By Sushil Kutty
The other day the National Human Rights Commission issued notice to the Uttar Pradesh DGP for police filing false cases against 10 people who asked a band of cops to settle their restaurant Bill! The NHRC wouldn’t have guessed that the United States State Department was about to give India a blackeye for human rights abuses. Yes, China and Myanmar, because of Uyghurs and indiscriminate killings after military coup respectively, are getting the big stick from Uncle Sam. But that doesn’t mean India didn’t get caned for human rights abuses and for generally being a pain in the @** of its citizens.
Journalist-anchor Rajdeep Sardesai may have his own reasons why he doesn’t give the Modi Government an A+ rating, but to lodge a sedition case against him for a bogus claim made in a tweet was too much. And for UN-trained Congress MP Shashi Tharoor to also find himself in Sardesai’s company couldn’t have been anything but petty political vendetta. The US State Department took note of these and other instances of media muzzlement, especially of media critical of the Modi Government.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken released the report, which also spoke of media being “pressured or harassed” by the Government of India. Now it’s up to Foreign Minister S Jaishankar to rebut Blinken’s charges, like he did that of the Freedom House’s “India is partially free” verdict and Sweden’s V-Dem declaration that India is no longer “democracy,” but “electoral autocracy.” That, said the 37 per cent who voted Modi in 2019, is hitting below the belt. Jaishankar dismissed it as of no consequence. In fact, some in the BJP said, India should bring out its own democracy report, and pay tit for tat!
Fact is, that’s not gonna work. Nobody gives credence to “Late Latif” and “Johnny Come Lately.” Especially, when the US Secretary of State says the Biden Administration is committed to putting “human rights back at the centre of American policy.” Those words resonate across the world. And no amount of ‘Jaishankaring’ will be able to gloss over the report when Blinken rounds off with “human rights abuses, wherever they occur, regardless of whether the perpetrators are adversaries or partners.” The Modi Government should consider itself lucky that the State Department doesn’t echo V-Dem or Freedom House on India’s democracy.
The 68-page India chapter of the report indicts with “lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity.” Media freedom is, of course, dear to Americans even if media there are a divided lot. So while stating that the Modi dispensation in general “respected” media rights, that didn’t mean there weren’t times when the “government or actors considered close to the government pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling.”
Ha! That must have put online outlets like The Wire and the Scroll.in the happy zone. And it must have been party time for Rajdeep Sardesai and the harried bunch in The Caravan magazine. There are also media outlets seen to be in the “Opposition Camp” which are allegedly routinely and subtly pressured by the authorities. In fact, the report dwells at length on the Freedom House document. It doesn’t mince words when it states that the State used “defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges” to muzzle media, forcing media to self-censor.
The report noted that the authorities were not shy of using various sections of the Information Technology Act, Indian Penal Code, Disaster Management Act and Epidemic Diseases Act to target critics. It cites the sedition case filed against the owner of a Gujarati news website for publishing that Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani may be replaced! The Gujarat high court quashed the case after Patel issued an “unconditional apology” in November last year. What the report didn’t say was that intimidation comes easy to BJP governments in India. Frivolous lawsuits are the bedrock on which the authorities rest their cases!!
Of course, at the more general public level, both local and central government officials selectively constraint freedom of expression. Critics of the Modi Government’s Covid-19 lockdown have found themselves explaining to the authorities, and rest assured it’s not a pleasant experience doing the explaining. More so when the explanation concerns Modi’s parliamentary constituency Varanasi! Then, you get noticed and cases are lodged against the “guilty” under sections that even the coronavirus would declare null and void! The beauty of the whole deal is that the courts agree with the authorities.
The State Department report claims, quoting Indian media reports, that “at least 55 journalists and editors were arrested or booked for reporting on the COVID-19 lockdown.” The report specifically mentions the “online trolling” of author and journalist Rana Ayyub who regularly bashes the Modi Government in Washington Post along with journalist and author Barkha Dutt who too writes a column for the Wapo. The two women are the flagbearers of India’s so-called “Lutyens Media” and dire critics of Hindustan’s so-called “Godi Media.” They set the India narrative for the US media.
But while quick to haul up journalists who took the pen to the government gullet, the authorities display a lack of urgency when it comes to tracing and bringing to justice murderers and killers of journalists. The report cites the case of Rising Kashmir editor Shujat Bukhari who was killed in 2018. Formal charges are yet to be framed in the case, and scrapping Article 370 hasn’t helped speed up the process. Two of Shujat’s bodyguards were also killed, more statistics to add to the count.
In simple sub-editor terms, the headline is “US State Department pulls up India for human rights abuses.” The report, in addition to media muzzling, also identifies torture, arbitrary arrest and detention among the rights abuses in India. It highlights the fact that a lack of accountability persists at all levels. Lax law enforcement and shortage of trained police officers find mention as also “overburdened and under-resourced court system.” Unlawful and arbitrary killings, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, excessive curbs on NGOs and widespread corruption figure in the report.
But, while the Modi Government is at the receiving end this year, the reality is the US State Department has been equally dismissive of non-NDA governments. Judging India on the human rights pendulum has been a favourite yearly pastime of US administrations, both Democratic and Republican. Among the abuses that bother the State Department are unjustified arrests and not allowing access to “mainland India.” That said, the report tries to balance by taking note of the serious crimes committed by terrorists in Jammu& Kashmir, the northeast and Maoist-infested areas. And that includes killings and torture of armed forces personnel. The report gives credit to the Modi Government for the steps it has taken to normalize J&K. Overall it’s a report packed with negatives about the Modi regime and the ruling establishment can ignore the observations only at its own peril. (IPA Service)