India: Excessive force used by police to crackdown on protests against citizenship law

CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance is alarmed at the violent crackdown on protests across India in response to a controversial citizenship law passed by the country’s parliament last week. We urge the authorities to exercise maximum restraint and respect the right to peaceful assembly.

Protests began on 12 December in Assam’s capital Guwahati, after India’s lower house passed the new Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. The law seeks to provide citizenship to non-Muslim irregular migrants facing persecution from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights has described the controversial new law as ‘fundamentally discriminatory in nature’ while human rights groups have called the law ‘unconstitutional and divisive’.

Tens of thousands have since taken to the streets in opposition to the law in various cities in India. According to reports, at least six protesters have been killed during the protests, with at least four who have been shot by the police in Assam and over one thousand detained.

In New Delhi, on 15 December, more than a hundred people protesting the law were injured after police used tear gas and baton charges to disperse a demonstration of students from Jamia Milia Islamia (JMI) University, as well as New Delhi residents. Police violently dispersed the protesters as they marched towards Parliament, and after protesters fled to the university campus, the police reportedly stormed the JMI and fired tear gas into classrooms. Nearly 100 protesters were detained and subsequently released in the early hours of Monday morning.

At Aligarh Muslim University in Uttar Pradesh, thousands of students protesting the law outside the university entrance were attacked by police wielding batons and firing tear gas.

‘Peaceful protest is a legitimate form of dissent and this heavy-handed and violent response from police is unwarranted. Nothing can justify the attacks on protesters which is a clear violation of the right to peaceful assembly. These actions highlight the increasingly repressive civic space we have seen in India over the last year,’ said Lysa John, CIVICUS Secretary General.

The Indian authorities must urgently uphold India’s international and constitutional human rights obligations to respect freedom of peaceful assembly. The authorities should refrain from using excessive force or firearms against peaceful protesters. We call for a prompt, independent and impartial investigation into the abuses by police and for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

CIVICUS is further alarmed at the government-imposed curfew and internet blackout in Assam in response to the protests. Although the curfew and blackout have been relaxed since the start of the protests, restrictions remain in place, limiting access to information in the region.

“The Indian authorities must put a stop to using internet shutdowns to silence dissent. These actions harm human rights including blocking emergency services, creates a media vacuum barring critical information from reaching the public and also affects the economy,” added John.

This month, India’s rating in the CIVICUS Monitor was downgraded from ‘obstructed’ to ‘repressed’, owing to its increased restriction of space for dissent during 2019 and particularly following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in May 2019. Students and civil society organisations have been particularly targeted by repressive laws and judicial harassment.

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