FoRB on the Frontlines: Under threat of violence

Nehemiah Thumbnail USE

In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.

Nehemiah Christie is a human rights defender working in India:

“My experience as a human rights and FoRB defender in South India has worsened ever since the Modi government came to power. With the BJP relying on the backing of Hindu fundamentalist groups, the threat to minorities has increased, especially with regard to Christians in India. In Tamil Nadu, where I and many others work on the front line defending people’s right to freedom of religion and belief (FoRB), we have faced extreme hostility.

HRDs here have been shot, raped, and threatened by both state and non-state actors. Threats are often perpetuated by police and other authorities trying to silence our voices by labelling us as anti-national elements working against the interests of India.

Many ask me, “Nehemiah, why do you support these people?”, but I say to them, “Is this not their human right? To practice their faith?”

The narrative that is used by those who support Hindu supremacy is that HRD’s work against India’s interests. But this is not true. I am proud that my country has such a great constitution, which protects fundamental freedoms. India was one of the first countries in 1948 to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Hasna Jivraj Mehta, an Indian citizen, made a significant contribution to the creation of the Declaration.

This is why, now, I am so sad that we are under threat of violence every day for our work as human rights defenders. I hear noises at night outside my house, and banging on my windows. It is shocking that in India, a country of diverse cultures, languages, religions and beliefs, and where the secular mindset was born, that these things happen on a daily basis to those of us trying to uphold the vital human right to practice one’s religion or belief for all. It is a shameful reflection on our proud history of promoting human rights globally, and of our image as a people of peace and non-violence.

I am sad to say that recently a good friend, an HRD by the name of Thirumurugan Gandhi, was arrested after speaking at the 38th United Nations Human Rights Council about police shooting protestors in Thoothukudi. He was charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), which deals with the activities of people considered to be working against the sovereignty of India.

The UAPA is a Draconian legislation that the present government is using to target HRDs in India. Some activists being labelled as members of supposed terrorist organisations. For example, in April, five members of civil society including a professor, a human rights activist and a lawyer, were arrested under the UAPA and accused of belonging to a Maoist organisation. Theoretically you can be detained without bail for 6 months under the UAPA, however this can be extended. We are living in constant fear that any one of us could be next to be charged under this legislation.

Today, I face constant harassment and surveillance from authorities. I give a speech somewhere, or I go and talk to victims, and before I even reach my house I am called by authorities asking how my trip was, a constant reminder that my every move is being watched.

I am continuously harassed on Twitter and Facebook, with people saying that they will kill me by frying me in oil. In some cases these people are followed on Twitter by government ministers, and even by Prime Minister Modi.

The support of the international community is so important for us and our work as HRDs in both India and South Asia. Training of HRDs, such as that organised by CSW’s Defend the Defender project last year, is vital to our safety and work. Steps must be taken to ensure digital security, especially on social media, where individuals are able to threaten and harass HRDs on a daily basis, and with impunity.

This is my testimony of what I am facing as a human rights defender in India. The government of India must be reminded by the international community that if it wants to be a world leader, it must lead by example by upholding justice and fundamental freedoms. The international community must give us a stage, and a voice, so that we can speak for the voiceless in India.”

Nehemiah and Michel EMBED

Nehemiah with Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders