On 22 July 2021, the House of Lords is due to debate the following:
Lord Harries of Pentregarth to ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the human rights situation in India; and in particular, of the impact it is having on (1) academics, (2) non-governmental organisations, (3) Muslims, (4) Christians, and (5) marginalised groups, such as the Dalits.
What has happened in India?
Several human rights violations are alleged to have taken place in India in recent years. This includes the introduction of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the removal of constitutional autonomy in Jammu and Kashmir. Such incidents have led to growing concern about the protection of certain groups in the country, including religious minorities. The following section provides an overview of some of these developments.
Citizenship (Amendment) Act
The protection of religious minorities in India has been called into question a number of times. This includes when the Indian Parliament passed the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (the act) in December 2019.
The act provides fast track citizenship for certain religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan who entered India prior to 2015. Minorities include Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, Parsis and Christians. However, the act does not extend to Muslim minorities.
Concerns about the act were raised internationally. The United Nations Human Rights office described the act as “fundamentally discriminatory in nature”. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom also said it was “deeply troubled” by the act.
The passage of the act led to large-scale protests across India. This saw violent clashes between the police and protesters, with many being injured.
The Indian Government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, argued that the act did not discriminate against Muslims. Instead, it said it aimed to accommodate those who had fled religious persecution.
In February 2020, the UK Government was asked about its views on the act and the treatment of protestors in India. The Government said that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, Minister of State for the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), had discussed the intent of the act and the public response to the law with the Indian Government. It said that the FCDO had also raised the issue with the High Commission of India in London. The Government said:
India has a proud history of inclusive government and religious tolerance. Post-election, Prime Minister Modi promised to continue this under the guiding principles of “together with all, development for all, trust of all”. We trust the Government of India will provide reassurances to its citizens who are expressing concern about the impact this legislation may have. We will continue to monitor the situation.
- BBC News, ‘Delhi 2020 religious riots: Amnesty International accuses police of rights abuses’, 28 August 2020
- Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘Delhi protests: death toll climbs amid worst religious violence for decades’, Guardian, 26 February 2020
- Hannah Ellis-Petersen, ‘India clamps down on citizenship protests’, Guardian, 18 December 2019
Jammu and Kashmir
In August 2019, the Indian Government revoked article 370 of the Indian Constitution. This removed constitutional autonomy from the state of Jammu and Kashmir, a predominantly Muslim region. Article 370 had several functions, including providing the state with autonomy over its own constitution and freedoms to make laws.
The removal of article 370 led to unrest in Jammu and Kashmir. This saw Indian troops deployed, phone and internet services shut down, and certain politicians and public figures arrested.
The Indian Government said that the article’s removal would help to bring development to the region. However, critics argued that the Government wanted to change the demographic of the Muslim-majority in the region by enabling non-Kashmiris to buy land in the state.
A 2018 report by the previous UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, urged the UN Human Rights Council to consider commissioning an investigation into the alleged human rights violations in Kashmir. In October 2018, the UK Government commented on the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights report in Parliament:
We very much take note of former high commissioner Zeid’s presentation to the Human Rights Council in June  and the clear recommendations for the Governments of India and Pakistan. We hope that those will be adhered to.
- House of Commons Library, Kashmir: January 2019 Update, 2 January 2019
- House of Commons Library, Kashmir: The Effects of Revoking Article 370, 8 August 2019
- House of Commons Library, Kashmir, 30 March 2004
Violence against the Dalit community
Incidences of violence against the Dalit community have been reported in India for several years. In 2020, protests commenced following the gang rape and subsequent death of a 19 year-old women in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This was one of several violent incidents reported to have taken place against members of the Dalit community.
Dalits are described as being the “lowest rung” of India’s Hindu caste system. The caste system is one of the world’s oldest forms of social stratification. It divided Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their work and religion. Whilst the Indian constitution has since banned discrimination on the basis of caste, caste identities are described by the BBC as remaining strong.
