Human Rights Defenders Alert – India and global civil society alliance CIVICUS call for the immediate release of two women activists who were arrested last week for their involvement in mass protests against the discriminatory citizenship law. These arrests highlight the escalating crackdown on dissent by the Indian authorities.
Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal are both women activists and founding members of the Pinjra Tod, a collective of women students and university alumni from across Delhi, who seek to lessen restrictions, such as curfews, placed on female students.
Since the regressive Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) was passed in December 2019, the women human rights defenders have played a critical role in peacefully protesting and mobilising against the Act on the basis that it violates the fundamental principles and protections of the Constitution of India. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has described the law as ‘fundamentally discriminatory in nature’
On 23 May 2020, the Special Crimes Cell of the Delhi Police arrested Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal in connection with their alleged role in a sit-in protest against the CAA that took place at Jaffrabad metro station in Delhi in February 2020. Among the charges laid against them include obstructing a public servant in discharge of public functions, wrongful restraint, and assault or criminal force to deter a public servant from discharge of his duty.
On May 24, both were granted bail by a Delhi court, only to be immediately re-arrested by a Special Investigation Team of the Crime Branch of the police and remanded in Tihar prison for 14 days on 26 May. The new charges include serious offences of murder, attempt to murder and criminal conspiracy; offences under the Arms Act; and offences under the Prevention of Destruction of Public Property Act. Human rights groups believe the additional charges are evidence of intent to hold the two activists in prison at any cost.
“The arbitrary detention and judicial harassment of Devangana Kalita and Natasha Narwal seems to be aimed at punishing them for their legitimate human rights activities. These arrests are the latest in a series of attempts by the authorities to intimidate and silence the anti-CAA protesters,” said Henri Tiphagne from Human Rights Defenders Alert – India.
“They must be released immediately and unconditionally. In addition, their being jailed in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic is unnecessarily putting their lives and health at serious risk” added Tiphagne.
Activists across India continue to be arrested and detained – some under draconian laws for their involvement in protests or criticising the authorities. In April 2020, student activists Safoora Zargar, who is pregnant, Meeran Haider, and Shifa-Ur-Rehman were all detained under the draconian Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) for their involvement in the demonstrations. They were arrested on charges of rioting and unlawful assembly
“Peaceful protest is a legitimate form of dissent. The authorities must halt its use of anti-terrorism laws such as the UAPA to stifle dissent. These actions highlight the increasingly repressive civic space we have seen in India over the last year,” said Josef Benedict from CIVICUS.
In December 2019, India’s rating was downgraded by the CIVICUS Monitor 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. India has also been added to the CIVICUS Monitor’s Watchlist.
Civic space in India is rated as ‘repressed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.