On India’s Independence Day: A promise unfulfilled for religious minorities

PM Modi in Washington
Washington: Prime Minister Narendra Modi gestures while addressing a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on June 8. PTI Photo (PTI6_8_2016_000187A)

“India lives as one; India grows as one; India celebrates as one,” Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivered these lofty words to a joint session of U.S. Congress on June 8 of this year. The rosy picture he painted of India, however, is betrayed by the reality of communal strife and intolerance on the ground. India, the world’s largest democracy, was founded as a secular liberal democracy:  in essence a promise to all Indians of their fair share of prosperity and the pursuit of the good life regardless of religion, background, or creed.

Regretfully, as India celebrates its 70th Independence Day on August 15, that promise remains unfulfilled for the many Indians who are deprived of their equal rights through both government action and inaction.

There are two broad areas of concern. The first is the rising religious tensions linked to alleged government-backed Hindu nationalism and the corresponding rise of communal violence and religious intolerance. The second is the lack of redress through courts, shown acutely by extrajudicial violence, custodial killings by the police, and unbearably long court waiting times. Both of these areas of concern have lack of accountability at their core, with perpetrators of both religious- and non-religious-based violence going unpunished.

India has always been a melting pot of traditions, religions, and languages and is constitutionally a secular country to account for such diversity. The increasing atmosphere of Hindu nationalism has perverted those principles with disastrous results: there have been more incidents of communal violence and a stronger culture of impunity for officials who commit religion-based crimes.

Since Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014, the government has permitted the virulent ideology of right-wing Hindu groups like the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to become commonplace within government and society. Testifying before the U.S. Congress Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights hearing on religious minorities in India in June, Indian journalist Ajit Saha described the impact of the RSS as the “sine qua non about human rights in India.” This ideology has been linked with increased rates of vigilantism against religious minorities. Such acts include killing a Muslim man for allegedly eating a cow, disrupting marriages between Muslims and Hindus, and forcibly converting Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. All this has happened with official complacency. “The prime minister [has] not weighed in to admonish the culprits,” noted Saha.

Communal Violence
India has a long and tragic history of communal violence which in the Indian context can be defined as violence directed against religious or linguistic minorities. The most significant occurrences in the recent past were located in Uttar Pradesh( 2013), Odisha ( 2007-2008), Gujarat ( 2002), and Delhi in (1984). The scale of violence can be immense. The Gujarati violence was particularly noteworthy leaving “between 1,200-2,500 Muslims dead, destroyed homes, and forced 100,000 people to flee.”  Similarly the Delhi riots in 1984 “resulted in deaths of more than 3,000 Sikhs.” The rates of communal violence have increased substantially under Modi, “India experienced a 17% increase in communal violence, when compared to the previous year. In 2015, there were 751 reported incidents of communal violence, up from 644 in 2014.” Included in this violence in 2015 were attacks on Christian churches.

There are numerous problems for Indians seeking redress for communal violence. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom noted that,
“NGOs, religious leaders, and human rights activists allege religious bias and corruption in these investigations and adjudications. Additionally, religious minority communities claim that eye-witnesses often are intimidated not to testify, especially when local political, religious, or societal leaders have been implicated in cases.”

Lack of Accountability: Gujarat
The involvement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP officials in the violent riots in Gujarat in 2002 and the lack of accountability are of particular concern. While Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, was responsible for coordinating the government’s response to the violent mobs, there is strong evidence to suggest that top officials actively refused to intervene in the violent riots. The tragic case of Ehsan Jafri, the Congress MP who gave terrified Muslims safe haven in his home during the Gulberg Society riots, is telling. According to eyewitnesses, Jafri made frantic calls to top Gujarati officials, including Modi himself, to no avail. Eventually Jafri offered himself to the gathering mob outside his house in an effort to save those inside his home. He was butchered by the mob while they set his home alight, killing most inside. Many BJP officials were acquitted from charges relating to the riots. Civil society activists like Teesta Setalvad have protested the judicial proceedings, citing the hostility of investigators towards witnesses and the restricted purview of the investigation.

