“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.
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.
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.
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:
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.