South Asia State of Minorities Report 2020: Minorities and Shrinking Civic Space
Through this publication, The South Asia Collective (a network of human rights activists and organisations in the region) aims to document the status of minorities – religious, linguistic, ethnic, caste and others – in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. The report was published in November 2020.
The report observes that the ‘civic spaces’ in these countries have reduced in the last decade. Civic
spaces include social movements, national and international non-governmental
organisations (NGOs), the media, academics, activists and others. The status of
civic space in a country depends on the rights of citizens to associate,
assemble peacefully, and freely express views and opinions. These constitutional
rights have been increasingly violated by governments in South Asia, says the report, and there
have been further attacks on civil liberties since the Covid-19 pandemic began.
The 349-page report contains eight chapters: Shrinking
Civic Spaces for Human Rights Defenders in Afghanistan (Chapter 1); Bangladesh:
Civic Space and Minority Rights (Chapter 2); Civic Space and Religious
Minorities in Bhutan (Chapter 3); Closing Civic Space in India: Targeting
Minorities Amid Democratic Backsliding (Chapter 4); Civic Space in Nepal
(Chapter 5); Closing Civic Space in Pakistan (Chapter 6); Sri Lanka: Minority
Rights within Shrinking Civic Space (Chapter 7) and State of South Asian
Minorities 2020 (Chapter 8).
Citing data from CIVICUS (an international organisation that focuses on civic freedom), the report states that more than 15 journalists were killed in Afghanistan in 2018. At least five more were shot dead in the first half of 2019.
The report states that the Afghan government is known to threaten, intimidate and harass human rights activists. In June 2016, the Kabul police deployed ‘heavy forces’ to stop a civil strike, killing several protesters.
In August 2019, Bangladesh’s government barred 41 NGOs from working in Rohingya refugee camps. Subsequently, the report says, it declared an ‘unofficial prohibition’ on research and surveys related to Rohingya refugees.
The report states that several provisions in Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, 2018, limit civil rights, including freedom of expression and freedom of religion. The country’s Penal Code punishes blasphemy with up to two years in prison, and the Digital Security Act imposes harsher penalties, making it a non-bailable offence. The law prescribes a penalty of up to seven years of imprisonment for hurting religious sentiments, and ten years for repeated offences.
Bhutan’s Civil Society Organisations Act, 2007, provides a framework for the growth of ‘civil society’ in the country; for a system where NGOs and other organisations are accountable to the public; and to promote social welfare and improve the quality of life of citizens. However, the Act prohibits organisations to undertake any ‘political’ activities, keeping them from doing any advocacy work.
The Penal Code of Bhutan penalises defamation and libel as offences punishable with imprisonment for up to three years. The report states that that clauses in this section – Section 317 – are often used against journalists.
The report states that India’s Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967, and National Security Act, 1980, have increasingly been used to detain dissenters for protesting against the government’s policies, such as the nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 (CAA). The CAA states that persons belonging to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi or Christian communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan or Pakistan, who entered India on or before December 31, 2014, will not be treated as illegal migrants – specifically excluding Muslims.
After the abrogation of Article 370 in August 2019, many in Kashmir – politicians, community leaders, business associations, and others – were put in ‘preventive detention’ under Jammu and Kashmir’s Public Safety Act, 1978. The report states that nearly 8,000 people have been detained since August, when the state was turned into a union territory.
Nepal’s proposed National Integrity (Parliamentary Standards) Bill, 2018, emphasises vigilance over the activities of NGOs and private sector organisations. It mandates lengthy reporting and procedural requirements for these organisations, and increased restrictions on funding as well as the scope of their activities.
Nepal’s proposed Information Technology Bill, 2019, prescribes penalties against posting content on social media which is considered to be against national unity and interest.
In Pakistan, the report notes, the denial of civic rights to individuals from the Ahmadiya community is legalised in some cases. For example, they have to register as non-Muslims in order to vote in elections.
The report notes a reduction in Sri Lanka’s civic space since the Covid-19 pandemic began. As of May 2020, 56,000 persons were arrested and 13,556 vehicles were seized during the outbreak.
Focus and Factoids by Nivedita Gautam.
The South Asia Collective
The South Asia Collective