The World Needs To Confront India’s Human Rights Record

India has seen a steep increase in human rights abuses against its citizens, which the international community has so far refused to call out. Regardless of its growing military and economic power, India must be held to account if rule of law and the existing human rights regime are to be universally respected.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (B.J.P.)-led government, in power since 2014, has overseen a systematic attack on human rights, including freedom of speech via targeting of journalists. The government has used a colonial-era sedition law to curtail all forms of dissent, with over 400 cases filed against journalists, opposition politicians and academics since Modi came into power. India is now ranked 150th out of 180 countries under the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index.

Three journalists were killed in 2020, including Shubham Mani Tripathi, who unidentified assailants shot to death in Uttar Pradesh in response to his reports on sand mining in the region. Isravel Moses was brutally hacked to death with machetes and Rakesh Singh died when his house was set on fire.

This lack of journalistic safety is particularly relevant in the disputed territories of Jammu and Kashmir, where freedom of the press has been under attack for some time. The editor of the prominent, independent local news site Kashmir Walla, Fahad Shah, was arrested earlier this year under both the sedition law and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, an anti-terrorism law, for covering the military’s alleged human rights abuses. Authorities are purposely mis-using legislation to stifle anti-government sentiment.

India also leads the world in number of internet shutdowns, with authorities using these shutdowns to prevent unrest and hinder the organization of protests. By the end of last year, Human Rights Watch estimates that there were 71 shutdowns in 2021, with 51 located in Jammu and Kashmir.

Authorities have used state-sanctioned violence to crack down on minority groups, drawing on anti-dissent laws either maintained or adopted by the regime since Modi took power in 2014. Last year, authorities used the National Security Act to detain 76 people in Uttar Pradesh who they accused of cow slaughter, with the power to detain them for a year without charge. Additionally, at least 53 people were killed and 200 were injured last year in Delhi when majority Hindu groups targeted Muslim communities in response to a peaceful protest against India’s discriminatory citizenship policies.

B.J.P. leaders have also made public statements vilifying minority groups, actively encouraging Hindu nationalist groups take up violence on the government’s behalf. B.J.P. supporters were implicated in communal and caste-based violence in Delhi and Maharashtra state in 2018. Dalit and Adivasis communities also continue to face abuses from the government and B.J.P. supporters. According to Amnesty International, more than 50,000 crimes against castes and 8,272 against tribes were reported in 2020. These numbers don’t include cases of sexual violence perpetuated against women by men in higher castes, the victims of which are also prevented from accessing public services.

In most of these instances police investigations and court hearings were allegedly biased and aimed at silencing any future dissent by delays and pro-government rulings.

Police have actively failed to protect these groups when attacked. The police and judicial systems have been empowered by the government’s nationalist, anti-minority ideology. In Jammu and Kashmir there have been widespread allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings. The Indian National Human Rights Commission registered 143 deaths in police custody and 104 alleged extrajudicial killings in 2021. Authorities in the region are known to use the Criminal Procedure Code to prevent police from being prosecuted over allegations of violence. Additionally, the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act provides security forces immunity from prosecution, including for human rights abuses.

India has long been close with the United States because of its geo-political location between Pakistan and China. India is also on track to become the world’s fifth-largest economy by 2025 and potentially the third-largest by 2030. World leaders have therefore taken pains to ignore the country’s spike in human rights violations so that they may continue talking it up as the world’s largest democracy.

The Biden regime may be pivoting in this regard. This April, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken stated that the United States is monitoring human rights abuses in India in what was widely seen as a rare rebuke by Washington. However, while this offers hope, more needs to be done to signal to the Indian government that human rights abuses are unacceptable.

Countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia already have measures in place to achieve this through Magnitsky legislation, which allows governments to freeze the assets and implement travel bans of individuals in other countries who are involved in human rights abuses. This means countries can punish individuals without implementing wide-ranging government sanctions, allowing relationships to continue while expressing disapproval of rights violations.

The international community should also pressure the Indian government to “walk the talk” on human rights. Currently, India is not signatory to the Committee against Torture and the Committee, the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, or the International Criminal Court. Therefore, it is vital that world leaders pressure the B.J.P. to sign these agreements, both to show that the party is serious about its obligations and to protect those persecuted or attacked within India.

Finally, world leaders and foreign ministers need to start calling out India’s deteriorating human rights situation. With India traditionally receiving a large amount of the international community’s foreign aid, making the release of this aid contingent on meeting human rights obligations could be a powerful negotiating tool. While this tactic does have the potential to be alienating, it may also convince the Indian government of the importance the world places on human rights.

The existing human rights regime and international rule of law remain humanity’s best hope for protecting the lives of minority groups, human rights activists, and journalists. For India to continue to be labelled a functioning democracy on the world stage, it needs to respect the human rights of all its citizens as per its obligations as a responsible international citizen. If it fails to do so, then it is up to the international community to hold the current government to account.


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