In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

Lawmakers from India's opposition parties protest against the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi outside the parliament in New Delhi, India, on March 24, 2023. (AP)
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Updated 15 April 2024
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In Modi’s India, opponents and journalists feel the squeeze ahead of election

  • India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival
  • Under Modi’s rule, peaceful protests have been crushed with force while a once-free press is threatened

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are increasingly wielding strong-arm tactics to subdue political opponents and critics of the ruling Hindu-nationalist party.

A decade into power, and on the cusp of securing five more years, the Modi government is reversing India’s decadeslong commitment to multiparty democracy and secularism.

The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has brought corruption charges against many officials from its main rival, the Congress Party, but few convictions. Dozens of politicians from other opposition parties are under investigation or in jail. And just last month, Modi’s government froze the Congress party’s bank accounts for what it said was non-payment of taxes.

The Modi administration says the country’s investigating agencies are independent and that its democratic institutions are robust, pointing to high voter turnout in recent elections that have delivered Modi’s party a clear mandate.




Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Amit Shah, in New Delhi, India, on April 8, 2019. (AP/File)

Yet civil liberties are under attack. Peaceful protests have been crushed with force. A once free and diverse press is threatened. Violence is on the rise against the Muslim minority. And the country’s judiciary increasingly aligns with the executive branch.

To better understand how Modi is reshaping India and what is at stake in an election that begins April 19 and runs through June 1, the AP spoke with a lawyer, a journalist, and an opposition politician.

Here are their stories:

DEFENDING MODI’S CRITICS

Mihir Desai has fought for the civil liberties and human rights of India’s most disadvantaged communities, such as the poor and Muslims, for nearly four decades.

The 65-year-old lawyer from India’s financial capital Mumbai is now working on one of his – and the country’s – most high-profile cases: defending a dozen political activists, journalists and lawyers jailed in 2018 on accusations of plotting to overthrow the Modi government. The accusations, he says, are baseless – just one of the government’s all-too-frequent and audacious efforts to silence critics.

One of the defendants in the case, a Jesuit priest and longtime civil rights activist, died at age 84 after about nine months in custody. The other defendants remain in jail, charged under anti-terror laws that rarely result in convictions.

“First authorities came up with a theory that they planned to kill Modi. Now they are being accused of being terrorist sympathizers,” he said.




Lawyer Mihir Desai poses for a photograph at his office in Mumbai, India, on April 3, 2024. (AP)

The point of it all, Desai believes, is to send a message to any would-be critics.

According to digital forensics experts at US-based Arsenal Consulting, the Indian government hacked into the computers of some of the accused and planted files that were later used as evidence against them.

To Desai, this is proof that the Modi government has “weaponized” the country’s once-independent investigative agencies.

He sees threats to Indian democracy all around him. Last year, the government removed the country’s chief justice as one of three people who appoint commissioners overseeing elections; Modi and the opposition leader in parliament are the others. Now, one of Modi’s cabinet ministers has a vote in the process, giving the ruling party a 2-1 majority.

“It’s a death knell to free and fair elections,” Desai said.

A POLITICIAN’S PLIGHT IN KASHMIR

Waheed-Ur-Rehman Para, 35, was long seen as an ally in the Indian government’s interests in Kashmir. He worked with young people in the majority-Muslim, semi-autonomous region and preached to them about the benefits of embracing India and its democratic institutions – versus seeking independence, or a merger with Pakistan.

Beginning in 2018, though, Para was viewed with suspicion by the Modi government for alleged connections to anti-India separatists. Since then, he has been jailed twice: in 2019 on suspicion that he and other political opponents could stoke unrest; and in 2020 on charges of supporting militant groups — charges he denies.

The accusations stunned Para, whose People’s Democratic Party once ruled Kashmir in an alliance with Modi’s party.

But he believes the motivation was clear: “I was arrested to forcibly endorse the government’s 2019 decision,” he said, referring to a clampdown on the resistance in Kashmir after the elimination of the region’s semi-autonomous status.

Modi’s administration argues the move was necessary to fully integrate the disputed region with India and foster economic development there.

After his 2020 arrest, Para remained in jail for nearly two years, often in solitary confinement, and was subjected to “abusive interrogations,’’ according to UN experts.
“My crime was that I wanted the integration of Kashmir, not through the barrel of the gun,” said Para, who is seeking to represent Kashmir’s main city in the upcoming election.

Para sees his own plight within the larger context of the Modi government’s effort to silence perceived opponents, especially those with ties to Muslims, who make up 14 percent of India’s population.

“It is a huge ethical question … that the largest democracy in the world is not able to assimilate, or offer dignity to, the smallest pocket of its people,” he said.

The campaign to turn once-secular India into a Hindu republic may help Modi win elections in the short term, Para said, but something much bigger will be lost.

“It risks the whole idea of this country’s diversity,” he said.

A JOURNALIST FIGHTS CHARGES

In October 2020, independent journalist Sidheeq Kappan was arrested while trying to report on a government clampdown in the northern Uttar Pradesh state ruled by Modi’s party.

For days, authorities had been struggling to contain protests and outcry over a gruesome rape case. Those accused of the crime were four upper caste Hindu men, while the victim belonged to the Dalit community, the lowest rung of India’s caste hierarchy.

Kappan, a 44-year-old Muslim, was detained and jailed before he even reached the crime site, accused of intending to incite violence. After two years in jail, his case reached India’s top court in 2022. While he was quickly granted bail, the case against him is ongoing.

Kappan’s case is not unique, and he says it highlights how India is becoming increasingly unsafe for journalists. Under intense pressure from the state, many Indian news organizations have become more pliant and supportive of government policies,

“Those who have tried to be independent have come under relentless attack by the government,” he said.

Foreign journalists are banned from reporting in Kashmir, for example. Same goes for India’s northeast Manipur state, which has been embroiled in ethnic violence for almost a year.

Television news is increasingly dominated by stations touting the government’s Hindu nationalist agenda, such as a new citizenship law that excludes Muslim migrants.
 Independent TV stations have been temporarily shut down, and newspapers that run articles critical of Modi’s agenda find that any advertising from the government – an important source of revenue – quickly dries up.

Last year, the India offices of the BBC were raided on tax irregularities just days after it aired a documentary critical of Modi.

The advocacy group Reporters Without Borders ranks India 161st on a worldwide list of countries’ press freedoms.

Kappan said he has barely been able to report news since his arrest. The trial keeps him busy, requiring him to travel to a court hundreds of miles away every other week. The time and money required for his trial have made it difficult for him to support his wife and three children, Kappan said.

“It is affecting their education, their mental health,” he said.


Sunak and Starmer hit UK campaign trail after shock election call

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Sunak and Starmer hit UK campaign trail after shock election call

  • Sunak’s Conservatives have trailed Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls since he became PM in Oct. 2022
  • Sunak has shocked and angered many in his party when he gambled by calling a July 4 election, months earlier than expected

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Labour Party rival Keir Starmer kicked off their election campaigns on Thursday, each arguing that only they can snap the country out of its economic and political malaise.
Sunak, whose Conservatives have trailed Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls since he became prime minister in October 2022, shocked and angered many in his party when he gambled by calling a July 4 election, months earlier than expected.
He argued on Thursday that the economy was turning a corner and he had a plan to tackle illegal immigration. But with prices in the shops up 21 percent in the last three years and the national health service buckling under record waiting times, it may be hard to persuade voters that Britain is on the right track.
“Even though there’s more work to do and I know it will take time for you to see the benefits, the plan is working,” Sunak told voters at an event with workers in central England.
The former investment banker announced his decision in the pouring rain in Downing Street on Wednesday, having to shout over protesters blaring the song “Things Can Only Get Better” — an anthem associated with Labour’s crushing 1997 election victory under Tony Blair that ended the last long period of Conservative rule.
Sunak also admitted on Thursday that the first flights sending illegal migrants to Rwanda, a flagship policy that is tangled in legal challenges, would not start before the vote.
He did receive one boost, however, when Nigel Farage, a former Brexit campaigner, said he would not seek election for Reform, likely blunting the appeal of the right-wing party and reducing its ability eat into the Conservatives voter base.
At stake is control of the world’s sixth largest economy which has endured years of low growth and high inflation, is still battling to make a success of its 2016 decision to leave the European Union, and is slowly recovering from twin shocks of COVID-19 and an energy price spike caused by the war in Ukraine.
That backdrop makes the economy one of the most important electoral battlegrounds. The two parties are also likely to focus on migration, defense, health and security.
POLITICAL TURMOIL
Polls show voters want change, even if they are not hugely enthused by Starmer and his Labour Party, after 14 years of Conservative government marked by unprecedented levels of political turmoil and so-called culture war issues.
Coffee shop worker Kitty McMurray, on her way to work, said the country needed an election because it felt like everything was falling apart. “Bring it on,” the 29-year-old said.
Starmer told voters at an event in Gillingham, southeast England, that he wanted to renew, rebuild and reinvigorate Britain. He focused on deprivation and the invisible barriers that prevent many from improving their lot.
Referencing children who live in inner-city areas where big corporations such as Google have a presence, he said: “they cannot imagine themselves ever making that journey from their school to those jobs. It’s a few hundred yards.”
Starmer is the country’s former chief prosecutor who has pulled Labour’s politics back to the center ground after it lurched to the left under his predecessor.
Were Labour to win, Starmer would become Britain’s sixth prime minister in eight years, the highest turnover since the 1830s, underscoring the level of turmoil that has gripped a country once known for its political stability and pragmatism.
While the electioneering gets underway, activity in parliament is expected to pick up too as the government works out which of the pieces of legislation currently in process will be rushed through, and which will fall by the wayside.
Laws currently under discussion include Sunak’s plan to impose some of the world’s strictest anti-smoking rules by banning anyone aged 15 and under from ever buying cigarettes.
With Sunak calling the election earlier than the October or November that most had expected, all parties were also racing to line up enough candidates to contest every seat.


Doctors treat hundreds of victims of heatstroke in Pakistan after heatwave hits the country

Updated 10 min 4 sec ago
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Doctors treat hundreds of victims of heatstroke in Pakistan after heatwave hits the country

  • People started arriving at hospitals on Wednesday after a heatwave began
  • Authorities on Thursday urged people to stay indoors, stay hydrated and avoid travel

ISLAMABAD: Doctors treated hundreds of victims of heatstroke at hospitals across Pakistan on Thursday after an intense heatwave sent temperatures above normal levels due to climate change, officials said.
Temperatures soared as high as 49 degrees Celsius the previous day in Mohenjo Daro. The city, known for its archaeological sites, is in southern Sindh province, which was badly hit by climate-induced monsoon rains and devastating floods in 2022. The heatwave is forecast to continue for at least a week.
Authorities have urged people to stay indoors, hydrate and avoid unnecessary travel. But laborers say they don’t have a choice because they need to work to feed their families.
“Pakistan is the fifth most vulnerable country to the impact of climate change. We have witnessed above normal rains, floods,” Rubina Khursheed Alam, the prime minister’s coordinator on climate, said at a news conference in the capital, Islamabad.
Doctors say they treated hundreds of patients in the eastern city of Lahore, while scores of people were brought to hospitals in Hyderabad, Larkana and Jacobabad districts in the southern Sindh province.
“The situation has been getting worse since yesterday, when people affected by heat started coming to hospitals in the Punjab province,” said Ghulam Farid, a senior health official. Pakistan has set up emergency response centers at hospitals to treat patients affected by the heat.
The state-run ambulance service is now carrying bottled water and ice to provide emergency treatment to victims of the heat, health officials said.
Heatstroke is a serious illness that occurs when one’s body temperature rises too quickly, potentially causing some to fall unconscious. Severe heatstroke can cause disability or death.
This year, Pakistan recorded its wettest April since 1961, with more than double the usual monthly rainfall. Last month’s heavy rains killed scores of people while destroyed property and farmland.
Daytime temperatures are soaring 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit) above May’s temperatures, raising fears of flooding in the northwest because of glacial melting.
The 2022 floods caused extensive damage in Sindh and Baluchistan provinces, as 1,739 people were killed across the country.
Currently, Pakistan’s southwest and northwestern areas are also experiencing the heatwave.
Authorities have shut schools for a week in Punjab. In the city of Lahore people were seen swimming in the roadside canals. Pakistan says despite contributing less than 1 percent to carbon emissions, it is bearing the brunt of global climate disasters.
Alam said recent erratic changes in weather patterns were the result of man-made climate change.


