On 17 November 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to debate the following question for short debate:

Lord Hussain (Liberal Democrat) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of human rights in India, particularly in Kashmir.

1. Human rights in India

1.1 Concerns raised by international community

In recent years, reports produced by foreign governments and non-governmental organisations have alleged that many types of human rights abuse have taken place in India. For example, the US state department’s 2021 country report on human rights practices in India said that there had been credible reports of “significant human rights issues” in the country. This included extrajudicial killings or arbitrary arrests and detention by the government or its agents, as well as other forms of alleged abuse.

The human rights organisation Amnesty International produced a country profile of India for 2021 which also reported various human rights abuses. It said that violations had included: the use of “repressive laws to silence critics”; intimidation and harassment of human rights defenders; the use of excessive force against protestors; and undermining the right to a fair trial. In addition, Human Rights Watch has highlighted possible violations in its report ‘India: Events of 2021’. For example, it said that the Indian government had engaged in the politically motivated harassment of critics and shut down human rights groups using foreign funding regulations or allegations of financial irregularities.

Many of the allegations against the Indian government in recent years have focused on concerns about the treatment of religious minorities. Human Rights Watch argued that the Indian government has adopted laws and policies that have discriminated against religious minorities, especially Muslims. In addition, the non-governmental watchdog organisation Freedom House argued that Indian President Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party had “presided over discriminatory policies and a rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population”.

In April 2021, the US Commission on International Freedom’s annual report asked the US State Department to name India as a “country of particular concern” because of “attacks on religious minorities”. The commission argued that the Indian government had “promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom”.

1.2 Response by Indian government

The Indian government has disputed allegations of human rights abuse. In July 2022, it took part in the 10th EU-India dialogue on human rights. In a press release following the meeting, both parties said that they had reiterated their commitment to protecting and promoting all human rights. The release also reported that:

India and the EU exchanged views and concerns on civil and political rights, the rights of persons belonging to minorities and vulnerable groups, freedom of religion or belief, freedom of expression and opinion online and offline, women empowerment, children’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights, the rights of migrants, the use of technology in the area of democracy and human rights, issues of security and human rights, business and human rights, co-operation in public health, and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.

They both concurred on the importance of safeguarding the freedom, independence and diversity of civil society actors, including human rights defenders and journalists, and respecting freedom of association and peaceful assembly. The EU reiterated its opposition to capital punishment in all cases and without exception. India reiterated its stand on recognition of the right to development as a distinct, universal, inalienable and fundamental human right that is applicable to all people in all countries.

2. Jammu and Kashmir

2.1 Revocation of article 370

The region of Kashmir has been the subject of a dispute between India and Pakistan since British colonial rule ended in 1947. Although both countries have claimed Kashmir in full, they each only control part of it. An agreed ceasefire line, known as the ‘line of control’, has been in place since 1972. China also controls part of the region.

The Indian-controlled area is known as the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Discontent with India among people in Jammu and Kashmir was widespread by the late 1980s. Anti-India and Islamist militants carried out acts of violence against Indian politicians, including assassinations. Hindus living in the region were also targeted and many moved elsewhere. In response, the Indian state armed and trained local auxiliary forces to assist in counterinsurgency operations. These forces were accused of serious human rights violations.

The conflict had mostly died down by the mid-1990s, but violence has continued to take place, with tensions periodically flaring. In February 2019, in the deadliest attack in three decades, a suicide bomber associated with a militant separatist group killed 40 members of India’s central reserve police force. This led to India sending fighter jets across the line of control for the first time in five decades. Pakistan retaliated to this, but analysts believed both countries wanted to avoid an escalation.

Jammu and Kashmir had been partially autonomous, with its own constitution, flag, and freedom to make its own laws. However, in August 2019, Prime Minister Modi revoked article 370 of the Indian constitution. This removed the constitutional autonomy of the state, a predominantly Muslim region, and nullified its constitution, penal code and flag. It also split the state into two federal territories and made it subject to the same central laws as other Indian territories.

Prior to the removal of article 370, the state was placed “under lockdown”, with mobile phone networks, landlines and the internet shut down and regional political leaders placed under house arrest. It was also reported that additional Indian troops were deployed to the region, that schools and colleges were shut, and tourists were told to leave. Following the revocation of article 370, there was unrest in Jammu and Kashmir, as well as protests in other parts of India, including the capital, Delhi.

Revoking article 370 had been part of the Indian government’s 2019 election manifesto. It had argued that it was needed to integrate Kashmir and would help bring development to the region. It had also argued that the changes would end militancy in the area.

