Regime subverting institutions, destroying democracy: Indian activists

Several civil society members decried the intimidation tactics and impunity of India’s ruling disposition at international virtual conference


India’s leading jurists, civil rights activists and journalists came together to condemn the regime at Reclaiming India, a two-day virtual conference organised by Global India Progressive Alliance, Hindus for Human Rights, India Civil Watch International, Indian American Muslim Council, and Students Against Hindutva Ideology.

Day-1: October 3, 2020

On the first day of the conference, several speakers from both the United States and India drew a parallel between the ongoing assaults on civil liberties in both countries, and said it was important for activists in both societies to come together to fight the battle.

Renowned African American activist, Rev. William Barber, a US-based Protestant minister and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, said both the US and India were seeing a battle of “human rights versus authoritarianism”. Just as some “moral considerations” were separated from economics to justify slavery in the US in the past, “immoral voices” were siding with “authoritarianism on the side of rugged raw nationalism,” he added.

Veteran Indian historian Rajmohan Gandhi, who is also the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, said India was faced with a “very serious assault on our democracy” and a “destruction of democratic rights of human rights, of the notion of equality.” Although an attempt had not yet been made to change India’s Constitution, an “informal imposition of inequality, especially directed at the Muslims and the Christians” was already happening, he added. “People are being arrested without due process and detained without trial and charges,” Gandhi said of the current situation in India.

Renowned Indian historian and a biographer of Mahatma Gandhi, Ramchandra Guha blamed Prime Minister Narendra Modi for India’s all-round failures, saying that his government had “conducted an assault on India’s already vulnerable social fabric… Modi is not only the divider-in-chief but also India’s destroyer-in-chief.” He spoke of how discrimination against Dalits, Adivasis, women and “especially Muslims has massively intensified” under his government. “The persecution of Kashmiris and the abrogation of Article 370 [of India’s Constitution] was a clear message that Modi’s India cannot have a Muslim-majority state,” Guha added.

Speaking on the scourge of casteism in Indian society, Martin Macwan, a Dalit rights activist and a winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Award, said, “We have two rules in India, the rule of the constitution and the rule of caste. The constitution did not end the rule of caste. And so, India cannot be reclaimed today, not until we liberate it from an inhumane caste system.”

Added Roja Singh, Professor of sociology and anthropology at St. John Fisher College, New York, and founder of Dalit Solidarity Forum, “The centrality of what was lost and what needs to be reclaimed by Dalit groups is personhood. Once your humanity is denied, all else is denied too.”

Added Vishwambar Nath Mishra, an engineering professor at Indian Institute of Technology and head priest of Sankat Mochan Temple, Varanasi, “You cannot bring Rama in a boundary line condition with a piece of land. He is in everybody’s hearts. All genders are the creation of the almighty and cannot be discriminated against. All are welcome in a temple.”

Aishe Ghosh, President of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) Students Union, said India was currently experiencing “a new form of imperialism” and that India’s youth “has to understand what the Constitution has given us.”

Sunita Viswanath, co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights said as Indians were fighting for “the survival of our democracy, we need global allies and global awareness.  As Indian Americans, we need to stand with other minorities in the USA who are fighting for their rights and lives.” She also recalled the great contribution of veteran Indian rights activist Swami Agnivesh, who passed away last month, as “a lifelong fighter for the rights of the most marginalized in India, particularly bonded laborers. He was beaten up a few times in recent years, by Hindu nationalist mobs.”

Day-2: October 4, 2020

Speaking on the topic of “Independent Judiciary Under threat”, Veteran civil rights activist and Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan came down heavily against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.

“This government has singularly tried to subvert the independence of the judiciary, firstly, by not making the appointment of independent judges and getting independent judges transferred,” Bhushan said. “This government is using post-retirement jobs to subvert the independence of the judiciary and, worst of all, it is using agencies to blackmail judges… If the judiciary has to be saved, this government must go.”

Former Additional Solicitor General of India and Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising said “criminal procedure has been eroded and become a plaything in the hands of [Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s] government.” Power in the legal profession was now “emanating from the executive, and the judges know this.” Condemning the arrests of activists under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on charges of conspiracy in violence in Delhi that killed 50 people, two-third of them Muslims, last February, she said protesting the Citizenship (Amendment) Act did not amount to a “conspiracy to undermine the sovereignty and integrity of India.”

