Release India’s Political Prisoners

Since reaching power, Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party has jailed political critics using bogus terrorism and incitement charges. But an electoral setback for his party offers hope of change in India and a crack in his authoritarian Hindutva order.

Police officers standing in front of a poster of Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally in Agra, Uttar Pradesh, India, on April 25, 2024. (Prakash Singh / Bloomberg via Getty Images)

In the last four years, Indian student leader Umar Khalid has moved his application for bail over a dozen times. Shunted from the low Delhi courts all the way up to the Supreme Court, he has been hit repeatedly with delayed hearings or outright denial of bail, leaving him indefinitely behind bars.

Khalid was arrested in September 2020 over allegations of being part of a “larger conspiracy” to ignite deadly riots in the capital city New Delhi, which resulted in the deaths of over fifty people, most of them Muslims lynched in the streets by Hindu mobs. Saddled with charges ranging from “promoting enmity” to “terrorism,” the police have used his public speeches as evidence to prove the charge of incitement.

A look at what he actually said makes these claims rather dubious. One such speech, delivered in Maharashtra in February 2020, urged people not to respond to violence with violence, or hate with hate. “If they spread hate, we will respond to it by spreading love. If they beat us with lathis (police truncheons), we will hold aloft the tricolor (Indian flag). If they fire bullets, then we will hold the Constitution and raise our hands. . . . But we will not let you destroy our country,” he told the crowd, calling on his fellow Indians to peacefully protest the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), a discriminatory law that experts fear could be weaponized to strip millions of Muslim Indians of their citizenship.

But in the eyes of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, it was a seditious speech. The only fitting consequence was turn Khalid into an example for other protesters.

But Khalid isn’t the only prisoner of conscience in Modi’s India. There are hundreds of people like him, locked behind bars as political prisoners. In the ten years since Modi came to power, he has decimated Indian democracy by punishing journalists, members of civil society, activists, students, and lawyers for criticizing him, his government, and his Hindu supremacist ideology.

Fact-checking government propaganda, reporting on a story that reveals the suffering of minorities, attempting to secure justice for victims of Hindu nationalist violence or state brutality: all of these acts can land a person in jail on terrorism charges, with scant chances of a fair trial and bail.

Anti-Terror Law

Modi has carried out this crackdown largely through the use of one draconian anti-terror law: the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Introduced by a Congress-led government in 2008 but heavily amended by Modi in 2019 to cover individuals and not just organizations, it allows the government to prosecute civilians for terrorism without any real evidence. It also makes obtaining bail nearly impossible, meaning people charged under the UAPA can spend years in prison without being found guilty of a single crime.

Rarely is this law used to implicate Hindu supremacists, including violent cow vigilantes who weaponize the belief that cows are sacred in Hinduism and regularly attack and lynch Muslims over suspicion of buying or selling beef. Nor is the law applied to Hindu militias who participate in mob attacks and property destruction against Muslims and other minorities. Instead, the UAPA is leveled against these same groups simply for exercising their basic rights to free speech and dissent.

This discrimination is obvious in the way the UAPA was deployed liberally against Muslims who peacefully protested the CAA. Along with Khalid, a number of other young Muslim men and women were arrested in 2020. One of them, student activist Safoora Zargar, was three months pregnant when she was arrested, and was denied adequate medical care while in prison. Similarly, activist Gulfisha Fatima has been languishing in a Delhi prison since April 2020 for leading anti-CAA protests; while another activist, Sharjeel Imam, has been imprisoned since January 2020 under charges of inciting violence, repeatedly denied bail, and reportedly assaulted in prison by other inmates.

The UAPA is also frequently weaponized against activists and journalists in the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir, which has been the center of human rights abuses for decades. In 2021, Kashmiri human rights defender and Rafto Prize winner Khurram Parvez was arrested on charges of “terrorism funding” and “waging war against the state” — charges other activists believe were the result of his extensive work documenting the human rights abuses in Kashmir. Though his arrest sparked international outrage — to the point where the United Nations high commissioner for human rights demanded his release — the Indian government has ignored calls to free him.

Perhaps the most personal example of Modi’s vendetta against his critics is the imprisonment of whistleblower Sanjiv Bhatt. A former Indian police official, Bhatt is the sole surviving witness to Modi’s role in orchestrating the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, during which Hindu militant mobs slaughtered around two thousand Muslim women, children, and men. In 2011, Bhatt filed an affidavit in the Indian Supreme Court reporting that Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, had ordered law enforcement not to intervene in the horrific bloodshed.

After Modi became prime minister in 2014, he retaliated against Bhatt with a vengeance. Bhatt was dismissed from service in 2015, and his offices, along with part of his family’s home, were demolished as punitive measures. In 2018, Bhatt was arrested in a thirty-year-old custodial death case in which he had no involvement, falsely convicted in 2019, and sentenced to life in prison. Modi is effectively trying to bury the canary alive in the coal mine.

There are those who do make it out of prison. But in one harrowing case, imprisonment under the UAPA became a death sentence. In 2018, violent clashes broke out between Dalits and Hindu militant groups in Bhima Koregaon, a village in Maharashtra state. Instead of arresting any militants, police in the state arrested sixteen eminent activists, academics, and lawyers over the next two years — all of whom were involved in civil rights work supporting marginalized Dalits and tribal Adivasi communities. Police planted false evidence on the activists’ electronic devices to implicate them in the violence, leading to the group being slapped with terrorism charges under the UAPA.

Among them was Father Stan Swamy, an elderly Christian human rights defender who was arrested in 2020, making him the oldest person to be charged under the UAPA. Swamy suffered from Parkinson’s disease, and his health only deteriorated after his arrest. Despite this, he was shown no mercy: he was not only denied bail for health reasons but also for simple items like a sipper cup and straw. He died of cardiac arrest in 2021, still behind bars.

Election Setback

There must not be another prisoner of conscience subjected to the cruelty of death in prison like Swamy. Fortunately, there is hope that figures like Khalid, Parvez, Bhatt, Imam and others can still walk free. In the first week of June, India concluded its latest general election — which did not result in the clean sweep the BJP was hoping for. Modi and his party are now short of a majority, making them reliant on small regional parties for government formation. These regional parties, which tend to be more secular in their outlook, can provide a check on the Modi government’s ability to carry out its vendetta against critics.

The loss of Modi’s electoral majority presents a crucial opportunity to free these prisoners of conscience. The government has been able to ignore international pressure before, but with India’s more secular opposition now better positioned to hold it to account, it is imperative that this pressure should increase. India’s democratic allies and global human rights groups alike should be insisting on the release of all prisoners of conscience. This must be the beginning of the end of Modi’s decade-long crackdown on his critics.