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India is muzzling its critics and harassing its NGOs: will Cameron speak out?

David Cameron has had a busy few weeks. India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has just arrived in London to much fanfare, hot on the heels of visits from China’s Xi Jinping and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Reached London. India-UK ties will receive a great impetus. Will attend a wide range of programmes in UK.

— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) November 12, 2015

This visit is different – more intimate apparently. India and UK have a “special relationship” and Modi has been invited to a sleepover at Chequers.  Presumably all this intimacy will make it easier for Cameron to address some pressing concerns about the crackdown on organisations and critics taking place in India at the moment?

He could start by asking about Greenpeace.

Last week, following a sustained attack on their operations, harassment of their staff and a string of obstructions to their work, their license to operate was cancelled.

UPDATE: Our society registration cancelled by TN Registrar of Societies; demonstrates MHA's intolerance for dissent

— Greenpeace India (@greenpeaceindia) November 6, 2015

The attacks on Greenpeace are deeply alarming, but unsurprising to Indian activists and human rights defenders who have witnessed the environment in which they work become increasingly hostile over the past couple of years.

The message coming from Modi’s government is loud and clear – there is no room for critical voices in India today. The government is relentlessly pursuing its agenda to stifle those who disagree with them or who challenge government policy, intensifying restrictions imposed by previous governments.

A cornerstone of its assault on dissent is a piece of legislation catchily titled the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act. Under this Act, organisations that receive funding from overseas are required to seek prior approval from the government. On the surface this may sound innocuous. But there’s a catch:  the law can be - and indeed is very much being - used to harass and target organisations the government doesn’t like.

Who might that be? Well, those who carry out politically sensitive work or those who challenge the government’s economic or development policies (land rights activists, environmental groups). And of course anyone trying to hold the government to account for human rights abuses or tackle corruption.

Under this Act, over 10,000 organisations have been “de-registered” this year. These organisations are now no longer able to access overseas funding. Those working on sensitive issues may find it particularly difficult to bridge the gap and many will struggle to stay afloat. Placing fetters on organisations that carry out vital work on environmental justice, development and people’s rights should send an ominous message to the international community.

And these aren’t the only difficulties facing activists. The rhetoric coming from the government is increasingly toxic. Human rights defenders and activists are being demonised - branded as “anti-national” - and this in turn is feeding further attacks and accusations.

Take for example renowned activist Teesta Setalvad who has been instrumental in securing justice for survivors and victims of the Gujarat violence in 2002 which according to official estimates left 1044 dead. She’s unpopular with the current government, and it’s easy to imagine why: one of her organisations, the Citizens for Justice and Peace, is seeking the prosecution of several government officials and politicians, including Modi, for their alleged complicity in the 2002 violence.  She’s faced a barrage of attacks in recent years, been called a “threat to national security” and dragged through the courts.

Of course the use of laws and restrictions to target and harass critics is not a new phenomenon. Several long-standing, sweeping pieces of legislation continue to be used by state governments to silence independent voices. Journalist Santosh Yadav knows this first hand. He is currently in detention in Chhattisgarh state accused of “sedition”, a broad-brush and vaguely defined charge regularly levelled at critics. There’s good reason to believe these charges are fabricated: Santosh has been drawing attention to police brutality towards indigenous communities and his work is likely to have made him unpopular amongst local officials. He has told Amnesty that the latest charges against him are part of a pattern of harassment. Earlier this year he was taken into a police cell and stripped naked.  

And less than two weeks ago the folk singer and activist Kovan faced similar charges in his home state of Tamil Nadu. His offence? Criticising the State Chief Minister and calling on the government to close shops selling alcohol. If convicted Kovan could face a life sentence.

Journalists, artists, activists and human rights defenders have been loudly speaking out against the growing climate of hostility. They continue their struggles despite the challenges. But global leaders for their part have largely remained silent.

Cameron has a choice during this visit: does he stand up and support human rights defenders and activists who are helping make human rights a reality in India in spite of the onslaught or does he continue to remain quiet on this issue?

I can’t put it better than the UN High Commissioner on Human rights: 'Crackdowns and repression are counterproductive… When governments attack civil society, they undermine the foundations of stability and prosperity'. A more stable and prosperous India is surely in both Modi’s and Cameron’s interests?

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