Amnesty International India on Friday urged the Centre to stop the “criminalisation of dissent” and immediately release all the youths arrested for their participation in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. It said the new citizenship law is a “bigoted law” that discriminates on the basis of religion, and is specifically exclusionary towards Muslims.
“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 protests,” said a statement released by the group on the launch of its “Right To Dissent” campaign.
The human rights group said that instead of listening to the voices of the country’s youth population, which is the largest in the world, the government was trying to suppress them “through a brutal crackdown” on dissent.
Amnesty pointed out that 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 by Delhi police which accuses them of “murder, attempt to murder and rioting”. Many of them are summoned for interrogation during the Covid-19 pandemic, the statement noted.
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Cases have also been filed against the students under draconian sedition laws and the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, it said. “The government often uses the UAPA to harass, intimidate and imprison those who are critical of the government,” the group added. “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.”
Amnesty said that 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. However, it observed, that the police have been specifically brutal in campuses dominated by Muslims or where “diverse opinions” are encouraged.
This includes Jamia Milia Islamia University, Aligarh Muslim University, Hyderabad’s English and Foreign Languages and Jawaharlal Nehru University besides others, the statement said.
“Students are accused of being ‘anti-nationals’ for disagreeing with government policies and peacefully protesting against them,” said Avinash Kumar, the group’s executive director. “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.”
Academics in UK call for students’ release
A group of academics from the Institute of Development Studies in the United Kingdom said jailing students and activists for peaceful protests defies the spirit of independence.
“Devangana Kalita, a former student of the Institute of Development Studies in Brighton, and Natasha Narwal will spend Independence Day,” the academics said in an open letter. “Both are co-founders of the women’s rights movement Pinjra Tod.”
“They are two of a number of university students and activists in Tihar Jail, the largest prison complex in South Asia, accused of having conspired to incite riots that raged for five days in Delhi in February,” the signatories added. “The inter-community violence left 53 dead, most of them Muslims. According to the police, the “conspiracy” was to incite riots to coincide with the visit of American President Donald Trump in order to ‘defame’ India.”
The signatories said that the arrest of the students was meant to send a “chilling” message to the civil society that the government will not tolerate criticism.
The academics also expressed concern for the health of the students kept in jail amid the worsening coronavirus crisis. “On Independence Day, we call on the Indian government to release all those jailed for exercising their constitutional right to free speech and peaceful protest,” they said. “Independence is worthless without freedom and the rule of law.”