Global Monitor Downgrades India's Civic Space Rating to 'Repressed'

CIVICUS Monitor has pointed the finger at the increased restriction of space for dissent, particularly after the reelection of Narendra Modi.

New Delhi: CIVICUS Monitor, a global research collaboration which rates and tracks respect for fundamental freedoms, has downgraded India’s civic space rating to ‘repressed’ from ‘obstructed’. In a report, the monitor has said that there has been an increased restriction of space for dissent during the year, particularly after the reelection of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The 2019 version of the annual report released by the monitor says that the repressed rating for civic space means that democratic freedoms such as the freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly and association are significantly constrained in India.

“Given the size and global role of India, the decline in the quality of its civic space must be of particular concern,” CIVICUS said. It said that the country’s rating has been downgraded due to the “increased restriction of space for dissent during 2019 and particularly following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s re-election in May 2019”.

It cited attacks on activists and journalists, while also flagging the use of sedition and “other restrictive laws such as the National Security Act and Unlawful Activities Prevention Act” against students, academics and activists to “silence critics of the government”.

It mentioned, in particular, the arrest of academic Anand Teltumbde in February 2019 and the crackdown on students at Allahabad University, which left activist Richa Singh in hospital.

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“The Indian government has continued to use the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act to restrict and bar foreign funding or to investigate critical CSOs such as Lawyers Collective, a CSO co-founded by human rights defenders and lawyers Indira Jaising and Anand Grover,” the report says.

The continuing clampdown in the Kashmir Valley was also a factor in the downgrading of India’s rating, the monitor said. “Hundreds of political activists, human rights defenders and community leaders have been detained or put on a non-fly list and a communications blockade has been imposed,” the report says.

Only 3% live in countries with open civic space

The monitor’s data places 24 countries in the “closed” civic space category, the lowest rating, followed by 38 countries with “repressed” space and 49 with “obstructed” space. “Just 43 countries receive an open rating, and 42 countries are rated narrowed. Since our previous report, published in November 2018, space for activism has reduced: only three per cent of the world’s population now live in countries with open civic space,” the monitor said.

Most nations in South Asia, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar, have repressed civic spaces, according to CIVICUS’s index. China has a ‘closed’ civic space, while Sri Lanka and Bhutan have an ‘obstructed’ civic space.

In a press release, CIVICUS said that the rating changed after a “thorough assessment of the state of civic freedoms in the country and comes after a year of regular monitoring”. “The CIVICUS Monitor is extremely concerned about the crackdown on human rights activists, attacks on journalists and civil society groups, and the lockdown on civic freedoms in Indian administered Jammu and Kashmir,” the press release said.

Josef Benedict, civic space researcher for the monitor, said that the Modi government seems to be turning its back on civic freedoms by going after its critics, including activists and journalists. “The deterioration of India’s civic space is alarming – particularly its assault on freedom of expression using an array of restrictive laws – and its attempts to impede human rights groups,” he added.

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On the government’s “hostile” attitude towards human rights NGOs, the group said that the “draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act” has been used to stop foreign funding and investigate organisations that are critical of the government. Here, it cited the raids conducted at the offices of Lawyers Collective, Amnesty International and Greenpeace.

The monitor is “extremely concerned about the clampdown on civic space in Kashmir”, after the Centre on August 5 revoked the special status of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated it into two Union Territories. “A blanket communications blockade was imposed. In the protests that followed, excessive use of force was used to disperse protesters and prominent leaders in the region were put under house arrest or placed on a no-fly list,” the press release says.

A policeman stands guard outside a bunker alongside a road in Srinagar, October 31, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Danish Ismail

“The people of Jammu & Kashmir have long suffered violations of their fundamental freedoms. Instead of ensuring justice and accountability for these abuses, the government has resorted to increasing its repression with arbitrary detentions and restrictions on access to information,” the report adds.

Over twenty organisations collaborate on the CIVICUS Monitor to provide an evidence base for action to improve civic space on all continents. The Monitor has posted more than 536 civic space updates in the last year, which are analysed in People Power Under Attack 2019. Civic space in 196 countries is categorized as either closed, repressed, obstructed, narrowed or open, based on a methodology which combines several sources of data on the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression.