Amnesty criticizes India for intolerance of dissent

NEW DELHI - Amnesty International has joined a growing international chorus accusing India of supporting a climate of intolerance by cracking down on dissent through arbitrary arrests, caste-based discrimination, extrajudicial killings and attacks on freedom of expression.

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The rights group said in its annual international report, published Wednesday, that India's Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi had failed to prevent hundreds of incidents of communal violence, usually involving members of the Hindu majority pitted against Muslims or other minorities. Instead, ruling party lawmakers and politicians were fueling religious tensions with provocative speeches and justifications for the violence, it said.

Amnesty's report also highlights the government's continued harassment of civil society groups critical of official policies over the past year, as well as government legal action aimed at controlling foreign funds for nongovernmental organizations.

"Over 3,200 people were being held in January under administrative detention on executive orders without charge or trial," the report said, adding that state authorities used "anti-terror" laws to illegally hold activists and protesters in custody.

The report is the latest criticism to be levelled at Modi's government after a year fraught with communal tension as members of India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party try to impose their brand of hyper-nationalism.

Dozens of Indian authors, scientists, historians and film industry workers have returned national awards to protest the trend, which has seen arrests of student protesters, the murder of three atheist scholars and mob killings over rumours of cow slaughter. Among India's majority Hindu population, cows are considered sacred.

On Monday, both the New York Times and Le Monde newspapers ran editorials lambasting Modi's government. The Times editorial board said the ongoing confrontation between Hindu nationalists and free-speech advocates "raises serious concerns about Modi's governance and may further stall any progress in Parliament on economic reforms."

Last week, a group of 133 university professors from around the world - including linguist Noam Chomsky, Nobel-winning novelist Orphan Pamuk and economist James Galbraith - said the recent arrest of a student leader on sedition charges "is further evidence of the present government's deeply authoritarian nature, intolerant of any dissent, setting aside India's longstanding commitment to toleration and plurality of opinion."

Modi and his government have remained largely unmoved by the criticism, saying little in response other than to denounce it as anti-government propaganda designed to distract from the government's agenda. Meanwhile, Modi has insisted he is prime minister for all of India, and not just Hindus, and urged the nation to instead focus on growing the economy.

The Amnesty report also said that prisoner safety remained a serious concern, and that "over 282,000 prisoners - 68 per cent of the total prison population - were pretrial detainees." Most prisons are badly overcrowded, while torture and abuse in police or judicial custody led the country's Supreme Court last year to demand that state governments install closed-circuit television cameras within the next two years.

It questioned the Indian Parliament's defeat of legislation to decriminalize same-sex relations, noting that the country was still adhering to a colonial-era law that makes homosexuality a crime punishable by up to a decade in prison.


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