India on Tuesday night rejected U.N. human rights chief’s criticism of the Narendra Modi-led government’s crackdown on dissent.
High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s office had urged the government to do more to protect human rights defenders, who have come under mounting pressure in recent months.
Bachelet’s office pointed to three “problematic” laws in India that have variously tightened restrictions on non-governmental organisations and led to a crackdown on dissent.
Bachelet appealed to the government to “safeguard the rights of human rights defenders and NGOs, and their ability to carry out their crucial work on behalf of the many groups they represent.
“India has long had a strong civil society, which has been at the forefront of groundbreaking human rights advocacy within the country and globally,” she said in a statement. “But I am concerned that vaguely defined laws are increasingly being used to stifle these voices.”
“Constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Even if the authorities find it uncomfortable, it should never be criminalised or outlawed in this way,” Bachelet said in a statement.
Bachelet specifically cited as “worrying” the use of the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which prohibits the receipt of foreign funds “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest.”
Last month, advocacy group Amnesty International halted its operation in India, citing alleged reprisals by the government and the freezing of its bank accounts by Indian authorities.
Bachelet earlier said the Act, which was adopted in 2010 and was amended last month, has been invoked over the years to “justify an array of highly intrusive measures, ranging from official raids on NGO offices and freezing of bank accounts, to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organizations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies.
“I am concerned that such actions based on the grounds of vaguely defined ‘public interest’ leave this law open to abuse, and that it is indeed actually being used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy that the authorities perceive as critical in nature,” she said.
As per the amended FCRA law, furnishing of Aadhaar numbers by office-bearers of NGOs has become mandatory for registration. The Act also provides for reduction in administrative expenses of any NGO receiving foreign funding, from 50 per cent to 20 per cent of annual funds to ensure spending on their main objectives.
Bachelet said activists and human rights defenders have also “come under mounting pressure in recent months, particularly because of their engagement in mass protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that took place across the country earlier this year.”
In recent months, critics of the administration have accused the government of rounding up activists who protested what the law. Many activists are being held under stringent anti-terrorism laws, like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act.
“More than 1,500 people have reportedly been arrested in relation to the protests, with many charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act - a law which has also been widely criticised for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards,” she said, adding that charges have also been filed under this law against a number of individuals, including 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy.
“I urge the Government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society,” she added.
Rights groups have condemned the arrests as “illegal” and a “grave abuse of state power.”
India maintains that the CAA is its “internal matter” and that “no foreign party has any locus standi on issues pertaining to India’s sovereignty”.
The government rejected Bachelet’s criticism and said “violations of law” couldn’t be “condoned under the pretext of human rights.”
“India is a democratic polity based on the rule of law and an independent judiciary. The framing of laws is obviously a sovereign prerogative. Violations of law, however, cannot be condoned under the pretext of human rights. A more informed view of the matter was expected of a UN body,” External Affairs Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said.
(With reporting by PTI and AP)