France arrests person planning ‘violent action’ during Olympic torch relay

Updated 23 May 2024
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France arrests person planning ‘violent action’ during Olympic torch relay

PARIS: French law enforcement officers arrested someone who was planning a violent action during the Paris 2024 Olympic torch relay in Bordeaux, the Interior ministry said on Thursday.
“Thanks to the police officers and, more broadly, to all the Ministry’s agents who are providing security for this popular celebration with remarkable professionalism and commitment,” Interior minister Gerald Darmanin wrote on X.
The torch relay started in the morning and is scheduled to end around 1930 local time (1730GMT). The Olympics will be held from July 26-Aug 11.


Bosnian Serb leader reiterates threat to secede from Bosnia ahead of UN vote on genocide

Updated 23 May 2024
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Bosnian Serb leader reiterates threat to secede from Bosnia ahead of UN vote on genocide

  • The proposed UN resolution sponsored by Germany and Rwanda has been supported by the Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim

SREBRENICA: The leader of Bosnia’s Serb-controlled territory reiterated a threat to secede from the Balkan country Wednesday, a day ahead of a UN vote on establishing an annual day to commemorate the 1995 genocide of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by Bosnian Serbs.
Relatives of the victims, meanwhile, said that the vote would mark a historic day in ensuring that the deaths cannot be denied or forgotten.
The proposed UN resolution sponsored by Germany and Rwanda has been supported by the Bosniaks, who are mostly Muslim, but has sparked protests and a lobbying campaign against the measure by the Bosnian Serb president, Milorad Dodik, and the populist president of neighboring Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic.
The two leaders say the resolution would brand all Serbs as genocidal, although the draft does not explicitly mention Serbs as culprits. Both Serbia and Bosnian Serbs have denied that genocide happened in Srebrenica although this has been established by two UN courts.
For the women who lost their loved ones in the massacre, any denial of the scope of the crime has meant more grief. This is why the UN vote “means a lot” for victims, truth and justice, said Munira Subasic, from the prominent Mothers of Srebrenica group.
“People who live in lies, who don’t know the truth, they will need this UN resolution more than we do,” Subasic said, adding that she was referring to “genocide deniers” among Bosnian Serbs and in Serbia. “They will not be able to glorify war criminals any more.”
“We expect a fair decision tomorrow, a decision that will tell us, the families, that there is justice in the world, that there is humanity,” added Nura Begovic, who also lost several family members in Srebrenica.
On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serbs overran a UN-protected safe area in Srebrenica. They separated at least 8,000 Muslim Bosniak men and boys from their wives, mothers and sisters and slaughtered them.
The 193-member UN General Assembly plans to debate the resolution Thursday to be followed by a vote. Serbs have the support of their allies Russia and China, while the resolution is supported by the US and most other Western states.
Dodik, who is president of Republika Srpska, which comprises about half of Bosnia, said on the social media platform X that the UN resolution is being forced on the country by supporters of Muslim Bosniaks and that it will split up the country. He said his government could formally propose a separation on Thursday
“Bosnia and Herzegovina has reached its end, or to be more precise, it was brought to an end by those who swore to it,” Dodik said on X. “All that remains is for us all to make an effort to be good neighbors and to part in peace.”
Dodik has made several such threats in the past to have the Serb-controlled territories secede from Bosnia and join with neighboring Serbia. He and some other Bosnian Serb officials are under US and British sanctions partly for jeopardizing a US peace plan that ended Bosnia’s 1992-95 war.
The Srebrenica killings were the bloody culmination of the war, which came after the breakup of Yugoslavia unleashed nationalist passions and territorial ambitions that set Bosnian Serbs against the country’s two other main ethnic populations, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks.
The International Court of Justice, the UN’s highest tribunal, determined in 2007 that the acts committed in Srebrenica constituted genocide, and the court’s determination is included in the draft resolution. It was Europe’s first genocide since the Nazi Holocaust in World War II.
Serbia’s President Vucic and his government have been campaigning both at the UN and among developing countries to win support for a “no” vote. Approval requires a majority of those voting.
In a massive campaign in both Serbia and the Serb-controlled half of Bosnia, organizers have put up billboards and video beams reading “Serbs are not genocidal people.”
Vucic and Dodik, both pro-Russian politicians, also have argued against the resolution by saying it raises the possibility of having to pay war damages. Local analysts say Serb leaders, including Vucic, also fear they could be put on trial for active participation in the Bosnian bloodshed.
The draft resolution condemns “without reservation any denial of the Srebrenica genocide as a historical event.” It also “condemns without reservation actions that glorify those convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by international courts, including those responsible for the Srebrenica genocide.”
Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander, Ratko Mladic, were both convicted of genocide in Srebrenica by a special UN war crimes tribunal. In all, the tribunal and courts in the Balkans have sentenced close to 50 Bosnian Serb wartime officials to lengthy prison terms.
Most Serbian and Bosnian Serb officials still celebrate Karadzic and Mladic as national heroes. They continue to downplay or even deny the Srebrenica killings, which has deeply offended relatives of the massacre victims and survivors.
“I can never bring my three sons back … also my husband and my grandson, five men from my house alone,” said Mejra Dzogaz as she looked at a vast memorial center in Srebrenica comprising thousands of white tomb stones for the victims found and buried so far.
“What are we supposed to show to prove (genocide?) asked Dzogaz. “What? Look at this memorial center here.”


Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to hit campaign trail as UK election race begins

Updated 23 May 2024
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Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer to hit campaign trail as UK election race begins

  • Both party leaders are expected to hit the campaign trail, seeking to seize the early initiative by meeting voters

LONDON: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his Labour Party rival Keir Starmer will kick off their election campaigns in earnest on Thursday, a day after Sunak surprised the nation by calling a vote for July 4.
Sunak, whose Conservative Party trails Labour by around 20 percentage points in opinion polls, ended months of speculation centered on an election in October or November, and instead used a rain-soaked address to the electorate to kick off what is likely to be six weeks of frenetic campaigning.
Both party leaders are expected to hit the campaign trail, seeking to seize the early initiative by meeting voters and delivering the messages they hope will earn them enough seats in parliament to form a majority government on July 5.
At stake is control of the world’s sixth largest economy which has endured years of low growth and high inflation, is still battling to make a success of its 2016 decision to exit the European Union, and is slowly recovering from twin shocks of COVID-19 and an energy price spike caused by the war in Ukraine.
That backdrop makes the economy one of the most important electoral battlegrounds.
Sunak, 44, announced the election on the day inflation returned close to target, and his early message to voters has been that his plan for the economy is working, and only he can turn that stability into a recovery that benefits all.
“Who do you trust to turn that foundation into a secure future for you, your family and our country?” he told a rally late on Wednesday, casting Labour as a party without a plan.
“We’re working for a Britain where we have renewed confidence in ourselves and our communities. A country where hard work will be met with fair rewards and where the opportunities enjoyed by the previous generations will be there for future ones.”
Starmer, a 61-year-old former lawyer who has pulled Labour’s politics back to the center ground after a spell of electorally unsuccessful left-wing leadership, has pitched his party as one that will bring change for a disgruntled electorate.
“Labour will stop the chaos, turn the page and get Britain’s future back,” he said in an early campaign message to party members, describing the election as “the fight of our lives.”
“This is the moment we’ve been working toward. We must come together to beat the Tories and deliver a Labour government to change Britain for the better.”
If Labour win the election, it would end 14 years of Conservative government and Britain, once known for its political stability, will have had six prime ministers in eight years for the first time since the 1830s.
While the electioneering gets underway, activity in parliament is expected to pick up too as the government works out which of the pieces of legislation currently in process will be rushed through, and which will fall by the wayside.
Laws currently under discussion include Sunak’s plan to impose some of the world’s strictest anti-smoking rules by banning anyone aged 15 and under from ever buying cigarettes.