Retaliation Against Civil Society
The draconian Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA) is being used to restrict funding and revoke licenses of NGOs that criticize the government. Activist Setalvad has been a prime target of government retaliation for her work seeking justice for the Gujarat victims and a new trial for Modi and other Gujarat officials implicated in the 2002 violence. As Ajit Saha testified, “The Supreme Court had to stay attempts to arrest her on charges of financial embezzlement through the Citizens for Justice & Peace, her NGO. Her offices and homes have been raided several times, failing each time to recover incriminating evidence.” It is alleged that the registration of Lawyers Collective, an Indian NGO dedicated to human rights issues, was suspended because of its legal assistance to Setalvad.  Similarly, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was refused admission to a flight to London to testify to Parliament about human rights abuses in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.

Custodial Killings
There is a terrifyingly high number of people in India killed in police custody. More than 14,000 Indians died in the custody of police or in prisons during 2001-10 at a rate of four a day for ten years. The vast majority of deaths, 99.9 percent according to The Asian Centre for Human Rights (ACHR), is the result of torture. “Torture remains endemic, institutionalised and central to the administration of justice,” reports the ACHR.

Encounter Killings
Another pervasive extrajudicial practice is “encounter killings.” Officially, these are deaths resulting from encounters with suspects. But in reality, these tend to be outright murders by police. As explained by Ajit Sahi, “Nearly all such encounters are suspected of being “fake,” that is, pre-apprehended men and women killed in cold blood.”  The UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary execution’s 2013 report on India noted that, “[A]ccording to the NHRC [National Human Rights Council], 2,560 deaths during encounters with police were reported between 1993 and 2008. Of this number, 1,224 cases were regarded by the NHRC as “fake encounters.”

Prime Minister Modi spoke about the ideal India in his speech to U.S. Congress in June. An India united rather than fragmented.  As it is, India is riven with religious conflict and intolerance. People are killed for their communal identities in mob violence while officials either take no action or, themselves, contribute to the killing.

If India is to ever achieve the greater goal of Indian unity, its leaders must continue to acknowledge and correct shortcomings, including holding all perpetrators of violence accountable.

Additional reading by The Advocates for Human Rights:

India’s Politics Without Principles 

Hold Modi Accountable

The Advocates’ Robin Phillips Testifies Before Congressional Committee

Joint Written Statement on Religious Minorities in India submitted to United Nations Human Rights Council

By Adam Krok, a sophomore at Yale (class of 2019) expecting to major in Ethics, Politics and Economics. From Johannesburg, South Africa, he is 2016 summer intern with The Advocates’ International Justice Program through the Bulldogs on the Lakes program.  He enjoys nothing more than a good argument or a compelling case.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Advocates’ Robin Phillips Testifies before Congressional Committee

RobinTLHRCTestimony

Robin Phillips, executive director of The Advocates for Human Rights, testified today (April 4, 2014) at a hearing before the United States Congress Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission about religious minorities in India.

Robin Phillips’ oral testimony, “The Plight of Religious Minorities in India”:

For more than 30 years, The Advocates for Human Rights has worked with diaspora communities—people living outside their country of origin or ancestry who retain ties to and interest in that country. Some come to the United States seeking asylum after facing religious persecution. Others come as professionals or students, or to join family members. And some are second- or third-generation immigrants. They are part of our communities, they are your constituents, and their voices should help inform our policies toward their countries of origin and ancestry.

Indian diaspora sounds alarm about religious freedom in India

The Indian diaspora groups with whom we work have consistently expressed concern about religious freedom in India. We share their concerns, including: communal violence; impunity for the instigators of such violence and those in government who may be complicit; anti-conversion laws; vague anti-terrorism laws that facilitate profiling and persecution of Muslims; police and armed forces practices such as encounter killings and torture targeting Muslims; and a culture of impunity for such practices. These practices violate international human rights standards.

Consistent with the concerns we hear, the Pew Research Center recently ranked India as a country with “very high social hostilities involving religion” and “high” government restrictions on religion.

Indian diasporans around the world have been sounding the alarm as elections approach. In the first eight months of 2013, there were 451 incidents of communal violence, up from 410 in all of 2012. The UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief cautions that “political exploitation of communal distinctions” presents “a real risk that [large scale] communal violence might happen again.”

