From left Joel Clark, Amnesty Australia, David Shoebridge, Australian Greens and Anjum Rafiqi, Stand with Kashmir during the Round table at NSW Parliament on Thursday 22 October 2020. (Photo by Zia Ahmad)

A Round Table panel discussion on Human Rights violations in India was organised on Thursday 22 October 2020 at the New South Wales Parliament in Sydney by members of the Australian Greens that included Federal Senator Janet Rice, New South Wales Member of Parliament David Shoebridge and former Senator Lee Rhiannon, in collaboration with The Humanism Project, an Australian based human rights and political advocacy group.

Several members of the Indian diaspora from Australia and USA, political activists from India, including Jammu & Kashmir, and Amnesty International Australia took part in the presentations and discussions.

In introducing the panel of speakers, Mr Shoebridge said that the constructive role which parliamentarians, human rights activists and lawyers can play in standing up for human rights not just in their own places but also in India was one of the reasons why there was such a strong take up of the panel for the Round Table.

In her opening remarks which included acknowledgement of Australia’s indigenous people, Senator Rice, who is the foreign affairs spokesperson for the Australian Greens in the Australian Federal Parliament saying  that the struggle for justice of Australia’s ‘first nation’s people’ had a strong resonance with the struggle for human rights around the world.

Senator Rice added that the Greens were really concerned about the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 and its discrimination on citizenship status based on a person’s religion, particularly given India’s proud democratic history, and the impact on the Muslim community was particularly reflected in what was happening in Kashmir – the crackdown on free speech and movement, access to information, healthcare and hundreds of thousands of people detained at various times, including three former chief ministers and several children.

“We are concerned about what happened to Amnesty International India. Shutting down bank accounts in response to investigations is a really unacceptable attempt to silence critics and is not the action of a government that should be fully open to scrutiny, ” Senator Rice said.

She further added, “we believe that the Australian Government can and must take urgent action to support human rights in India and in other countries, and through international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council.”

The first panel at the round table consisted of local speakers including Dilpreet Taggar, Editor, South Asian Today, Dr Vikrant Kishore, activist, South Asians For Inclusiveness, Zia Ahmad, Editor-in-Chief, Australasian Muslim Times AMUST and Anjum Rafiqi, activist, Stand with Kashmir.

Round Table on Human Rights violations in India at NSW Parliament on Thursday 22 October 2020. (Photo by Zia Ahmad).

The panelists discussed the state of play for human rights in India and how they were trying to create awareness of these issues amongst Australians in general and Indian diaspora in particular.

The second panel presented the view from India on human rights violations and included Dr Colin Gonsalves  Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India, Dr Ram Punyani, an eminent activist, Dr Pooja Tripathi, National Convenor, Women’s Congress and Manjula Pradeep, an eminent Human Rights activist and lawyer.

Dr Colin Gonsalves said that India could claim to be a country with some of the highest levels of violence, discrimination and state terrorism in the world. Talking about attacks on minorities, he mentioned that in the state of Assam, 500,000 Muslims had been declared foreigners and the government was planning to keep them in incarceration centres to keep them in detention.

Giving examples of the attacks on students in Jamia University and Aligarh, Dr Gonsalves described India as a nation ‘at war with its people’. He urged the Australian Government to take an active stand on human rights in India.

Dr Ram Punyani said that apart from attacks on Muslims, attacks on Christians and Dalits has seen a significant increase and  any criticism of the government was being labelled as ‘anti-national.

He stressed on the need for coordination between different social movements for them in the form of a ‘broad based platform’ of those believing in secularism, diversity, pluralism and human rights so that they can come together and also combat hate.

Dr Pooja Tripathi spoke about the National Register of Citizens, which rendered 1.9 million people stateless, the Hathras incident, the denial of basic rights and services to the Kashmiris, the plight of migrant workers made to walking ‘unimaginable distances’ following the COVID lockdown and the arrest of activists.

Dr Tripathi said she saw hope in the way common citizens took inspiration from Gandhi and took to the streets to ‘reclaim the constitution’, following the enactment of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2019, including the Muslim women who led the Shaheen Baagh movement.

Manjula Pradeep expressed concerns the ‘hate speech pandemic’ on social media which was disproportionately affecting the weaker communities, especially women.

The third panel talked about the role of third nations and diaspora and consisted of Motika Anand, activist from Chicago Suniti Sanghavi  activist from Voice Against Fascisim in India (VAFI), Los Angeles, Joel Clark, Amnesty Australia  and Iqbal – activist, Stand With Kashmir  from Melbourne.

Motika Anand spoke about the need to monitor the activities of Hindu Sevak Sangh (HSS), the international branch of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) stressing  that HSS had infiltrated political offices around the world in many countries by using their money power to help elect islamophobes and right wing politicians to parliaments.

Joel Clark, Amnesty Australia speaking during the Round Table at NSW Parliament on Thursday 22 October 2020. (Photo ny Zia Ahmad)

Joel Clarke said that Amnesty International’s work on human rights in India is grounded in the very strong belief that the Australian Government and other third nations have an important role to play in monitoring and addressing human rights violations in India.

He said that the strengthening of the relationship between Australia and India provides a good opportunity for Australia to check human rights in India and called upon PM Scott Morrison, Foreign Minister Marise Payne and other ministers to stand up and speak out to prove that diplomacy isn’t just about trade and security but about promoting human rights and holding each other to account in the way they treat their citizens.

He talked about the Amnesty International report released in August 2020, one year after the abrogation of article 370, which talked about the situation in Jammu and Kashmir and called out the blatant human rights violations in the region.

He said the Amnesty’s J&K report called upon the Government of India to release all political leaders, journalists and activists from detention and restore the internet, decongest prisons and launch independent investigations in the attacks on journalists in J&K.

The report also made it clear that third countries also had a responsibility to use the report’s information to better human rights by backing Amnesty International’s call to the Indian Government to act.

Mr Clarke said Amnesty had produced another report this year on the Delhi riots where they had forensically detailed examples of Delhi Police officers indulging in violence with rioters, torturing in custody, using excessive force on protestors, dismantling protest sites used by peaceful protestors to being mute bystanders as rioters wreaked havoc.

On behalf of Amnesty, he called upon third nations to use the opportunity of the universal periodic review of the United Nations to record the human rights violations of the Indian government.

He also spoke about how the work of Amnesty International in India had recently been shut down, shortly after the publication of its J&K report and its report on the Delhi riots. He concluded by adding that Amnesty International was committed to mobilising millions of supporters around the world to get their governments to act on these violations.

Ruchira Talukdar, who is competing her thesis on ‘coal politics’ between India and Australia, talked about the corporate state nexus and the ‘ground clearing’ of the indegenous people in resource rich regions, grabbing of forest land and weakening of forest rights as some of the ways resource rich regions are being changed.

In her closing remarks Senator Rice said that we were all one shared humanity and assured that Greens politicians will be working strongly to address human rights and pushing to get the Government to raise its voice and to try and get the Australian Government in concert with other countries to try and get some action on human rights in India.

She added that she saw that this forum that David Shoebridge and The Humanism Project had organised as being a beginning and an opportunity to go on and work out a broader forum that can be made intentionally global and could bring people together who are working on these issues from across the world.