UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet appealed to India on Tuesday to safeguard human rights defenders and NGOs, saying three laws stifle their work, among them one that discriminates against religious minorities including Muslims, who are the country’s second-largest religious group. 

“She has expressed regret at the tightening of space for NGOs, including by the application of vaguely worded laws that restrict foreign funding and are increasingly being used to stifle civil society voices,” said Rupert Colville, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“She draws attention to three different laws that we perceive to be problematic,” said Colville, speaking at a briefing for journalists at the UN in Geneva.

He said the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), which is “vaguely worded and overbroad in its objective” and prohibits the receipt of foreign funds “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest,” has been invoked over the years to justify “an array of highly intrusive measures.”

These range from official raids on NGO offices and the freezing of bank accounts to suspension or cancellation of registration, including of civil society organizations that have engaged with UN human rights bodies.

Colville said there has been mounting pressure in recent months against rights workers mainly because of their engagement in mass protests that took place across India earlier this year against the Citizenship Amendment Act.

“More than 1,500 people have reportedly been arrested in relation to the protests, with many charged under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act,” he said.

The law has been widely criticized for its lack of conformity with international human rights standards, said the UN rights spokesman.

Colville said in answer to a question from Anadolu Agency that the Citizenship Amendment Act, passed in December 2019, provides an expedited pathway to citizenship for Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians.

“In other words, groups that are not Muslim from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and it refers to people who arrived in India before the 31st of December 2014.

“So at the time it was passed, we issued a statement calling it fundamentally discriminatory because of the way it differentiates between people of different religions,” he said.

The passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act triggered strong reactions among Indian civil society and from people from many different religions, not only Muslims, he said.

“So many perceive it as going against India’s secular traditions.”

Muslims account for some 14% of India’s mainly Hindu population.

Colville said charges have also been filed under this law against several individuals in connection with demonstrations that date back to 2018.

“Most recently, the 83-year-old Catholic priest Stan Swamy, a long-standing activist engaged in defending the rights of marginalized groups, was charged and reportedly remains in detention, despite his poor health,” he said.

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