Independent watchdog says Delhi must release political detainees; hold the right to free speech; restore full internet access
India’s ongoing “harsh and discriminatory restrictions” on Muslim-majority areas of India-held Jammu and Kashmir are violating basic rights despite the passage of a year since Delhi abrogated the disputed region’s special constitutional status, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
“Indian government claims that it was determined to improve Kashmiri lives ring hollow one year after the revocation of Jammu and Kashmir’s constitutional status,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The authorities instead have maintained stifling restraints on Kashmiris in violation of their basic rights,” she added.
“Even as the pandemic is forcing the world to address discrimination and inequality, the Indian government is persisting with its repression of Kashmiri Muslims,” she said. “The government should reverse its abusive policies and provide remedies for those whose rights were violated.”
The statement read that the government’s restraints on rights to free speech, access to information, health care, and education had intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, and noted that authorities had restricted movement for two days to prevent “violent protests” against last year’s decision to revoke constitutional autonomy.
The human rights watchdog said that while the government had eased some restrictions, hundreds of people remained detained without charge and critics were threatened with arrest even as access to the internet remained extremely limited.
Summarizing some of the rights abuses perpetrated by Delhi in India-held Jammu and Kashmir, Human Rights Watch said prominent political leaders had been detained to prevent protests and 144 children had been taken into custody. Acknowledging that most of those detained had since been released, it said more than 400 people still remained under arrest under the “draconian Public Safety Act, which permits detention without trial for up to two years.”
It also highlighted allegations of new arrests, torture, and ill-treatment by security forces. “On June 29, 2020, the authorities accused Mubeen Shah, a businessman, of sedition after he criticized the government for attempting to alter the Muslim-majority demographic status of Jammu and Kashmir by lifting residency restrictions,” it said.
It also noted ongoing cases against journalists over reportage India had classified as “anti-national” and slammed a new media policy that empowers authorities to decide what is “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities” and to take punitive action against media outlets, journalists, and editors. This measure, warned Human Rights Watch, “contains vague and overbroad provisions that are open to abuse and could unnecessarily restrict and penalize legally protected speech.” It said that international law only allows for restrictions on freedom of expression for “legitimate” purposes such as the protection of national security, public health, or the rights of others.
The watchdog said that the government’s ongoing crackdown had adversely affected livelihoods, particularly in the tourism-dependent Kashmir Valley. “The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries estimated that the first three months of a lockdown to prevent protests since August 2019 cost the economy over $2.4 billion, for which no redress has been provided,” it said, adding that losses have nearly doubled due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
Referring specifically to the pandemic, Human Rights Watchdog said the internet was “crucial for information, communication, education, and business.” However, it said, authorities are still only permitting slow-speed 2G mobile internet services in the valley. It said healthcare workers had complained that this was hurting the COVID-19 response, as they did not have access to the latest information on the threat.
“The impact on education has been particularly severe,” the Human Rights Forum for Jammu and Kashmir noted in its report on human rights violations since August 2019.
Noting that the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights had repeatedly voiced concern about human rights violations in India-held Jammu and Kashmir, the watchdog said: “Indian authorities should take immediate steps to protect rights by releasing political detainees; upholding the right to free speech, including by withdrawing cases against journalists and activists; restoring full internet access; and holding to account officials responsible for rights violations.”
India, on Aug. 5, 2019, revoked India-held Jammu and Kashmir’s special constitutional status and imposed restrictions to prevent locals from protesting against the decision. It has since enacted into law measures that critics claim seek to change the demographic makeup of the disputed region by allowing non-locals to obtain domiciles from it.