However, the decision has been controversial. Critics have argued that the Indian government wanted to change the demographics in the Muslim-majority region by enabling non-Kashmiris to buy land there.

In February 2022, the Middle East Institute, a Washington-based thinktank said that Kashmir is experiencing a period of relative stability and peace. However, it also argued that a series of attacks has shown that a new phase of militancy is emerging in the region, which is more ‘home-grown’. Ajai Sahni, the executive director of the Delhi-based thinktank, the Institute for Conflict Management, has agreed. Mr Sahni told BBC News that local participation in militancy has increased, but that the “overall trend” of militancy has been on the decline.

2.2 Recent developments

Since 2019, various organisations have continued to raise concerns about human rights in Kashmir, particularly focusing on press freedoms, arbitrary detentions, and communications blackouts.

Human Rights Watch said that journalists in Kashmir faced increased harassment by authorities in 2021. The organisation noted that in June 2021, the UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the working group on arbitrary detention had expressed concerns over “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir”.

Amnesty international also raised concerns over human rights in Kashmir. It said that residents of the region had experienced a government-mandated internet shutdown from 4 August 2019 to 5 February 2021. It said that this had caused economic loss, adversely impacted education and other service provision, and put “human rights defenders at heightened risk of surveillance by government agencies”. Amnesty also reported concerns about caste-based discrimination, hate crimes, and impunity, saying that the Indian government had failed to address the human rights and safety concerns of people in Kashmir and Jammu.

Freedom House has rated Indian Kashmir as ‘not free’ and said that residents have been “stripped of many of their previous political rights”. It also said that “civil liberties have been curtailed to quell public opposition” and that although Indian security forces are regularly accused of human rights violations, few are punished. In addition, Freedom House noted that separatist and jihadist militants have continued to “wage a protracted insurgency” in the region.

In its ‘Human rights and democracy report 2019’, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) said that the Indian government had detained political leaders and also restricted protest and telephone and internet services in Kashmir. The FCDO’s 2020 report did not mention the region.

Following a debate on “the political situation in Kashmir” in the House of Commons in January 2021, the Indian government criticised some of the content of the debate and the matters raised. The English language newspaper, the Hindu, reported that the Indian High Commission in London had said that parliamentarians had relied on “false assertions”. The commission also said that “India stands ready to engage with Pakistan on all outstanding issues” and claimed that:

Since the administrative reorganisation of Jammu and Kashmir in August 2019, it is well on the path of good governance and accelerated development. All administrative measures taken by the Government of India in Jammu and Kashmir are entirely an internal matter of India.

3. UK government response

3.1 India’s record on human rights

The UK is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with India. In October 2022, Anum Qaisar, SNP MP for Airdrie and Shotts, asked the government what representations it had made on India’s human rights record during negotiations. Minister for Trade Policy Greg Hands said that the UK government is committed to the promotion of universal human rights and that, when there are concerns, they are raised directly with partner governments, including at ministerial level. He explained that these discussions take place separately to negotiations, but said that “they are part of building open and trusting relationships with important partners”.

Addressing a similar question about freedom of religion in the country, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, minister of state for the Middle East and UN, said in October 2022 that the government raises human rights issues directly with the Indian government, “where we have them”. Commenting further, he said:

The UK government is committed to defending freedom of religion or belief for all and promoting respect and understanding between different religious and non-religious communities. We condemn any instances of discrimination because of religion or belief, regardless of the country or faith involved. Any reports of discrimination against religious minorities are a matter for the Indian police and legal system. The British High Commission in New Delhi and our deputy high commissions across India regularly meet with religious representatives and official figures.

3.2 Comments on Kashmir

Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield, recently asked the UK government what assessment it had made on the human rights situation in Kashmir and what steps it was taking to ensure all international agreements are upheld by India and Pakistan. Responding on 2 November 2022, Leo Docherty, parliamentary under secretary of state (Europe), said:

We recognise that there are issues with human rights in both India-administered Kashmir and Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Any allegation of human rights violations or abuse must be investigated thoroughly and transparently. We have raised these matters with both the governments of India and Pakistan.

Responding to a February 2022 question about press freedoms in the region, the then minister for Asia, Amanda Milling, said that the government was closely monitoring reports from Kashmir, including on the arrests of journalists. She said the UK remains committed to media freedom and to “championing democracy and human rights around the world”. Ms Milling also noted that the government works closely with the Indian media, including by funding an annual South Asia journalism fellowship programme under the Chevening brand.

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Cover by Gayatri Malhotra from Unsplash.