Multifaceted impunity fuels communal violence

Impunity fuels 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 that violence; political parties rally behind political leaders who are implicated in communal violence; obstruction of justice and witness intimidation are commonplace in court procedures; immunity laws shield security forces from accountability; and officials accept torture and extrajudicial killings as the norm.

Some examples raised by Indian diasporans highlight these points. Cases brought against officials alleged to be complicit in the 2002 Gujarat violence have been dismissed for lack of evidence after witnesses were intimidated and prosecutors and judges effectively stood in as defense counsel. UN human rights bodies have described the proceedings as “flawed from the outset,” reflecting concerns of religious bias and high levels of corruption. Whistleblowers in Gujarat law enforcement have faced threats and arrests.

Wounds of past communal violence still fresh, especially for women

The UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women visited India last May. She observed that communal violence in India “is frequently explained away by implying that equal aggression was noted on both sides.” By characterizing this violence as “riots,” the government “den[ies] the lack of security for religious . . . minorities, . . . disregarding their right to equal citizenship.” “This issue is of particular concern to many,” the Special Rapporteur noted at the end of her visit last May, “as the wounds of the past are still fresh for women who were beaten, stripped naked, burnt, raped [or] killed because of their religious identity, in the Gujarat massacre of 2002.”

In some communal attacks, police reportedly arrest victims and protect the attackers. And the government has been negligent in its duties to victims displaced by communal violence who are afraid to return home. These internally displaced persons continue to languish in subhuman conditions in isolated settlements.

Human rights defenders and Muslims face harassment, threats, arbitrary arrest

Human rights defenders report serious problems with increased police harassment and arbitrary arrest and detention of Muslims based on false charges of terrorism. Religious minorities have been targeted under an anti-terrorism law that expands the definition of “terrorism”; authorizes warrantless search, seizure, and arrest; and allows detention without charge for up to 180 days.

Indian police confident of impunity for torturing people

While in custody, many suspects are also subject to torture and ill-treatment. The independent Ravi Chander Commission reported that Muslim men were held without charge for several weeks at illegal detention centers and tortured to extract forced confessions of terrorism offenses. In my own personal discussions with Indian police officers, they have been alarmingly candid about their use of torture as a legitimate interrogation technique, signifying a complete disregard for international standards and confidence of impunity for these human rights violations. Not surprisingly, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture’s request for permission to visit India has been pending for more than 20 years.

Attorneys for religious minorities face threats, violence

The due process rights of accused religious minorities have been further diminished by interference with obtaining legal counsel. Attorneys representing Gujarat victims have faced threats, intimidation, and hostility from colleagues. Multiple bar associations have issued official or unofficial resolutions instructing members not to represent terrorism suspects; there have also been reported incidents of harassment and physical violence against lawyers who represent Muslim defendants.

“Encounter killings” have become state policy in India

In addition, “encounter killings,” or killings that occur during staged clashes between security forces and alleged armed suspects are becoming increasingly common. The UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions reported last year that encounter killings “have become virtually a part of unofficial State policy.”

U.S. must ensure India adequately protects rights of religious minorities

As the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief observed after a 2008 visit to India, “impunity emboldens forces of intolerance.” There is a serious possibility of increased violence against religious minorities in India in connection with the upcoming elections. India cannot abrogate its obligation to protect the human rights of its citizens in the name of national security. The United States and India stand as democratic and pluralistic nations. As such, we must hold each other accountable to the highest standards of human rights protection. We encourage the United States to 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.

Robin Phillips’ testimony begins at approximately :59:15 in the video of the hearing:

Read The Advocates for Human Rights’ November 2011 report on religious discrimination to the UN Human Rights Council for the Universal Periodic Review of India, prepared in collaboration with the Indian American Muslim Council and Jamia Teachers’ Solidarity Association.

Diaspora organizations and individuals who want to shape human rights in their countries of origin or ancestry can use The Advocates’ new toolkit, Paving Pathways for Justice & Accountability: Human Rights Tools for Diaspora Communities.