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Political Prisoners and state “lawfare” in India

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In his June 2023 White House visit, Indian PM Narendra Modi hailed his country as "the mother of democracy". On September 9 and 10, he hosted G20 leaders under the banner of One Earth, One Family, One Future.

Yet at home, India’s judicial system is routinely used to silence and deter dissent against his ruling BJP party and its Hindu nationalist ideology. Ironically, the government often praises historical freedom fighters whilst using colonial-era laws to lock up those who stand in its way.

September 13 is observed as 'Political Prisoners Day’ in India. Ahead of this, some key facts about “lawfare” include:

  • In 2021 554,034 people were incarcerated in a system designed for 425,609 - more than three-quarters of them had not yet been tried. Extrajudicial killings, violence, and torture are commonplace.

  • From 2014-20, more than 10,000 Indians were arrested under the 50-year-old Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – but only 253 were convicted.

  • From 2014-2020 an average of 4,250 UAPA cases are queued up for investigation each year. Around 85% are still pending investigation at the end of each year.

  • Sedition cases have increased by 28% under the Modi government. Prominent Supreme Court lawyer Kapil Sibal said there were more than 13,000 people in jail under the sedition law. In 2022, 149 people faced sedition charges simply for making remarks considered critical of Modi.

  • The state Enforcement Directorate has increased investigations of political leaders by 400% since Modi came to power, with 95% of those targeting the opposition.

  • Most infamously, opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was kicked out of parliament and sentenced to two years jail in March over 2019 comments deemed insulting to Modi.

  • The current lack of an established definition for political prisoners further enables weaponising of state laws against opponents. A new book, How Long Can the Moon Be Caged? attempts to meet this need, and names 250 prisoners who meet the criteria since Modi came to power. Authors Suchitra Vijayan and Francesca Recchia are available for interview.

Examples of dissenters being imprisoned include:

  • Sanjiv Bhatt, an IPS officer and the sole surviving witness of Modi’s involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Bhatt was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018. Sanjiv’s daughter Aakashi is available for an interview.

  • Student activist Umar Khalid - one of several prisoners who have spent at least 1000 days in jail without trial for their alleged role in the Delhi riots of 2020 that left 53 people dead. Umar’s partner Banojyotsana Lahiri is available for an interview.

  • Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest died in custody in July 2021. Swamy was arrested in 2020 under the UAPA for his alleged involvement in the Elgar Parishad case, a gathering of activists that was accused of plotting to overthrow the government.

  • 16 other activists including Varavara Rao, Sudha Bharadwaj, Arun Ferreira, Gautam Navlakha, Anand Teltumbde were arrested in connection with the Elgar Parishad event. Human rights activists and lawyers have accused the Pune Police of fabricating evidence and targeting the activists for their political beliefs.

  • In 2020, the government booked 49 people for sedition for writing an open letter to Modi expressing concerns about hate crimes and mob violence targeting minority communities.

  • In 2021, the government raided the homes of several activists and academics who had been critical of the government.

A number of laws are used to silence dissent in India. They include:

  • Sedition law (Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code): Criminalizes any act that brings or attempts to bring hatred or contempt, or criticizes the government. It has been used to imprison activists, journalists, and students who have been critical of the government. Sedition cases have increased by 28% under the Modi government.

  • Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA): Enacted in 1967 to deal with terrorism, this has been used to imprison a wide range of activists, journalists, and students who have been critical of the government.

  • Official Secrets Act (OSA): Prohibits the unauthorized disclosure of official secrets. This law has been used to imprison journalists and activists who have exposed government corruption or wrongdoing. Between 2019 and 2021, 136 people were arrested under the Official Secrets Act (OSA) and two were convicted.

  • Information Technology Act (IT Act): Regulates internet use in India. It has been used to imprison people who have criticized the government on social media or who have shared information that the government considers to be "fake news."

  • Criminal Defamation Law: Criminalizes the act of defaming a person or organization. This law has been used to imprison journalists and activists who have been critical of the government.

The Indian government must:

  1. Release all political prisoners.

  2. Abolish the UAPA, Sedition and other outdated laws.

  3. Guarantee freedom of the press to report on political prisoners.

Follow international human rights, transparency and procedural standards.

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