“Adopted in the First National Convention of People’s Commission on Shrinking Democratic Space held in New Delhi on May 21-22, 2016”
The political climate in India, as has emerged over the past few years presents a serious challenge in that it clearly fosters an aggressive and intolerant public sphere wherein existing civil society space is fast shrinking, akin to what was experienced and witnessed during the time of emergency. A dangerous discourse legitimised by both State and several non-State actors has gained credence, a discourse that alleges that human rights defenders, who are working to ensure justice and dignity for victims of past and ongoing violations and abuses, for already-marginalised, discriminated and struggling populations and communities, constitute a serious threat to the ‘national interest.’ These forces have fostered an antagonistic attitude towards human rights defenders: instead of accepting that HRDs are partners to the deepening of in a democracy, in which task the articulation of human rights violations and necessary dissent is part, an attitude of open and aggressive hostility has been adopted towards them. This has gone hand in hand with a systematic dilution of laws and practices meant to ensure justice for already-marginalised communities and populations.
As a direct consequence, these defenders are now subjected to a growing number of overt and covert acts of intimidation and violence all across India, preventing them from carrying on with their activities. Recent instances of attacks indicate a new pattern of retaliation both from State and non-state actors who range from organisations affiliated to ruling dispensations, to intolerant religio-political formations, to vigilantes targeting sexual minorities, to outfits justifying institutionalised discrimination and to mafias allegedly promoted by corporates indulging in land grabbing and environmental degradation. These instances assume the form of criminalisation, violations by law enforcement agencies and abuses by private actors with whom these agencies often brazenly collude.
Thus, human rights defenders and members of their families are facing threats to their personal and physical security. They are being profiled, harassed, intimidated, ill-treated and subjected to hateful abuse in the media. Their physical security and lives have been threatened in a systematic manner. They are arbitrarily arrested or detained and a number of cases filed against them, their offices raided and files stolen or confiscated; and in extreme cases, they are tortured, made to disappear or even killed. HRDs are the victims of State repression, often charged with fabricated cases, with instances of the State manipulating the judiciary, and have also been witnessing direct threats of authoritarianism, fascism and majoritarian Hindu nationalism.
Some recent instances demonstrate that those strong dissenting voices have found the freedom of expression, association and assembly of not just human rights defenders, but also of writers, artists and certain sections of the media are severely curtailed or threatened.
Some of them face increasing surveillance, through, for example phone-tapping, by state agencies, of their telephones and electronic surveillance of their mails and postings of social networking sites where they are also trolled and subject to hateful abuse by a variety of non-state actors. The new level of impunity accorded to the perpetrators, the absence of any serious level of accountability and the justifications indulged in by several members of the ruling dispensation are simply galling. Despite the increasing number of complaints and cases registered over the attacks, there has been very little or no action on the ground to formally charge, try and convict those responsible or prevent future attacks, leaving the defenders and members of their families far more vulnerable than ever and unable to carry on with their activities towards ensuring justice for the already-marginalised communities.
A number of human rights defenders are increasingly finding themselves isolated in their struggle(s); with this experience of isolation in the public sphere, many of them are being compelled to curtail or scale down their activities rendering them invisible. A number of them have been forced through this marginalisation and lack of solidarity and support, even forced to fully withdraw from the public sphere, rendering the process of ensuring justice for the struggling populations and communities difficult or even impossible. Those continuing to carry on with their work, undaunted, face increased risks and violence. Yes, defending the defenders and halting the shrinking of civil society space have become crucial and urgent tasks in today’s India.
In the past too, several initiatives have addressed this serious issue. A number of organisations have developed expertise in key areas such as documentation, urgent-action alerts, counselling for the defenders and their associates, legal aid and helped them access the United Nations’ system including its Special Procedures system and the focal point for the defenders at India’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). Several of the cases thus highlighted remain pending with the NHRC and need continuous monitoring. Nevertheless, the current context calls for an initiative which needs to be more than reactive and short- or medium-term. A new initiative needs to be inclusive taking on a range of concerns and issues of discrimination; it needs to be pro-active, self-monitoring, long-term and permanent. There is a felt need for the setting up, at the national level, a permanent, credible and inclusive body comprising of eminent persons of civil society and human rights experts to address this issue. A body which can be effective at the national, regional and local mechanisms to defend the defenders themselves. Such an effort can help ensure that these defenders carry on, without fear or insecurity, with their work of ensuring justice for the marginalised populations or communities whose rights are being violated. It can help halt the shrinking of civil society space.
As part of this new initiative, several human rights organisations, democratic rights’ activists and concerned individuals have suggested setting up a new body which will consist of eminent persons from the citizenry and experts on a range of human rights issues. It will have three major objectives: of highlighting ongoing attacks on India’s visible and invisible human rights defenders, ensuring protection and justice for them and halting the shrinking of civil society space. It can have the mandate of functioning in a permanent and long-term manner; it can function as a people’s human rights commission and evolve its own jurisprudence (and a legal arm to ensure justice, recommend removal of draconian laws and reform existing practices) in line with the country’s Constitution as well as international human rights law and standards. It can access, advocate and cooperate with the State and international institutions wherever necessary in the interest of protection of human rights and ensuring justice. It can hold regular sittings at the national, regional/territorial and local levels – to document ongoing attacks on human rights defenders, record their testimonies, publish research based on evolving patterns, issue alerts anticipating oncoming attacks in certain territories or themes, raise individual cases and territorial or thematic concerns in this regard, campaign for justice and, in this process, carry on advocacy with international and State institutions. Apart from monitoring its own activities on a periodic basis, it can perform public audits of the State institutions including monitoring of those cases already lodged with State and international institutions so that those facing higher levels of risk do not find themselves isolated, insecure, threatened and unable to carry on with their work.
In the backdrop of India’s changing political climate fostering an intolerant public sphere, and the rapidly shrinking civil society space and increasing harassment and criminalisation of human rights defenders, an initial meeting of individuals and civil society organisations was held in New Delhi on August 17, 2015. Following the decision of this meeting to seek larger participation and mandate on the issue, a ‘National Consultation on Shrinking Democratic Spaces in India’ was held on October 11, 2015, where, after day-long due deliberations, it was collectively agreed to take forward the discussions at regional level. Subsequently six regional and state consultations were organised with a wide range of civil society organisations and individuals in Bilaspur, Guwahati, New Delhi, Bangalore, Bhubaneswar and Ranchi. During these consultations a tentative common agreement emerged on the nomenclature of the process. That the process should be tentatively proposed as ‘People’s Commission on Shrinking Democratic Space’ (PCSDS) and a larger national convention of the PCSDS be organised in New Delhi on May 21-22, 2016.