Last Tuesday, 19 January, a delegation of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in connection with the incarceration of Father Stan Swamy, a priest and Jharkhand-based tribal rights, by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), presumably seeking some sort of intercession.
Modi told them, going by the book, that the NIA was an independent agency and he could not intervene in the case, though he was aware of it and sympathetic. As well he might be. Swamy is 83 years old, has been charged under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act and has been in prison for over a hundred days. The sympathy factor should be considerably enhanced by the fact that the priest, who suffers from Parkinson’s disease, was denied a sipper and a straw which he needs to have liquids for a period of time while this simple humanitarian request did the rounds between the courts and the jail authorities.
Swamy is one of 16 people charged and imprisoned pending trial in the Bhima Koregaon/Elgar Parishad case. The background merits revisiting. On 31 December 2017 an organisation called the Elgar Parishad held a couple of meetings in Pune at which speeches were delivered and cultural events staged, mostly in support of tribal rights and denunciation of the exploitation of tribal communities. The politics of the Sangh parivar, intricately woven into these, were also criticised.
On 1 January 2018, tribal people met at Bhima-Koregaon to celebrate the bicentenary of the victory in battle of a Dalit Mahar regiment alongside British troops over an army of the Brahmin Peshwas, then the custodians of the Maratha empire. The celebrant tribal people were set upon by Sangh parivar storm troopers instigated by Milind Ekbote, a Hindu activist and leader, and a Hindutva eminence grise known as Sambhaji Bhide or “Guruji”, who is reportedly close to the prime minister.
The Pune police zeroed in on them but made pitiful attempts at investigation. Bhide was never even questioned, while Ekbote was held only after the Supreme Court passed strictures against the police. In a curious turn, all the investigations into the Sangh parivar’s role in inciting riots were dropped and over the passage of a little over two years the 16 people were arrested on a number of charges, including involvement with the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist) and, farcically, involvement in a plot to assassinate Modi.
Some points are of particular interest: first, almost all those arrested, activists, lawyers, academics and cultural figures, have been deeply involved with defending the rights of the underprivileged in general and tribal people in particular; second, though many, including Swamy, were charged with attending the Elgar Parishad events, these have not been shown to have any connection with the riots that followed the Sangh parivar attacks of 1 January 2018; three, manifestly, many of those arrested, again including Swamy, did not attend the Elgar Parishad events, nor were anywhere in the vicinity of Bhima-Koregaon on 1 January 2018.
Finally, to return to Modi’s sanctimonious play-it-by-the-book excuse, the Bhima Koregaon case, prosecuted diligently by the previous Maharashtra government headed by the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) Devendra Fadnavis, was abruptly transferred to the NIA, when the BJP government took a toss and the Maha Vikas Aghadi dispensation of the Shiv Sena, Nationalist Congress Party and Congress took over. There are fresh suggestions now that the case might be reviewed by the state government. Though at the Centre no compunction had obviously been felt in perpetrating a gross abuse of power in what is becoming more and more a nominal federation.
The incessant human rights abuses committed by the current BJP regime run for all practical purposes by Modi and Union Home Minister Amit Shah has, however, been attracting the attention of multilateral bodies and other democracies. Most lately, on 15 January, a United Nations body censured the Indian government. Mary Lawlor, UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, was forthright in her criticism.
“India is a State which does not properly protect human rights defenders. I am appalled by the treatment of human rights defenders such as Father Stan Swamy,” Lawlor said at an event marking the 100th day since Swamy’s arrest. “The Working Group on Arbitrary Detention and I had written to the Indian government in November raising concerns over the arrest of human rights activists including Stan Swamy in connection with the Bhima Koregaon case but have not received any response,” she said. Governments are expected to reply in 60 days.
Lawlor could have been more forthright. She could have said, with considerable justification, that not only does this regime “not properly protect human rights defenders”, it persecutes them systematically and with venom. As for the reply Lawlor failed to receive, it would likely have been the stock response dusted off the shelves: These are internal matters; no one has the right to interfere.
But the ball game can get a little more treacherous at times. On 12 January, British MPs across party lines laid into India’s human rights record, including some from the Conservative Party, traditionally seen as well attuned to Indian susceptibilities. The persecution of Muslims, Christians and other minorities were flagged, especially in regard to the National Register of Citizens, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, the spread of anti-conversion laws and the targeting of Sikhs in connection with the farmers’ agitation.
“Violations of freedom of religious belief lead to domestic conflict, which is good neither for India’s economic prosperity, nor for the chances of a stable long-term trading relationship between India and the UK,” said Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP Jim Shannon, during the debate. He also urged the UK government to “ensure that robust human rights provisions are included in any future trade deal”.
Neither Shannon nor the DUP can be said to represent anything but a fringe view. And, in fact, Labour MP Barry Gardiner, a Padma Shri awardee, made the reasonable point that people in India might not welcome this intervention.
But the fact that it happened cannot be lightly dismissed, especially since it almost coincided with a report published on 11 January by the influential think tank Chatham House, which did not have too many kind words for India. While clubbing India with difficult regimes like those in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, it urged a “shift in strategic focus”, with realistic goals about developing deeper ties with New Delhi.
While it admitted that India’s importance to the UK is “inescapable”, it flagged several concerns both in the arenas of economic policy and domestic policies. It made special mention of the “overt Hindu nationalism of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party [which] is weakening the rights of Muslims and other minority groups, leading to a chorus of concern that intolerant majoritarianism is replacing the vision of a secular, democratic India bequeathed by Nehru”.
These criticisms can be met by the same response: Don’t meddle in our internal affairs. But if international condemnation reaches a critical mass, this response won’t cut much ice. We have already seen that India’s record prevents it from flagging human rights issues in multilateral fora. That is probably why the report cautions UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson about including India in the proposed D10 group of democratic regimes.
We all know how flawed the democracies in the United Kingdom and the United States are in respect of racism. We also know foreign policy and geopolitics do not respect moral positions, but we also know that India must return to some of its core liberal values, however compromised.
The author is a freelance journalist and researcher. The views are personal.