BJP government came to power in Delhi in May 2014, several NGOs have been put under the microscope for supposedly working against India’s development. The government is using all means to clamp down NGOs questioning government decisions or raising questions that make the government uncomfortable. Within a month of assuming power at the Centre, an IB report was released, accusing several foreign funded NGOs and their activists for crimes against the State, namely “activities inimical to India’s economic interests.” The report included organizations which supported the peoples’ opposition to POSCO (a steel company) in Orissa and those opposing genetically modified food and nuclear energy. These organizations were branded as anti-development for trying to block India’s economic development.
The statement “Impunity for killings remains rampant, encouraging their perpetuation and undermining prospects for justice,” fits very well the Indian situation, though this referred to Ukraine in a recently released United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) report. In the last two years of the BJP rule, dissent has been considered tantamount to intolerance against the government. The current culture of impunity under the BJP regime is not much different from that during the previous regime of Congress. However, the most noticeable difference is that the scope of impunity is now being unofficially extended to cover government supporters (in the previous regime it was officially intended for armed forces) who are free to accuse anyone of opposing the government in the name of hard nationalism.