Former Indian Vice-President Hamid Ansari said the mass protests by Muslim women against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh had been “unique in more than one sense. One, that it was all women; two, it was spontaneous; and three, the majority, but not the totality, of participants were Muslim women.” He said that the same Muslim women who were being said to need “saviours” just a couple years ago “had suddenly turned out to save India’s democracy… It was a very powerful movement [and] it sent a very powerful message.” Ansari especially gave a shout-out to iconic youth leader Umar Khalid, who was arrested last month under the UAPA. “[Umar has] resonated with millions of other youths, Muslim or not, because you cannot really… categorize and bracket him to just his Muslimness. He has also become a youth icon.”

Bilkis Dadi from Shaheen Bagh, who was recently featured in Time Magazine among the 100 most influential people in 2020, made a video appearance in which she stated, “We are not begging the government to give us alms. We are only asking for equal rights. Modi is also my son. If I didn’t give birth to him, my sister did. Women have achieved (in these protests) what men were not able to do.”

Human rights defender and SabrangIndia co-founder Teesta Setalvad said the Modi government’s behaviour was a “manifestation of unbridled abuse of power.” She said, “The political agenda is both narrow and vendetta driven, archaic laws such as sedition laws are being applied. First comes the branding of an individual as anti-national and then comes the incarceration. The penal codes are not being followed. The number of journalists arrested is unprecedented.” She said there was a need to build a large South Asia coalition, including civil rights organizations from neighbouring countries, to fight fascism.

Congress party’s Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor said, “It is time to reaffirm the idea of India enshrined in our Constitution. This requires a conscious effort to defend the besieged institutions of civic nationalism to restore their autonomy and ensure their effectiveness. It also requires us to look to an idea of India that is comprehensive, embraces all experiences and refuses to see the past through the prism of any one faith.”

Mumbai-based human rights lawyer Mihir Desai who is the convenor of People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL) in Maharashtra, said the Modi government had “mastered the use of these [draconian] laws to turn victims into the accused. They are being persecuted and prosecuted.” He explained that in international law, a political prisoner was accused of an offense not committed for personal gain or benefit, but a larger collective objective, and was treated differently. But in India, there was no distinction between a political and non-political prisoner. “The present government is concerned by its international image, and international pressure should be applied to restore democracy and the rule of law in India,” he added.

Ahsan Khan, National President of the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC), said India’s opposition parties had a “critical duty in fighting for the rights of the marginalised and the oppressed, as well as opposing religious majoritarian nationalism that is putting India’s unity and integrity at risk. It is disheartening to see that none of India’s opposition parties has offered a strong resistance to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act beyond tokenism, even though the law threatens to rip apart India and destroy its communal harmony.”

Biju Mathew, co-founder of India Civil Watch International, said “a set of fault-lines” were running through liberalism as the right-wing has managed to “outflank all the  structures of checks and balances that made the possibility of liberal democracy, by internally producing processes and modes of working that fundamentally upset all the checks and balances within liberal democracy.” The right-wing across the world had learned to “flip liberal democracy on its head and cut through all the checks and balances. We need to reinvent that.”

Manish Madan, founder of Global Indian Progressive Alliance said, “As progressive Indians we stand for bringing people together towards building progressive communities. We aspire to bring progressive values beyond the lens of religion, caste, ethnicity, race, and gender. Our anchor hinges on education, advocacy and social justice. We are glad to have played a modest part in bringing diverse voices together coming from various religious and progressive lenses through this initiative called Reclaiming India.”

Raju Rajagopal, Co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights said, “Hindutva nationalists have taken over almost all political and religious institutions and they have rushed in to occupy all the spaces vacated by progressive Hindus. What is a purely political fascist group is now claiming to speak for all Hindus. With the rare exception of people like the late Swami Agnivesh, it has completely co-opted Hindu faith leaders, who seem nowhere in sight to defend their oft-repeated mouthed, ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’.” Rajagopal said his organization was “united in our goals of working for a casteless and pluralistic and democratic India, with true equality for all.”

Sunita Viswanath, Co-founder of Hindus for Human Rights closed the conference with, “Over the past two days we witnessed so much courage from frontline activists, politicians, intellectuals from India; and also the fierce unwavering solidarity from all of us, your brothers and sisters in the diaspora. Reclaiming India was born over these two days and we pledge to stay together and grow our coalition globally and be back for our second conference this time next year: ReclaimingIndia@74.”



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