- United Nations Human Rights Office, ‘The Dalit: Born into a life of discrimination and stigma’, 19 April 2021
- Uttamkumar S Bagde, ‘Human rights perspectives of Indian Dalits’, Journal of Law and Conflict Resolution, 18 August 2020, vol 11(2), pp 26‒32
Other incidents against religious minorities
Hate crimes against Christians in India are reported to have risen in 2020. Several charities have argued that state cooperation with extremists is a key cause of the problem.
The Christian advocacy group Open Doors published a report in June 2021 on the issue. Key findings in the report said that:
Daily life for many Christian and Muslim communities in urban and rural India has become an excruciating struggle to earn a living and practice their faith, while also remaining alive and under the radar of the far-right Hindutva organizations that now dominate the Indian public and political sphere.
The UK Government has responded to questions in Parliament from MPs and Peers on the protection of religious minorities in India. For instance, in response to a written parliamentary question in June 2021, the UK Government said that human rights formed a regular part of its dialogue with India. Specifically, it said that Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon had discussed the situation for Christians in India with India’s Minister of State for Home Affairs on 15 March 2021. The Government also said:
The British High Commission in New Delhi regularly meets religious representatives and has run projects promoting minority rights. This year, they supported an interfaith leadership programme for a cohort of emerging Indian faith leaders, creating an opportunity to exchange expertise on leading modern, inclusive faith communities, and promoting values of tolerance and multi-culturalism.
Farmers’ protests and agricultural reform
In September 2020, the Indian Parliament passed agricultural reform laws. Amongst other things, the laws would have changed the rules around the sale, pricing and storage of farm produce. The Indian Government have been cited by the BBC as saying that the new agricultural laws were necessary to increase farm incomes and productivity.
However, the laws were met with concern, particularly from farmers, farmers’ unions, and the political opposition. This led to several months of widespread protests in India where it is reported that more than 400 protestors died.
In addition, the protests also saw the arrest of several journalists who were covering the protests. Human Rights Watch called on Indian authorities to drop what they described as “baseless charges” against journalists. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, said that the Indian authorities’ response to protests had “focused on discrediting peaceful protesters, harassing critics of the government, and prosecuting those reporting on the events”.
In February 2021, the UK Government spoke of its support for the right to peaceful protest and freedom of speech. It also noted that “governments have the power to enforce law and order if a protest crosses the line into illegality”. It committed to following the farmers’ protests closely and said it would continue to champion human rights globally.
- House of Commons Library, Farmers’ Protests in India and Agricultural Reforms, 18 May 2021
What concerns have other organisations raised?
Several organisations have voiced concerns about other incidences that have taken place in India over recent years.
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”.
In addition, Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2021 said that the BJP-led government had “increasingly harassed, arrested, and prosecuted rights defenders, activists, journalists, students, academics, and others critical of the government or its policies”.
Human rights organisation Amnesty International also raised concerns about incidences that have taken place in India in 2020. It said that:
Freedom of expression was guaranteed selectively, and dissent was repressed through unlawful restrictions on peaceful protests and by silencing critics. Human rights defenders, including students, academics, journalists and artists, were arbitrarily arrested, often without charge or trial.
The Indian Government has disputed allegations of human rights violations. It reiterated its commitment to human rights at the April 2021 India-EU Human Rights Dialogue. The dialogue was co-chaired by the Joint Secretary for Europe West in the Ministry of External Affairs of India and the Ambassador of the EU to India.
[…] the [dialogue] participants exchanged views on strengthening human rights, including in social, economic and cultural spheres. They discussed civil and political rights, freedom of religion or belief, women empowerment, children’s rights, rights of minorities and vulnerable groups. Both the EU and India expressed the need to foster greater engagement on human rights issues, based on internationally recognised human rights laws and standards. The two sides recognised the importance of strengthening the human rights mechanisms for the promotion of human rights and the role of national human rights institutions, civil society actors and journalists in this regard.
- House of Commons Library, Press Freedoms and Safety of Protestors in India, 5 March 2021
- Open Doors, Destructive Lies, 2021
- Hannah Ellis-Peterson and Shaikh Azizur Rahman, ‘Coronavirus conspiracy theories targeting Muslims spread in India’, Guardian, 13 April 2020
Image by Gayatri Malhotra from Unsplash.