On November 9, 2020, police opened a criminal investigation into Shilpa Singh, a professor of political science at the V.M. Salgaocar College of Law, based on alleged nonviolent social media activity. She was also the subject of violent threats and harassment, as well as calls for her dismissal from the college.
Singh is an assistant professor in the college’s political science department whose research interests include political theory, political economy, international politics, and gender studies, according to the college’s website.
On October 19, a local chapter of the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP), the student wing of the Hindu-nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, wrote to the college administration, demanding that they terminate Singh. The ABVP accused Singh of “promoting socially hateful thoughts about a particular religion, community and group of individuals.” The letter did not point to specific comments by Singh, though it suggests that students recorded Singh’s lectures. The ABVP ordered an “immediate termination” of Singh, threatening “severe agitation against the institution” and seeking police intervention. The college administration reportedly responded to the students declining to take action against Singh.
Ten days after the letter was issued, Rajiv Jha, a member of a far-right Hindu-nationalist group called the Rashtriya Yuva Hindu Vahini, filed a first information report (FIR) to police complaining about a Facebook post published by Singh in April 2020. Sources indicate that in the now-deleted Facebook post, Singh commented on conservative religious practices in India, including the wearing of the burkha and the mangalsutra, a necklace worn by married women in the Hindu tradition. Singh later said that she had long been “curious on questions why we have exclusive marital status symbols for women and not for the men in various cultures practices.” Jha’s FIR accused Singh of “passing derogatory comments on social media mocking Hindu religion, traditions, faith, and beliefs.” Jha posted a copy of the FIR to Facebook, which reportedly resulted in frequent harassment and violent threats against Singh and her family. In an apology posted to Facebook, Singh said that her comments mentioned in Jha’s FIR were taken out of context.
Police registered Jha’s FIR and opened an investigation into Singh for violation of section 295-A of the Indian penal code (“deliberate and malicious acts intended to outrage religious feelings”). Singh later filed a counter-FIR against Jha for “intimidation” and “threats.” She also filed a complaint with the National Human Rights Commission and National Women’s Commission, asking for their support in obtaining police protection amidst death threats she and her family were receiving. Police also registered Singh’s FIR and launched an investigation into Jha for violating penal code sections 504 (intentional insult with intent to provoke break of peace), 506 (criminal intimidation) and 509 (insulting the modesty of a woman).
On December 4, Times of India reported that Singh was granted anticipatory bail in connection with the ongoing police investigation. The court also ordered Singh to “not to post any instigating post spreading hatred and enmity between the religions and classes,” according to the same report. As of this report, there are no further updates on the police investigation.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about police investigations, harassment, and efforts to intimidate a scholar in connection with their nonviolent exercise of the rights to academic freedom and freedom of expression—rights that are protected by international human rights instruments including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which India is a party. State authorities have a responsibility to refrain from actions that restrict or retaliate against the exercise of such rights, so long as it is nonviolent and responsible. Beyond the harm to the immediate victim, investigations, harassment, and intimidation intended to restrict or retaliate against such activity undermines academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.