The realization of human rights in India since independence in 1947 has been marred by government suppression of free speech, abuse by police, oppression and violation of women and LGBTQ+ people, as well as ethnolinguistic, religious, and caste oppression and violence.
Over the last few decades, the rise of Hindu nationalism and its political embodiment in the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has exacerbated tensions and conflict among Hindus and Muslims, from the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992, to the Gujarat riots in 2002, to the northeast Delhi riots in February of this year. This escalation has made religious violence – alongside political repression, police brutality, and sexual assault – one of the foremost causes of human rights violations in India today.
The resulting rise in violations, particularly in the last several months, has led the Indian government to suppress human rights activists and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in order to maintain power. This month, the United Nations (UN) released an official response to these new frontiers in the suppression of human rights in India.
On October 20th, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet expressed concern regarding the rise in restrictions on human rights NGOs and in arrests of human rights activists. In the statement, the High Commissioner identified three “problematic” Indian laws behind the restrictions and arrests. As she acknowledged in the statement, defenders of human rights in India have come under mounting pressure in recent months. In closing, Bachelet urged the Indian government to do more to respect human rights as well as to support and protect human rights activists and NGOs, writes Al Jazeera.
The statement comes in the midst of an ongoing campaign by the Indian government, which has escalated since August, to charge and arrest protestors against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) under the 2019 amendment to the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA). The CAA facilitates naturalization of foreign-born members of religious minorities but notably excludes Muslims. As of last month, Delhi police have arrested 1,575 individuals and filed over 700 First Information Reports (FIRs) on those involved in anti-CAA demonstrations, according to Al Jazeera. Numerous human rights organizations have released statements condemning the campaign, including United Against Hate (UAH), which stated that the Indian government is trying “to intimidate democratic voices of dissent into silence.”
In the October 20th statement from the UN, Bachelet criticized the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and the UAPA for enabling the Indian government to exercise undue restrictions on human rights NGOs and arrests of human rights activists against the CAA, respectively.
Regarding the FCRA, the High Commissioner lamented “vaguely worded laws” in the Act that prohibit the receipt of foreign funding “for any activities prejudicial to the public interest.” The particular ambiguity of the phrase ‘public interest,’ according to Bachelet, is being abused to “justify an array of highly intrusive measures,” including “official raids on NGO offices and freezing of [NGOs’] bank accounts.” Indeed, in September, Amnesty International ceased operation in India after the Indian government froze its bank accounts. The High Commissioner concluded that the FCRA is “being used to deter or punish NGOs for human rights reporting and advocacy that the authorities perceive as critical in nature.”
Regarding the UAPA, Bachelet condemned the Act as an instrument for the Indian government to carry out politically motivated arrests of human rights activists – who the government routinely deride as “anti-nationals” – with impunity, thinly disguised as an anti-terrorism law. The vast majority of these activists have been arrested for defending the rights of Muslims by protesting the CAA. In concordance with human rights groups which have condemned these arrests as “grave abuse of state power,” Bachelet concluded that “constructive criticism is the lifeblood of democracy… it should never be criminalised or outlawed in this way. I urge the government to ensure that no one else is detained for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly.”
In response to the statement, the Indian government rejected the High Commissioner’s accusations and stated that “violations of law” could not be “condoned under the pretext of human rights.” Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Anurag Srivastava derisively added that “a more informed view of the matter was expected of a UN body,” according to Al Jazeera.
The rise in the suppression of human rights activists and NGOs in India over the last few months is fundamentally rooted in the Hindu nationalism of the BJP. The exclusionary rhetoric and policy that the Indian government has recently produced, particularly the CAA, have disseminated and legitimated Hindu nationalism in the country to a significant extent. While this action has strengthened support for the BJP, it has also exacerbated religious tensions, particularly between Hindus and Muslims, and thus led to conflict as well as resistance from those who reject the vision of India as a Hindu nation and demand inclusion for Muslims. As this resistance has grown, so too has the severity of the means by which the Indian government suppresses resistance, as exemplified by the rise of human rights violations in the ongoing campaign of arrests of anti-CAA protestors.
More serious and widespread violations have in turn drawn more urgent responses from human rights activists, NGOs, and international authorities. On the one hand, the activists and NGOs have defended human rights alongside the protestors, and for that reason have been targeted and suppressed by the Indian government through raids and financial interference. On the other hand, international authorities have responded with mere verbal condemnations, such as the October 20th statement from the High Commissioner, rather than international legal action, for example. As a result, the suppression has only grown stronger.
There are a number of reasons why the international response so far has had little to no effect, but the most fundamental reason is that verbal condemnations alone fail to confer the legitimacy upon human rights that is needed in order to motivate compliance from the Indian government. In general, the compliance of states with measures enforced by regional or international human rights organizations is influenced primarily by the tension between the legitimacy of the measures enforced by the organization and the normative cost to sovereignty that compliance with those measures incurs, as perceived by the accused state. In other words, a state is significantly more likely to comply with a measure of human rights enforcement if the authorities of that state believe that compliance with the measure is worth more – morally, politically, or otherwise – than however much the compliance may threaten or weaken their sovereignty.
This tension is particularly significant to the efficacy of human rights enforcement in formerly colonized states such as India, in that these states tend to place particularly high value in the maintenance of absolute sovereignty wherever possible, drawing from a history of violation under colonialism. This means that compliance from formerly colonized states generally requires a stronger perception of a given measure of human rights enforcement as legitimate in order to offset the cost to sovereignty.
Altogether, the international response thus far has proven ineffective because verbal condemnation of human rights violations does not carry the legitimacy needed to offset the cost of compliance to sovereignty in the eyes of the Indian government. By contrast, while legal action through the International Court of Justice or another authority of international law may demand a greater cost to sovereignty than does verbal condemnation, this legal route confers far more legitimacy in the international community, and thus may exert sufficient normative pressure backed by collective action on the Indian government to offset the cost to sovereignty and ensure long-lasting compliance. In the end, either international organizations like the UN will take greater action than verbal condemnation, or the suppression of human rights in India will continue to worsen.
Once the suppression of human rights in India has lessened, the Indian government must address the root cause of the suppression: Hindu nationalism. In particular, India must supplant the Hindu nationalism that has taken root in recent decades – along with the BJP’s agenda to deform India into a ‘purely’ Hindu state – in favour of religious pluralism. This will remain incredibly unlikely as long as the BJP remains in power, but it is the only way that the tensions and conflict among Hindu and Muslims as well as pluralists and Hindu nationalists will diminish. Altogether, it is only through the broad acceptance of Muslims by the electorate of India that human rights will be better realized for the future.
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