Recent raids by the Central Bureau of Investigation on the homes and offices of human rights lawyers Anand Grover and Indira Jaising are deeply worrying. Together with their organisation, Lawyer’s Collective formed in 1981, Grover and Jaising have frequently used India’s courts to seek justice for victims of major rights violations such as the Union Carbide Bhopal gas leak, 1984 Delhi riots and 2002 Gujarat riots. Lawyer’s Collective has also played a key role in the passing of legislation to address violence against women and sexual harassment at the workplace.
This is not the first time that outspoken rights advocates and their organisations have been targeted in India. Nonetheless, for the country’s premier investigation agency to go after Lawyer’s Collective for alleged violations of the discretion riddled Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) which has been discredited by UN experts, might be a step too far in a country that claims to be the world’s largest democracy.
Many in the independent media and civil society had hoped that following the decisive electoral victory of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the May elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government might want to focus on safeguarding constitutional democracy and the differences of opinion that go with it, now that its electoral prospects were not as risk for the next five years.
By all accounts, the last five years have not been happy ones for those seeking to promote social cohesion in India. Lawyer’s Collective is just one of India’s many NGOs that have faced the heat in their quest to enable the realisation of aspirational constitutional values of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity.
Committed human rights defenders and critics of official policies have been labelled as threats to national security, five-star activists, urban Maoists and worse. Many are facing highly questionable criminal charges while others have had their organisations starved of international funding through the FCRA. All of this has happened while rules to collect foreign donations for political parties have been loosened and foreign direct investment in the private sector encouraged.
India’s diplomats have long touted the strength of its institutions and vibrant civil society as proof of democratic credentials in international forums even as debates have raged at home on the political commitment of national governments to protect minorities and excluded populations from harm by religious fundamentalists and casteists.
Civil society organisations countering hate and discrimination have often found themselves being hounded rather than protected by law enforcement agencies. The 2018 Press Freedom Index ranks India at a lowly 140 out of 180 jurisdictions covered.
In the recently concluded national elections, the very idea of India appeared to be at stake. The ruling party wanted to project an image of a country on the move where military and economic power is underpinned by majoritarian religious and cultural traditions. Protection of the cow and the river Ganga, sacred to Hindus, were injected into the political debate.
At the heart of the election was a contestation between believers in the constitutional commitment to secularism, supported by organisations such as Lawyer’s Collective, and those who want to believe that modern India’s accommodation of religious and ethnic diversity is a liability.
These debates are of course not unique to India. They are taking place in many parts of the world, including in the United States where crudity is fast being normalised in politics.
Many are finding common cause with US President Trump’s rhetoric against Muslims, ethnic minorities and subaltern populations as well as his selective invocation of religious values. The US administration has passed a ‘global gag rule’ that essentially prevents foreign groups that receive US funding from advocating for abortion rights or providing abortion-related services, which can have severe impacts on women’s sexual and reproductive health.
Like India and the US, constitutional democracies around the world are grappling with the erosion of civil discourse and pluralist politics. This is something that was acutely noticed in the elections in Indonesia, in April this year. Disinformation through social media, religious populism and attacks on the country’s Christian minority were all in play. The opposition candidate and the incumbent president both veered dangerously to the right and towards religious fundamentalism.
In times of polarising politics, exclusionary discourses once out in the open are hard to dial down. Civil society activists often bear the brunt due to their focus on inclusive societies and justice for victims.
A new crop of abrasive political leaders appear determined to roll back hard-won rights victories. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro stood on an anti-rights platform that was particularly aggressive towards the rights of women, LGBTQI+ and indigenous peoples. Earlier this year he signed a decree giving his government enhanced powers to monitor and supervise the activities of international organisations and NGOs.
Even the European Union, which has binding human rights and governance criteria for its member states and has been is struggling to uphold its fundamental values. In Hungary, Italy and Poland, civil society organisations and activists have faced criticism and attacks from official authorities for their work in promoting human rights and humanitarian values. Nonetheless, this is not a natural or desirable state of affairs. When civil society is targeted, the fight against corruption, discrimination and impunity is weakened. Ultimately, democracy suffers and people’s rights are eroded.
Inarguably, India’s civil society adds strength to its democracy. When constitutional rights were suspended during the infamous Emergency of 1975-1977, many of the current crop of BJP leaders faced imprisonment and persecution by the then Congress government. Human rights lawyers and civil society organisations stepped in to defend their rights vigorously in the courts and in the streets.
An organisation like Lawyers Collective, with its history of promoting constitutional values, should be celebrated rather than attacked. It’s vigorous legal challenge to foreign pharmaceutical industry to ensure affordable access to life-saving medicines in India and work to promote the rights of LGBTQI+ individuals has inspired people and organisations around the world.
Notably, events taking place in India are being closely watched in other parts. Last month, several international organisations published a letter lamenting the criminal charges against members of Lawyer’s Collective. With the election firmly behind it, the BJP government now has an opportunity to repair some of the damage caused to civil society while strengthening the country’s democratic credentials at home and abroad.
Following the successful election, Modi spoke of creating a ‘New India’. As the country celebrates 150 years of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth, could this New India reinforce the values of inclusion and compassion promoted by civil society and for which the Mahatma lived and died? Observing present trends, perhaps not – but then again, anything’s possible, especially if Modi wants to sanitise his international image and build a legacy as a nation-builder rather than a nation-breaker.
Mandeep Tiwana is the chief programmes officer at CIVICUS, the global civil society alliance. He is based at CIVICUS’s New York office.