Civicus Monitor, an international alliance of civil society organisations, has downgraded India’s civic space rating from “obstructed” to “repressed” in its new People Power Under Attack report for 2019, citing its extreme concern about the crackdown on human rights activists, attacks on journalists and civil society groups, and the lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir.

A repressed rating indicates that democratic freedoms such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association are significantly constrained. Thirty-eight countries are in the category, including Pakistan, Iraq, Turkey, Nigeria and Brunei.

“The Modi government seems to be turning its back on civic freedoms by going after its critics including activists and journalists,” said Josef Benedict, one of the organisation’s researchers. “The deterioration of India’s civic space is alarming – particularly its assault on freedom of expression using an array of restrictive laws – and its attempts to impede human rights groups.”

The organisation said it had been a tense year for the Indian civil society. “The government has used restrictive laws such as the National Security Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to harass, detain and criminalise opponents,” it said, citing the example of the legal proceedings against academic and writer Anand Teltumbde, who was investigated for his alleged connection with violence that broke out at Bhima Koregaon near Pune in January 2018. The government has arrested 10 activists and scholars in connection with an event in Pune that preceded the violence, and allegedly triggered it. They have been accused of maintaining links with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist).

Civicus said the government had targeted students. “Some were charged with sedition for shouting ‘anti-India’ slogans, while a brutal crackdown on students at Allahabad University left activist Richa Singh in hospital,” it added.

The international organisation accused the Narendra Modi government of being hostile to human rights non-governmental organisations. “It is using the draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act to stop foreign funding and investigate organisations that are critical of the government,” it said.

Civicus pointed out that in July, the Central Bureau of Investigation had raided the offices of the Lawyers Collective. The matter is now in the Supreme Court, which has refused to stay a Bombay High Court order directing the CBI not to take coercive steps against the Collective’s founders Indira Jaising and Anand Grover. Civicus pointed out that the offices of Amnesty International and Greenpeace have also been raided.

The situation in Jammu and Kashmir

The international monitor also raised concerns about the clampdown on civic space in Jammu and Kashmir, mentioning the revocation of the region’s special constitutional status in August, and a blanket communications blockade. It claimed excessive force was used to disperse protestors in the protests that followed, and prominent regional politicians were either put under house arrest or placed on a no-fly list.

The state government recently told the Supreme Court that the curbs on internet services were justified as terrorists, separatists and the Pakistan Army were trying to instigate Kashmiris on social media to wage jihad against India.

“The people of Jammu and Kashmir have long suffered violations of their fundamental freedoms,” said Civicus. “Instead of ensuring justice and accountability for these abuses, the government has resorted to increasing its repression with arbitrary detentions and restrictions on access to information.”