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UN urges India government to better protect rights defenders

The U.N. human rights chief on Tuesday urged India’s government to do more to protect human rights defenders, who have come under mounting pressure in recent months in the world’s largest democracy.

The office of High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet pointed to three “problematic” laws in India that have variously tightened restrictions on non-governmental organizations and led to a crackdown on dissent. Her office lamented “vaguely worded laws that restrict foreign funding” that are increasingly being used to quell voices in civil society.

“Constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy. Even if the authorities find it uncomfortable, it should never be criminalized or outlawed in this way,” Bachelet said in a statement.

The comments marked a potent new expression of concern about recent actions from the administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which views most foreign-funded non-profit organizations and rights groups with suspicion. Last month, advocacy group Amnesty International halted its operation in India, citing alleged reprisals by the government and the freezing of its bank accounts by Indian authorities.

Critics say India under Modi has grown increasingly intolerant, with a crackdown on dissent unprecedented in scale. Leaders of Modi’s party have routinely labeled critics as “anti-nationals,” and the authorities have dealt with many rights advocates and activists with an iron fist.

“I urge the government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly – and to do its utmost, in law and policy, to protect India’s robust civil society,” Bachelet said.

In recent months, critics of the administration have accused the government of rounding up activists who protested what they consider to be anti-minority policies. Many activists are being held under stringent anti-terrorism laws, and some have been arrested for protesting a new citizenship law that provides fast track naturalization for some foreign-born religious minorities — but not Muslims.

Rights groups have condemned the arrests as “illegal” and a “grave abuse of state power.”