Clampdown On Dissent Continues During The Covid-19 Pandemic In India
Bangalore / New Delhi: 14 April 2020 3:42 pm
Responding to reports that human rights defenders, Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha have surrendered before the National Investigative Agency (NIA) after the Supreme Court of India ordered them to, Avinash Kumar, Executive Director of Amnesty International India, said:
“The clampdown on dissent in India continues. Even during a pandemic, the Government of India is targeting those critical of the government. When hard-won rights to expression and peaceful protest are weakened, everyone stands to lose.”
“Over the past two years, there has been a sustained smear campaign against these activists, accusing them of working against India and seeking to undermine years of crucial work they have done to cast light on injustice. These arrests are an extension of a crackdown on anyone who is critical of the state. This includes human rights defenders, journalists and ‘Right to Information’ activists, who have been threatened, harassed and attacked while seeking state accountability. The state has also used preventive detention as a tool to repress dissent.”
Gautam Navlakha, 65, a Delhi-based journalist was the secretary of the People’s Union for Democratic Rights and is an editorial consultant for the journal Economic and Political Weekly. He has written about human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, and is a vocal critic of repressive laws.
Anand Teltumbde has written extensively about the caste system in India and has advocated for the rights of Dalits. In his newspaper columns, he has been critical of the Narendra Modi government, especially over issues of social welfare and the persecution of human rights defenders in the country.
Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha were charged under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code along with the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) for their alleged involvement in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon riots. With a poor conviction rate, UAPA is routinely used against people for simply expressing dissenting opinions often without evidence that they incited or resorted to violence or assisted banned organisations, resulting in lengthy pre or under trial detention.
On 17 March 2020, the Supreme Court of India refused to grant anticipatory bail to Anand Teltumbde and Gautam Navlakha and directed them to surrender to the Pune police within three weeks in connection with the case. Anand Teltumbde is a scholar and an activist. Gautam Navlakha is a journalist and also an activist. The two were named by the police along with the other nine activists for their involvement in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon riots.
In 2018, as part of a massive crackdown on human rights defenders in India, nine prominent activists– Sudha Bharadwaj, Shoma Sen, Surendra Gadling, Mahesh Raut, Arun Ferreira, Sudhir Dhawale, Rona Wilson, Vernon Gonsalves and Varavara Rao were arrested by the Pune Police. The police claim the nine were allegedly involved in the violence that erupted between Dalits and Hindu nationalists in January 2018 in Bhima Koregaon, Maharashtra.
Following the arrests in 2018, a smear campaign was launched against the activists. The government claims they are ‘anti-nationals’ working against the country. However, the opinion of communities, where the activists work, is entirely different. In these communities, they are hailed as brave activists, committed to the causes of the poorest and most marginalised communities in the country, like Dalits & Adivasis.
On 25 January 2020, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) took over the Bhima Koregaon investigations from the Maharashtra state police. This came after the new Maharashtra state government had raised several questions regarding the police investigations and had also asked for probe against police officials for the manner in which the investigation was conducted. The transfer of the case to the NIA is seen by many as part of the ongoing crackdown by the Narendra Modi government on human rights defenders in the country.