Civil Liberties in South Asia: A Report from the World Social Forum

Feb 16, 2024

Katmandu at a panel organized by the PUCL

The panel discussion on Civil Liberties in South Asia” was moderated by Lara Jesani, a human rights lawyer from India and member of PUCL. The session was chaired by human rights activist, feminist and PUCL National President Kavita Srivastava. Lara stated that the session had been organized to inquire into and assess the situation of Civil Liberties in the South Asia region, since it was fundamental to the assertion and achievement of all human rights.

Diep Saeeda (Peace activist and Director Institute of Peace and Secular studies, Pakistan) provided insights on the continuing human rights violations in Pakistan, in particular the violence and discrimination against religious minorities, lack of independence of media and judiciary, the shrinking democratic spaces to express and protest. Despite the silencing and criminalizing of dissent, citizens and movements did not stop raising their voices on the streets, which also had the consequences of arbitrary arrests and intimidation by the security establishment. She also emphasized that the strife between the neighbouring countries India and Pakistan, had an adverse impact on the people of both countries and on the region, and more civil society efforts were necessary to facilitate travel between the countries and camaraderie amongst the people.

Nalini Rathnarajah (Woman Human Rights Defender and member SAPPE, Sri Lanka ) highlighted the misuse of online safety bill in Sri Lanka, stating that in the age of online advocacy it poses another restriction on the expression of dissent. She also spoke of the attacks on academic freedoms and the various restrictions put on the right to protest and freedom of movement. She informed the audience that the restriction on the right of  women to own property through the religious property laws were hampering their entrepreneurship. She talked of how as a fall out of the people’s movement in Sri Lanka (Aragalaya), there have been increasing restrictions imposed on the right to protest using laws and executive orders, including monthly monitoring of accounts to reign in civil society.

Namrata Sharma  (Coordinator mass communication, Nepal National Commission for UNESCO) started by providing a background of how the Nepal Constitution provided progressive laws and rights to the people, for instance the representation it provides for different genders and ethnicities in the government, right upto the ward level. However, she stated that there were several lacunae and corruption in the delivery of rights. She stated that civil liberties were being curtailed, with laws such as Online Security Act and Social Media Act and in the name of sovereignty there was an exercise of control. She expressed a need for all of South Asia to have open borders as is the case with Nepal and India.

Zakir Hossain (Nagorik Uddyog, Bangladesh), informed that since the last 3 elections in Bangladesh, there was an artificial democracy functioning and it has been a mockery of the right to vote of citizens, with governments being formed without opposition. Meanwhile the accountability institutions of democracy, such as law enforcement agencies and election commission were ineffective. He stated that for 12 years civil society has been demanding for anti-discrimination law to curb atrocities on Dalits and marginalized groups. He also spoke of the restrictions on organisations, the increasing self censorship in media due to criminalization of freedom of speech and expression and misuse of digital security act, and pointed out that the OTT Act, Press Council Act and Data Protection Act, were tools of control. He said that growing authoritarianism in India has also had an impact on civil rights of citizens in Bangladesh. He expressed a need for a campaign at South Asia level to address the growing authoritarianism in the region.

Biraj Patnaik (former South Asia Director Amnesty International and former Principal Adviser to the Commissioners of the Supreme Court on the Right to Food in India), highlighted how India’s geopolitical status has led to India getting a free pass on human rights violations. He spoke of how the country is slowly becoming an elections-only democracy, an electoral autocracy. While focusing on the common challenges posed to South Asia, he said that in all the countries there was a roll back on socio economic rights. He also said that there was hope in the younger generation of the countries to end this authoritarianism.

The chair Kavita Srivastava while summing up the discussions, emphasized on the need to address the growing sectarianism, islamophobia and identity-based violence in the region. She said that there had been an increase in the attacks on minorities and in India the present situation of minorities was that of being relegated to second class status. She added that the country was witnessing an everyday undermining of dissent in the name of threat to national security and terror, along with various forms of digital security laws and the new media broadcasting in the process of being legislated, being  tools to outright curtail people’s autonomy vis a vis the social media. The continuing ethnic conflict in the Northeast for the last nine months in Manipur presented a grim situation. Cases continued to be filed against activists who did fact finding and spoke the truth. Domination of agencies of non-state actors in the dispensation of the rule of law was extremely worrying. Similarly, in the Kashmir valley, encounters, suppression of the people, in an increasingly militarized terrain, silencing of the media in the valley, denial of elections, showed how the dreams and aspirations of the Kashmiri people were still being throttled. She emphasized on the need for civil society of all countries in the region to connect with each other and build solidarity across the region to stand up for truth and justice. She concluded by saying that only a people’s movements for human rights would rebuild the eroding democracy and restore the civil liberties of the people from authoritarian Governments.

Several participants joined the discussions and presented their comments. From India, T.S.S. Mani, a human rights activist and member of PUCL, spoke of the criminalization and vilification of defenders as anti-nationals, as was seen with anti-Sterlite protestors in Tamil Nadu. Also Mr. Tejinder Ahuja, a human rights lawyer and PUCL member, emphasized on the importance to raise the issue of Dalit rights across the region. A participant from Bangladesh also raised the need for laws addressing caste atrocities and discrimination.  From Nepal, Amnesty International Nepal Director stated that in the name of gentrification and urbanisation, informal settlements in Kathmandu were being demolished and protests of slum dwellers were being curbed.

The participants and speakers resolved to work towards building solidarities among people of the countries and strengthening civil liberties in the South Asia region. We resolved that with the democracies in South Asia region witnessing erosion and people’s basic freedoms like right to express dissent, protest, form association and freedom of movement being suppressed, media and judicial independence being compromised, the governments in the region need to be called upon to restore and ensure civil liberties and democratic rights. We also need to ensure that the breakdown of the rule of law and attack on people’s rights is not allowed, and a strong people’s movement is built  to protect our human rights collectively as people from the South Asia region.