India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first official visit to the United States, a trip he was prohibited from making until recently. The U.S. government had previously refused to issue Modi a visa based on his treatment of religious minorities while he was chief minister of Gujarat. Now that he is a prime minister, he seems to travel freely, despite the cloud of suspicion swirling around him. This unique situation, while uncomfortable for US diplomats, spotlights the need for protection of human rights in India, where members of minority religious groups—Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, in particular ―are regularly targeted for discrimination and abuse.
India, the world’s largest democracy, is an extraordinary country whose diversity of language, culture, and religion is one of its many strengths. It is a party to all of the most important human rights treaties, and religious freedom, nondiscrimination, and due process are hallmarks of its constitution. Modi’s visit should elicit conversations about how to ensure India lives up to its promises.
Much has been said about Modi’s involvement, tacit or otherwise, in communal attacks in Gujarat in 2002 when he was its chief minister. An estimated 1,100-2,000 Muslims and Christians were killed and churches destroyed in large-scale communal attacks in that region. There has been no real justice for the victims of the violence and the hundreds of thousands of people displaced by it. Modi has never explained his role or apologized for the failure of his government to respond to the violence.
The current situation for India’s religious minorities is bleak, with violence against religious minorities rising dramatically in 2013. In fact, media reports indicate that violence against Christians and Muslims has continued to increase in the first 100 days of Modi’s term. Only two weeks after he was elected in May, Hindu protesters destroyed more than 200 public buses and private vehicles, pelted mosques with stones and set fire to buildings in two days of chaos in Pune. A Muslim man was beaten to death by seven members of a radical Hindu group. Friends said he was targeted because he had a beard and was wearing an Islamic skullcap.
Since the Sikh riots in 1984, India has experienced horrific communal violence targeting Christians, Muslims, and others. Earlier this year, the Pew Research Center maintained India on its list of countries with “very high social hostilities involving religion” and with “high” government restrictions on religion. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s 2013 annual report identified India as one of the 23 worst countries in the world for religious freedom. India is a country “where religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government are increasing,” the Commission concluded.
Extrajudicial executions of religious minorities occur in the context of “encounter killings” or killings that occur during clashes between security forces and alleged armed suspects. Increasingly, the practice of encounter killing has shifted from targeting alleged criminals to targeting alleged terrorists. In fact, the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or, arbitrary executions declared in 2013 that encounter killings in India “have become virtually a part of unofficial State policy.”
Communal violence has been increasing as well. According to Indian government estimates, the first ten months of 2103 saw 725 incidents of communal violence affecting thousands―more bloodshed for religious and sectarian reasons than the entire three-year period from 2010-2012. For example, in August and September of 2013, communal riots broke out in the state of Uttar Pradesh. Clashes between the Hindu and Muslim communities resulted in more than 60 reported deaths and hundreds of injuries, including sexual assault.
Impunity and anti-conversion laws fuel communal violence. This impunity is multifaceted: officials do not hold private parties accountable for communal violence; courts do not hold government officials accountable for sanctioning or encouraging communal violence; obstruction of justice and witness intimidation are commonplace in court procedures tasked with identifying officials complicit in communal violence; and officials accept torture and extrajudicial killings as the norm.
Many are watching how Modi addresses the ongoing human rights violations in his country and whether the United States will discuss—or even acknowledge―them. The United States should live up to its own commitment to human rights by holding itself and its allies to the highest standards. It should take strong bilateral and multilateral action to ensure that the rights of religious minorities in India are adequately protected and that India complies with all of its international human rights obligations. Lives depend on it.
By: Robin Phillips, executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights