Human Rights Watch (HRW) has called for Indian authorities to immediately dismiss all politically motivated charges against those peacefully protesting discriminatory citizenship policies and release them immediately, according to a Monday news release.
According to HRW, an international non-government organization, police and other authorities have shown a bias when prosecuting New Delhi violence. Police have used anti-terrorism and sedition laws to arrest students, activists and other protesters who criticize the government. But when it comes to violence carried out by supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), authorities have failed to hold the same standards, HRW said.
“The Indian authorities have used the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown to arrest activists, silence dissent, and deter future protests against discriminatory policies,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Instead of addressing past police abuse, the authorities seem to be trying their best to add to the list.”
The passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) by the BJP-led government in December 2019 sparked protests in New Delhi and elsewhere in India. The legislation is the first in India to make religion a basis for citizenship. The act, together with a nationwide verification process to unearth “illegal migrants,” may threaten the citizenship rights of millions of Indian Muslims, HRW said.
Violent clashes between Hindu and primarily Muslim anti-CAA protesters broke out in New Delhi in February, leaving dozens of people dead and hundreds more injured. HRW said that the authorities failed to respond appropriately, and some reports allege that police escalated the violence.
Though protests were broken up after the government imposed a lockdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak, authorities have subsequently begun arresting protesters and filing charges of sedition, murder and terrorism under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), HRW said.
In March, Union Home Minister Amit Shah denied allegations of bias, arguing that critics were trying to politicize the riots and assured the public that the authorities would be fair in their prosecution of those responsible for the violence.
“It is the opposition's right to question. But when the police were trying to control the riots, struggling with violence, we should understand,” Shah said. “We are using face identification to find the accused. It is a software so it does not differentiate on the basis of religion.”
Despite Shah’s claims, critics maintain that authorities’ actions are unjust and that CAA protesters are being unfairly targeted.
“Instead of locking up people who dare to speak out against discriminatory government policies, the authorities should listen to their legitimate fears and grievances,” Ganguly said. “The government has repeatedly said that minorities in India have nothing to fear, and the authorities should put actions to those words.”