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The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of India on 3 February 2022. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, during which time the Government was expected to respond. The Government did not respond during this period, and any reply, if sent, will be available on the UN communications database.
This is a shorter version of the original communication.
Topic: intimidation of and threats against Ms. Meena Kotwal, a Dalit journalist and woman and minority human rights defender working and reporting on human rights issues.
Ms. Meena Kotwal is a Dalit woman human rights defender, journalist and the founder of ‘The Mooknayak’, an online news channel and website, that covers issues related to the persecution of the Dalit minority and marginalised people. It also advocates for social justice and democracy for the marginalised.
On 25 December 2021, Ms. Kotwal posted a video of herself burning the Manusmriti, on the occasion of ‘Manusmriti Dahan Divas’ (Manusmriti Burning Day), to commemorate Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar’s metaphorical burning of the Manusmriti in 1927, which he believed to be regressive and against women’s rights.
Since 26 December 2021, Ms. Kotwal reportedly began to receive threatening phone calls from unknown male individuals, claiming to be associated with Hindutva nationalistic groups, such as Bajrang Dal, Karni Sena and Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Multiple callers allegedly told Ms. Kotwal that she would “suffer the same fate as Gauri Lankesh”. In one conversation, an inidividual allegedly warned her that her phone number was being widely distributed on WhatsApp groups and on social media pages, with instructions for others to also threaten her. The unknown male individuals also reportedly demanded that Ms. Kotwal remove the aforementioned video. When she refused, they allegedly threatened her with phsyical violence.
Ms. Kotwal has received threats of violence and abuse on social media platforms as well. One unknown caller allegedly claimed to be a police officer and others made casteist comments and threats of physical violence against her.
On 30 December 2021, Ms. Kotwal filed a complaint at the Ambedkar Nagar Police Station in New Delhi, with details of the numbers that were contacting her and threatening her, and screenshots of the abusive messages and threats. The Station House Officer (SHO) of the Ambedkar Nagar Police Station asked the Sub Inspector to file Ms. Kotwal’s complaint. The Sub Inspector reportedly had Ms. Kotwal sit for a long time and advised her to not post such things, such as the aforementioned video, instead of filing her complaint. Ms. Kotwal requested the receipt of the First Information Report (FIR) from the Sub Inspector, who said that it will take time. Ms. Kotwal reportedly said that she would return to get the paper work for the FIR from the Deputy Commissioner of Police (DCP).
After Ms. Kotwal submitted a copy of the complaint to the Addl. DCP South West Delhi, she was told that the FIR would be filed in the Ambedkar Nagar Police Station. Ms. Kotwal returned to the Ambedkar Nagar Police Station, but a FIR based on her complaint had not been filed.
According to the guidelines issued by the Delhi Police, a woman may lodge a complaint via email or registered post, or send a written complaint through an email or registered post addressed to a senior police officer of the level of Deputy Commissioner or Commissioner of Police. The officer in question then directs the SHO of the police station in the area where the incident occurred to conduct proper verification of the complaint and lodge a FIR. The police may then visit the residence of the victim to take her statement. In order for an investigation to take place, a FIR must be filed first. At the time of writing, a FIR is yet to be filed by the Ambedkar Nagar Police Station for her case.
In the communication we expressed our serious concerns regarding what appears to be a deliberate and sustained campaign of threats and abuse towards Ms. Meena Kotwal. We are deeply concerned by the numerous threats against her life and physical integrity, and at the coordinated attempts by unknown individuals to further intimidate and threaten her. The intimidation of and threats against Ms. Kotwal is particularly concerning, as it appears to be in direct retaliation for her exercising of her right to freedom of opinion and expression online, which in this instance involves a protest against the oppression of women, among whom Dalit women are disproporationaly subjected to multiple forms of discirmination and violence and extremely marginalized, constituting a violation of international human rights law and standards. The threats and harassment that Ms. Kotwal has been subjected to are occuring against a backdrop of orchestrated intimidation campaigns against groups of women online in recent weeks and months in India, revealing a seriously concerning online environment for women journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and activists.
We further conveyed our concern regarding the alleged delay in filing a FIR based on Ms. Kotwal’s complaint, and hence a delay into the investigation of the allegations of threats and abuse, despite her repeated attempts to urge authorities to do so. The inaction of authorities responsible for filing the FIR in relation to the complaint has the potential to put Ms. Kotwal in physical danger, due to the death threats she is receiving. We urge your Excellency’s Government to pressure the authorities to file a FIR based on Ms. Kotwal’s complaint in the Ambedkar Nagar police station.