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Over 100 Defenders of Civil Liberties, Human Rights Raise Concerns Over Totalitarian Shift in India

The convention was addressed by former J&K chief minister Omar Abdullah, senior Congress leaders Salman Khurshid and Manish Tewari, CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury and MP Kapil Sibal, among others.

New Delhi: A group of over a hundred civil society members, human rights defenders, former civil servants, media professionals, and academics convened on February 10 and 11 to voice their concerns about the escalating shift towards totalitarianism in India.

The convention highlighted measures to tackle leading issues, such as unemployment, especially amongst youth and women, stem the tide of majoritarian communalism, safeguard constitutional rights and the autonomy of statutory institutions, strengthen the federal contract and promote equality and social justice.

The two-day Democracy Convention 2024 was addressed by former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah, senior Congress leaders Salman Khurshid and Manish Tewari, Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury, MP Kapil Sibal, CPI-M Kashmir leader Mohamad Yusuf Tarigami, and spokesman of the Peoples Democratic Party, Suhail Bukhari.

Among the proposals put forth by the Democracy Convention were calls to review the new Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita, and Bharatiya Sakshya Bills, which allow arrest on mere suspicion and broaden the definition of terrorism to include peaceful protests, such as roadblocks.

Additionally, it recommended the repeal of draconian legislations like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) and Jammu and Kashmir’s Public Safety Act (PSA).

According to the press release, the convention urged refraining from deploying armed forces in internal conflicts, endorsing the 1951 recommendation that the Preventive Detention Act (PDA) should only apply during a state of war, and reaffirming bail as the norm, with exceptions only for the rarest of offences.

Furthermore, the convention demanded a comprehensive overhaul of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA), citing its alleged use for targeting critics of the government.

It also called on the government to provide a legal guarantee of minimum support price (MSP) and implement recommendations from the Swaminathan Commission, advocating for the expansion of MSP to various crops to ensure income security and promote crop diversification.

Other key proposals included strict adherence to the 1992 Places of Worship Act with the 1947 cutoff date and the enactment of a comprehensive domestic anti-discrimination law, safeguarding citizens against discrimination across various fields and repealing the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019.

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Reproduced below is the full text of the press release:

Democracy Convention 2024

Press Release

On February 10-11, 2024, over a hundred members of civil society groups, human rights defenders, former civil servants, media professionals and academics came together to express their distress at the increasingly totalitarian direction in which our country is being led.

The convention highlighted measures to tackle leading issues such as unemployment, especially amongst youth and women, stem the tide of majoritarian communalism, safeguard constitutional rights and the autonomy of statutory institutions, strengthen the federal contract and promote equality and social justice. It was addressed by former Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir Omar Abdullah, senior Congress leaders Salman Khurshid and Manish Tewari, CPI-M General-Secretary Sitaram Yechury, MP Kapil Sibal CPI-M Kashmir leader Md. Yusuf Tarigami, and spokesman of the PDP, Suhail Bukhari.

Key convention proposals include:

  • Seek a review of the new Bharatiya Nyaya Sanhita, the Bharatiya Nagarik Suraksha Sanhita and the Bharatiya Sakshya bill, which allow arrest on mere suspicion and expand the definition of terrorism to include even peaceful protests, eg roadblocks.
  • Repeal draconian legislation such as the UAPA, including Jammu and Kashmir’s PSA. Refrain from deploying the armed forces in internal conflicts. Adopt the 1951 recommendation that the PDA should only apply during a state of war; re-affirm that bail must be a norm (any exception must be for the rarest of rare offences).
  • Seek a complete overhaul of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, 2002 (PMLA) which is used for targeting critics of the government and its politics.
  • Give a legal guarantee of MSP and implement the Swaminathan commission. Expand MSP to a range of crops (pulses, oilseeds, millets) for assured income, encouraging crop diversification and procurement of diverse local food baskets for PDS/MDMS/ICDS.
  • Strictly adhere to the 1992 Places of Worship Act with the cut-off date of 1947.
  • Enact a comprehensive domestic anti-discrimination law, that protects citizens against discrimination on grounds of sex, caste, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, or across intersections of these identities, in a range of fields including employment, education, housing, health care. Establish a Diversity Commission. Repeal the CAA 2019.
  • Support independent fact-checkers and build a collaboration between them and media houses; encourage close cooperation between them. Remove access-related restrictions on the media for parliament coverage and the reporting of government ministries.
  • Restore the autonomy of the ECI, CBI, ED; fully staff oversight institutions through an independent appointment process; work towards creation of an all-India judicial service.
  • Seek enactment of The Political Parties (Registration and Regulation of Affairs) Bill, drafted in 2011.
  • Seek repeal of The Chief Election Commissioner and Other Election Commissioners (Appointment, Conditions of Service and Term of Office) Act, 2023, and replacement of the government appointee on the selection committee with the chief justice of India. The ECI should return to its opposition of electoral bonds.
  • Strengthen the RTI regime and undo the regressive amendments made to the RTI Act in 2019 and 2023.
  • Amend the Lokpal and Lokayuktas Act to include the leader of the single largest party in the selection committee; provide for setting up of Lokayuktas in states with the same framework as the Lokpal at the centre; vest administrative control of the anti-corruption wing of the CBI in the Lokpal.
  • Roll-back regressive amendments made to the Prevention of Corruption Act.
  • Measures such as One Nation, One Election undermine India’s federal structure. Disband the Ramnath Kovind committee.
  • Repeal the National Capital Territory of Delhi (Amdt) Act, 2023. Adhere to Article 3: no alteration to states borders without consultation of the state’s people through their elected representatives; immediately restore Jammu and Kashmir’s statehood and hold assembly elections.
  • Appoint governors only in consultation with chief ministers and remove them only following a resolution by the state legislature (1988 Sarkaria commission and 2010 M.M. Punchhi).
  • Reconsider The Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management (FRBM) limit. Amend Article 293(3) of the Indian Constitution to remove the requirement of Central Government permission to borrow.  Tamil Nadu’s 1969 Rajamannar committee’s recommendation that states have residuary fiscal powers deserves reconsideration.
  • Depute a fact-finding mission composed of parliamentarians and civil society representatives to propose peace-building mechanisms in the legislature and to the Manipur administration, such as a halt to violence, initiation of dialogue, control over the proliferation of arms and ammunition.
  • Oppose the fencing of the border with Myanmar, which is extremely unpopular in bordering states such as Mizoram. Consult with the chief ministers of the north-eastern states, as suggested by the Nagaland CM.
  • Review all changes in textbooks and curriculum introduced over the past decade and removing anything introduced which is not supported by evidence or argument.
  • Promote cultural activities that encourage fraternity between religious and language-based communities. (eg Ganga-Jamuna Tehzeeb, the commonality of several Indian languages, etc.). Revive the Sahitya Akademi’s principle of encouraging regional and local language literature and exchange.
  • Conduct State-wide surveys of DNTs, NTs and SNTs; Create skilling and re-skilling programs for DNT youth; Accept and implement the recommendations of the 2008 Renake Commission.
  • Include the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act 1989 and its amendment in 2015 in the Ninth Schedule of the Constitution; establish mandatory exclusive special courts under section 14 of the SCST (PoA) and implement rule 4(5) to appoint public prosecutors of the victim’s choice.
  • Implement community forest rights under The Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006.
  • Repeal the 2023 amendment of the Forest Conservation Act, which threatens to be the most destructive of all the decisions made regarding forests and the environment so far.
  • Improve, expand and strengthen the MNREGA. Increase wages to Rs 500 per day; revoke the Aadhaar-based Mandatory Payment System; ensure timely payment of wages and transfer of funds from the centre to states.
  • Create an Urban Employment Guarantee, specifically for women workers. Provide policy packages specifically tailored to MSMEs with special incentives for employment of youth.
  • Enact a Comprehensive Law for informal workers, extending core labour standards to all segments of working people. Ensure tripartite agreements with aggregators, government and workers to ensure social security and basic working conditions of gig workers.
  • Provide a Life-Cycle Social Protection Floor (Sampoorn Samajik Suraksha) that gives universal access to social protection (with minimal exclusion criteria).
  • Legislate a public health bill making health a human right and incorporating safeguards against discrimination and denial of care on account of caste, gender, ailments like HIV, sexual preferences (MSM and LGBT) or lifestyle choices (sex workers).
  • Reverse the decision to clear hundreds of hectares of forest in the pristine island of Great Nicobar to build a container terminal.
  • End indiscriminate construction, particularly in the fragile Himalayas.

Convenor

Sd/ Radha Kumar