The Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2023 said that Indian authorities had “intensified and broadened” their crackdown on activist groups and the media through 2022, adding that the “Hindu nationalist” Bharatiya Janata Party-led government used “abusive and discriminatory policies to repress Muslims and other minorities”.
“The BJP government’s promotion of Hindu majoritarian ideology provokes authorities and supporters to engage in discriminatory and at times violent actions against religious minorities,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, adding that the authorities should be reigning in party members and supporters responsible for these abuses instead of “jailing critics and shutting down rights groups”.
The 712-page report in its 33rd edition, reviews human rights practices in close to 100 countries. In the section on India, the HRW said authorities throughout India arrested activists, journalists, and other critics of the government on what it called “politically motivated” criminal charges, including that of terrorism.
“The authorities in several BJP-ruled states demolished Muslim homes and properties without legal authorization or due process as summary punishment for protests or alleged crimes,” the HRW said, in a statement, adding that authorities also “misused” laws forbidding forced religious conversions “to target Christians, especially from Dalit and Adivasi communities”.
Referring to the release of the 11 Hindu men convicted and sentenced to life in jail for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 members of her family, and the celebration of their release by some BJP members, the HRW said, “The action highlighted the government’s discriminatory stance toward minority communities even in cases of violence against women.”
On Jammu and Kashmir, the HRW said that even after three years of removal of Article 370 and creation of two federally-administered territories, “the government continued to restrict free expression, peaceful assembly, and other basic rights there”.
The global human rights observer referred to suspected militant attacks on minority Hindu and Sikh communities in the Kashmir Valley and also the instance of Kashmiri photojournalist Sanna Irshad Matto being prevented from leaving the country to receive her Pulitzer Prize. It added that authorities also invoked the J&K Public Safety Act and UAPA to “arbitrarily” detain journalists and activists.
It added that rights groups were harassed by Indian authorities throughout the country through tax raids, the use of the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act, and other allegations of financial irregularities.
To highlight the human rights situation in India, the HRW also noted that during the country’s Universal Periodic Review at the UN Human Rights Council, “member countries raised concerns and made recommendations on a range of issues including the need to protect minority communities and vulnerable groups, tackle gender-based violence, uphold civil society freedoms, protect human rights defenders, and end torture in custody”.
SC rulings welcomed
Meanwhile, the HRW noted the increasingly liberal steps taken by the Supreme Court in India, citing the ruling to halt all use of the colonial-era Sedition law, which it said “has repeatedly been used to arrest critics of the government”. It also referred to the top court’s ruling on extending abortion rights to all women regardless of marital status and to people other than cisgender women, hailing the court for widening the definition of a family to include same-sex couples, single parents, and other households.
It also took note of the SC’s banning of the two-finger tests in a step to protect survivors of sexual assault but added, “The Supreme Court did not reach a verdict on whether Muslim female students can wear a hijab, a headscarf, in educational institutions in BJP-led Karnataka state, with two judges expressing opposing views.”
In the introductory essay of the World Report 2023, acting Executive Director Tirana Hassan said that it is no longer possible to rely on a small group of “mostly Global North” governments to defend human rights. “The responsibility is on individual countries, big and small, to apply a human rights framework to their policies, and then work together to protect and promote human rights,” she said.