A global webinar on “Criminalization Of Peaceful Expressions”, organised in parallel with the 48th session of United Nations Human Rights Commission, explored Indian laws and practices that aim to outlaw peaceful activities and demonstrate how these laws are inconsistent with India’s international legal obligations. This event was organised by the Kashmir Institute of International Relations and the World Muslim Congress. My speech at this event follows. 

Thank you to the organisers of this webinar for the invitation to speak with you. 

This global event is timely and I believe very significant in light of the dangerous deterioration in respect for and adherence to human rights in India. For a number of years leaders and associates of the BJP in India have been committing shocking crimes against minorities.

The world community bares much responsibility for the brazen way Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah continue to perpetrate these crimes. There is barely a question or a word of criticism from most world leaders. 

I see this very acutely from Sydney Australia – where I live and work. Our government, like many western governments, is mounting a new Cold War on China, while refusing to speak out against similar problems occurring in India. 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison regularly attacks China over its aggressive military actions, treatment of its citizens and lack of democracy. I am not saying those criticisms should not occur, but let’s compare this vitriol with the attitude of many western countries to India.

The Australian government is expanding its relations with India without a word of criticism of the increasing human rights abuses in that country, the complete take over of Jammu Kashmir and manipulation of the country’s legal systems to facilitate these dangerous trends. 

Due to time constraints I will not explore here why western powers are taking this soft approach to India. I spoke about the India-China comparison to give a global context for today’s webinar – “Criminalization Of Peaceful Expressions”.

That phrase – “Criminalization Of Peaceful Expressions” – sums up the actions of the BJP at a federal and state level. We need to remind ourselves why Modi, Shah, Yogi Adityanath – the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh – and other BJP leaders have taken an approach that promotes violence and oppression against those who they disagree with. The BJP is committed to Hindutva, a political ideology that promotes extreme Hindu nationalism. The result is mounting attacks on India’s minorities, particularly Muslims. This needs to be exposed. 

A corrupt legal system enables these crimes to occur. In India today a series of laws facilitate and legalise the violent abuse, discrimination and growing intolerance many minorities suffer.  

I will run through some examples of the way the BJP are manipulating the judicial system to achieve these ends. Previous speakers have covered examples of other oppressive laws. Taken together these facts illustrate how India is well advanced in criminalising peaceful expression. 

Sedition, a relic law from the days of the British colonial rule over India, remains on the statute books. It is used by the BJP authorities to try and crush opposition forces.

A recent example of how this law is misused occurred in Kashmir.  Three students were charged and gaoled on charges of so-called sedition and for attempting to “disrupt communal harmony”. 

The charges were laid after a video went viral that allegedly depicted the students uttering “Pro-Pakistan” slogans. The charges came about after Hindutva groups complained about the students’ actions.

In recent times a huge array of people have been arrested on sedition charges – political activists, farmers, students, and people supportive of progressive causes.

Last year four former Supreme Court judges in India called for the repeal of sedition laws and in particular the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. The judges raised concerns that these laws are misused to quash dissent and restrict the activities of those opposing the ruling authorities. 

Another law that gives cover to many of the shocking crimes committed by the Indian authorities is the Amed Forces (Special Powers) Act. This legislation, passed in 1958, is also modelled on a British law. It provides the Indian military with immunity from prosecution for civilian killings.

Since 1990 a version of this law has operated in Jammu and Kashmir. A recent incident that comes under this Act has thrown a light on the level of abuse the Indian army can engage in with little fear of consequences. When three young men from south Kashmir were found dead with weapons on them Indian military personnel initially claimed that they were killed in a shoot out.

The army had initially claimed that the three were militants. But after the men were identified by their families as labourers who had been looking for work, the army had to acknowledge that there was prima facie evidence that its troops had exceeded their powers. Army personnel have stated that there will be disciplinary proceedings taken against those responsible for the killings and for planting weapons on the young men after they were killed.

While this crime has been exposed, in by far the majority of cases Indian military personnel, using the cover of this notorious legislation, get away with shocking crimes, including torture, murder, arbitrary detention and enforced disappearances.

There are a raft of other laws and policies in India that add up to a punitive culture that enables BJP operatives and supporters to harass progressive activists, journalists, academics and others who speak up to expose the crimes of the Modi forces. 

In June last year a new media policy was adopted for Jammu and Kashmir. The 53-page document will effectively kill off local media stories. The Indian central government public relations narrative will dominate the news. Effectively Kashmiri journalists will be replaced by a bureaucrat or a police officer, who will have the power to determine what is news and what is not.

Then there is the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. The tough government regulations and oversight in this law will be used to harass outspoken rights groups and cutback on their funding. 

The Official Secrets Act and the National Security Act are also used to criminalise peaceful activities. 

The extent of the legal manipulation occurring today in India is phenomenal. Democracy and justice have become just a shell of what the leaders of the anti-colonial movement worked for. 

I acknowledge that great work is being undertaken in India and among the Indian diaspora to restore India as a secular, inclusive, progressive, democratic society. To achieve this won’t be easy.

The growing #LetKashmirDecide global movement is working to play a key role in obtaining the right to self-determination for Kashmiri people. 

There is also a role for the governments of other nations to speak up about human rights abuses occurring across India. We need many voices to speak out with concern about law changes that violate the essence of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. 

History shows us that parliamentary leaders find the courage to take on extreme anti-democratic forces when there is a strong global movement to stand to the fore in this struggle. I believe the key to India rejecting the extremism of the BJP and RSS forces lies with a loud, principled global public voice for an India that supports self-determination for Jammu Kashmir, protects human rights and stands for a fair and just judicial system for all.

Thank you. 

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