The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion India’s cruelty to its critics shows the deterioration of the world’s largest democracy

Human rights activists hold placards during a silent protest in solidarity with the late Jesuit priest and activist Stan Swamy in Bangalore, India, on July 7. (Jagadeesh Nv/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

India, the world’s largest democracy, takes political prisoners.

Indian authorities have jailed Surendra Gadling, a lawyer known for defending Dalits (once known as “untouchables”), and Rona Wilson, a human rights activist, for three years without trial. They are victims of an extensive malware campaign that framed them for plotting with Maoist insurgents, according to a recent forensics report. Someone — the perpetrator remains unknown — hacked into their computers via a malware-laden email, then planted incriminating documents, including one that discusses assassinating Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

What links Mr. Gadling, Mr. Wilson and many of the malware’s 14 other recipients is their outspoken criticism of India’s ruling party and Mr. Modi’s increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

As defenders of India’s persecuted, Mr. Gadling and Mr. Wilson are experts on the law under which they have been jailed: the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Amended under Mr. Modi, it allows individuals to be labeled as terrorists without trial, held for months without charges and denied bail. Indian authorities last year used the law to jail dozens of activists also accused of conspiring to destabilize India. Some received the malware that framed Mr. Wilson and Mr. Gadling. U.N. experts declared the terrorism charges brought against Indian activists to be a “pretext to silence human rights defenders.” Still, they remain imprisoned.

India’s abuse of the terrorism law has already proved deadly. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who was the country’s eldest political prisoner and who had late-stage Parkinson’s disease, died in custody this month after his pleas for medical bail were repeatedly denied in court. The Rev. Swamy, who spent half a century advocating for India’s tribal communities, was arrested alongside other poets, lawyers and activists on evidence forensic analysis now suggests was falsified. In prison, his health quickly deteriorated. This highly regarded humanitarian was not allowed to attempt recovery from home; his lawyers had to go to court to compel Indian authorities to give the Rev. Swamy a straw after his hands became too shaky to lift a water cup.

After interrogation, in fear of incarceration, the Rev. Swamy recorded a video. “What is happening to me is not something unique, happening to me alone,” he said. “It is the broader process that is taking place all over the country.… Prominent intellectuals, lawyers, writers, poets, activists, student leaders. They are all put into jail because they have expressed their dissent or raised their questions about the ruling powers of India.” For his activism, he said, “I am ready to pay the price.”

The cruelty with which India treats its critics speaks to the alarming deterioration of what is often celebrated as one of the world’s foremost democracies. The White House should advocate for the freeing of India’s political prisoners before another humanitarian dies awaiting trial.

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