By Asad Khan
International observers are raising concerns about the rapid rise in human rights violations in India. In recent years, human rights groups have posed serious questions about the deteriorating situation of fundamental rights (of individuals and minority groups) in the Indian polity. From the persecution of religious minorities to the clampdown on independent media to increasing political violence, the government has displayed a poor record in protecting its citizens in recent years. In fact, several rights groups have consistently highlighted the role of government in jeopardizing civil liberties and religious freedoms.
A report on the human rights situation in India comprising of submissions by national human rights institutions has been issued by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR). As the report indicates, through arbitrary arrests and detentions, the government has curbed freedom of expression in an environment where state authorities have normalized excessive use of force. Moreover, the government has used repressive laws to attack religious minorities and silence critics – human rights defenders, activists, journalists, academics, students, lawyers, and actors.
The latest ongoing Universal Periodical review under UN Human Rights Council has asked India to implement or revoke various discriminatory legislation specifically regarding minorities, women, children, lower classes of Indian society and internally displaced persons. In this regard Pakistan stressed on India on taking up recommendations of OHCHR reports on Kashmir to release Kashmiri political prisoners, human rights activists and journalists. Pakistan also recommended that India should respond to outstanding UN special rapporteurs visits and repeal national reconciliation commission and citizen amendment act and armed forces special powers act. Similarly countries like US, China, Russia, Turkey, UK and many others also highlighted flaws in Indian human rights record.
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) government has targeted Muslim-majority regions in Jammu and Kashmir by abrogating the state’s constitutional status in 2019. By revoking Article 370 of the Indian constitution, the government has stripped the state’s autonomy over its constitution, thereby depriving the people of Jammu and Kashmir of formulating their own laws. The Human Rights Watch, while mentioning such blatant violations of human rights in its 2021 Report, has described other draconian measures (like the Public Safety Act and Armed Forces Special Acts) that have facilitated human rights abuses in the region.
Such discriminatory legal practices are coupled with the passing of the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019: a track to provide citizenship to all persecuted religious minorities – except Muslims – who entered India before 2015. The UN Human Rights office has maintained that the move is “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. In April 2021, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom’s report requested that the US State Department name India as a “country of particular concern” because of “attacks” on religious minorities. The report argued that the Indian government had “promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.
However, Muslims are not the only community subjected to severe human rights violations under the BJP rule. Incidents of caste-based discrimination against the Dalit and Adivasis have continued for years; women frequently face sexual abuse, and incidents of violence against them in public places have surged. According to Amnesty International, 50,000 crimes against ‘scheduled castes’ were reported in 2020 alone. Dalits face systemic discrimination as being lower rung in Indian society, thanks to the system of social stratification – caste system – that divides Hindus into rigid hierarchies based on their work and religion.
The government has also targeted those who have spoken against these abuses and against the excesses of the state institutions. Authorities have, as Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2021 illustrates, manufactured politically motivated cases against activists, human rights defenders, students and opposition leaders who have dissented against the government’s narrative. The report states that the BJP-led government has “increasingly harassed, arrested, and prosecuted rights defenders, activists, journalists, students, academics, and others critical of the government or its policies”. The authorities have consistently tried to deter critics by imposing sedition and terrorism laws. Even international human rights organizations have been the victims of the government’s authoritarian endeavors against freedom to report: Amnesty International has been forced to suspend its operations in India after the authorities froze its accounts on the pretext of an alleged violation of foreign funding laws.
To curb critical voices in the national media, the state uses defamation, sedition, and hate speech laws against journalists. Following the intense crackdown on the expressions of free speech and dissent, Freedom House downgraded India’s ranking from “free” to “partly free”. Moreover, Reporters Without Borders, an international organization aimed at safeguarding the right to freedom of information, described India as a country that is very dangerous for journalists. The country was also downgraded on the organization’s World Press Freedom Index (to rank the country according to its record on press freedom).
Incidents of human rights abuses and concerns regarding the violations of human rights in India challenge the government’s claim of its serious commitment to human rights protection. The report of UNHCR on the human rights situation in India, comprising of submissions by national human rights institutions, has highlighted the gross violations of basic rights in India. National human rights institutions, international stakeholders, and rights organizations have always highlighted how human rights violations have rapidly risen under the BJP-led government. The concerns should be emphasized more vociferously by civil society, rights institutions in India and the international community to protect the citizens of the second-most populous country in the world from rights abuses and violations of basic freedoms.
The writer is an MPhil Scholar at National Defence University Islamabad.