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South Asian American Lawyers Want Biden to ‘Take a Hard Look’ at Human Rights Violations in India

South Asian American Lawyers Want Biden to ‘Take a Hard Look’ at Human Rights Violations in India

  • In a letter addressed to the president, they cite in detail incidences of sustained intimidation of critics and minority communities.

More than 40 lawyers and human rights activists of South Asian descent are urging the Biden administration to raise their voices in solidarity and support of the farmers who are protesting in India and are facing “arbitrary arrest and violence.” In a letter, posted by The Wire, the authors express their “grave concerns about the ongoing legal abuses and violence being committed against the farmers of India,” and urged President Biden “to call on India to respect the constitutional rights of protesters.” 

The letter is also marked to other lawmakers including Secretary of State Antony Blinken, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, among others.

Lawyer Sukhman Dhami, one of the lead authors of the letter, told American Kahani that most of the signatories have personal and professional links to India and know family and friends who are directly impacted by Modi’s authoritarian rule. The New York-based Dhami is the co-founder and co-director of Ensaaf, a human rights organization that works to end impunity and achieve justice for mass state crimes in India, with a special focus on Punjab. “The same communities are persecuted and their livelihood threatened by central policy,” Dhami says.

Dhami believes the purpose of the letter, which he drafted along with Arjun Singh Sethi, a community activist, civil rights lawyer, and author based in Washington, D.C., is two-fold. “One of the primary outcomes from this letter, first and foremost is to reach to people across the U.S. and the world.” The other, Dhami notes, is to urge the Biden administration to take a look at what’s going on in India. “We want the Biden administration to take a hard look at the Modi government,” he says. “[The Biden administration] mustn’t sugar coat what’s happening in India,” he says, adding: “They must confront India on the egregious violence, human rights violations and attacks on freedom of speech.” 

Earlier this month, Biden had his first official call with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In a press release detailing the Feb. 8 call, the White House said that the two leaders committed to closely working together “to win the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, renew their partnership on climate change, rebuild the global economy in a way that benefits the people of both countries, and stand together against the scourge of global terrorism.” The two however did not discuss the ongoing farmer protests in Delhi and neighboring states. 

In a Feb. 15 tweet, Deepa Iyer, one of the signatories of the letter wrote: “I joined a group of South Asian lawyers in the US who are urging @WhiteHouse to take immediate action regarding the #FarmersProtest and human rights violations in India. This is not a time to be silent or neutral.” Iyer, who served as executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) for a decade, is currently the Strategic Advisor at Building Movement Project and director of Solidarity Is, a project that provides training, narratives, and resources on building deep and lasting multiracial solidarity.

A similar tweet was sent by Shelly Anand, who was among the 40 lawyers who sent the letter. “I joined 39 other South Asian civil and human rights attorneys demanding that the Biden administration condemn the human rights atrocities being committed against farm workers and activists in India.” Anand is the executive director of Sur Legal Collaborative, an immigrant and worker rights non-profit organization based in Atlanta, Georgia. 

The letter cites detailed examples of sustained harassment of critics and minority communities. It mentions Nodeep Kaur, a Dalit labor rights activist, who was arrested in Haryana on Jan. 12, “on false charges of unlawful assembly, extortion, and attempted murder.” It also mentions the murder of Navreet Singh, a 25-year-old farmer from Uttar Pradesh as well as the beating of “Dr. Swaiman Singh, a U.S. citizen from New Jersey” and his team.

Noting that “police, military, and paramilitary forces are emboldened by an entrenched culture of impunity, “ the letter condemns the mass arrests, collective punishment, persecution using anti-terrorism laws, internet shutdown, targeting journalists and censorship. “Lawyers, human rights organizations, and media outlets report that security forces have arrested several hundred protesters, including 200 people on February 4 alone, some of whose whereabouts remain unknown,” the letter says. “India’s counter-terrorism body, the National Investigation Agency, has issued summons to dozens of individuals, including farmer leaders, union leaders, journalists, and those who have been providing aid to protesters, such as free meals.” the letter continues. 

Noting that “police, military, and paramilitary forces are emboldened by an entrenched culture of impunity, “ the letter condemns the mass arrests, collective punishment, persecution using anti-terrorism laws, internet shutdown, targeting journalists and censorship.

“The Indian government has long used the rhetoric of “anti-terrorism” and “national security” to justify its repressive measures and this time is no different,” the letter says. “Authorities are invoking draconian laws such as Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code, which prohibits the assembly of five or more people, and the National Security Act, which allows the state to preemptively detain individuals for one year on the grounds of national security.”

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“Many fear lengthy or indefinite detention, a well-founded concern,” the letter says. It talks about the “21 protesters and activists who campaigned against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in Delhi, for example, have been in custody for more than a year under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and have repeatedly been denied bail.” Authors express concern that the “authorities may also try to manufacture evidence against the farmers and protesters.”

The letter also mentioned several journalists who have been charged for documenting police violence. Noting that “there is a general fear in India today that any type of criticism can lead to arbitrary detention or worse,” the letter mentions the arrest of  Munawar Faruqui, a 30 year old Muslim comic, who “was arrested before he even cracked a joke because Hindu nationalist elements claimed his remarks would wound religious feelings.” 

The letter adds that five others were arrested alongside Munawar: Edwin Anthony, Prakhar Vyas, Priyam Vyas, Nalin Yadav, and Sadakat Khan. “India’s actions violate not only the rights enshrined in its constitution, but also fundamental international human rights norms, including the rights to life, liberty, and freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention, peaceful assembly and association, and expression and opinion.”

The authors demand that police denounce the use of force against protesters and insist that their rights to life, liberty, peaceful assembly and expression be fully respected. They also demand the immediate release of Nodeep Kaur, all protesters and journalists, and the dropping of all charges and  the restoration and free use of telecommunications, the internet, and social media channels. “As civil and human rights lawyers who are committed to advocating for the dignity and humanity of all people, we will not be silent as India continues down a path of abandoning fundamental rights and pursuing policies of marginalization, exclusion, discrimination, and violence, the letter says. 

Noting that the letter is “not an end all be all,” Dhami says it’s “a starting point to have a conversation.” The letter lays out “a host of entrenched issues” for the Biden administration, he says. “Silence enables violence,” he said, hoping that the Biden administration doesn’t stay silent.

Bhargavi Kulkarni has been a journalist for nearly two decades. She has a degree in English literature and French. She is also an adventure sport enthusiast, and in her free time, she likes to cook, bake, bike and hike.

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