(New York) – Authorities in India have adopted laws and policies that systematically discriminate against Muslims and stigmatize critics of the government, Human Rights Watch said today. Prejudices embedded in the government of the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have infiltrated independent institutions, such as the police and the courts, empowering nationalist groups to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities with impunity.
February 23, 2021 marks the one-year anniversary of the communal violence in Delhi that killed 53 people, 40 of them Muslim. Instead of conducting a credible and impartial investigation, including into allegations that BJP leaders incited violence and police officials were complicit in attacks, the authorities have targeted activists and protest organizers. The authorities have lately responded to another mass protest, this time by farmers, by vilifying minority Sikh protesters and opening investigations into their alleged affiliation with separatist groups.
“The BJP’s embrace of the Hindu majority at the expense of minorities has seeped into government institutions, undermining equal protection of the law without discrimination,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has not only failed to protect Muslims and other minorities from attacks but is providing political patronage and cover for bigotry.”
The February 2020 attacks in Delhi had followed months of peaceful protests by Indians of all faiths against the government’s discriminatory citizenship law and proposed policies. BJP leaders and supporters attempted to discredit protesters, particularly Muslims, by accusing them of conspiring against national interests.
Similarly, after hundreds of thousands of farmers of various faiths began protesting against the government’s new farm laws in November 2020, senior BJP leaders, their supporters on social media, and pro-government media, began blaming the Sikhs, another religious minority. They accuse Sikhs of having a “Khalistani” agenda, a reference to a Sikh separatist insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s and 90s. On February 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in parliament, describing people participating in various peaceful protests as “parasites,” and calling international criticism of increasing authoritarianism in India a “foreign destructive ideology.”
Following violent clashes on January 26 between the police and protesting farmers who broke through police barricades to enter Delhi, the authorities filed baseless criminal cases against journalists, ordered the internet to be shut down at multiple sites, and ordered Twitter to block nearly 1,200 accounts, including of journalists and news organizations, some of which Twitter later restored. On February 14, the authorities arrested a climate activist, accusing her of sedition and criminal conspiracy for allegedly editing a document providing information on the protests and how to support them on social media, and issued warrants against two others.
The latest arrests come amid increased targeting of activists, academics, and other critics, by the government in recent years. The authorities have especially harassed and prosecuted those protecting the rights of minorities and vulnerable communities. BJP leaders and affiliated groups have long portrayed minority communities, especially Muslims, as a threat to national security and to the Hindu way of life. They have raised the bogey of “love jihad,” claiming that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam, labeled Muslims illegal immigrants or even extremists, and accused them of hurting Hindu sentiment over cow slaughter.
Since Modi’s BJP came to power in 2014, it has taken various legislative and other actions that have legitimized discrimination against religious minorities and enabled violent Hindu nationalism, Human Rights Watch said.
The government passed a citizenship law in December 2019 that discriminates against Muslims, making religion the basis for citizenship for the first time. In August 2019, the government also revoked the constitutional autonomy granted to the only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and imposed restrictions in violation of people’s basic rights. Since October 2018, Indian authorities have threatened to deport Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar despite the risks to their lives and security, and have already repatriated over a dozen. States use laws against cow slaughter to prosecute Muslim cattle traders even as BJP-affiliated groups attack Muslims and Dalits on rumors that they killed or traded cows for beef. Most recently, three BJP-ruled states have passed an anti-conversion law, which in practice is used against Muslim men who marry Hindu women.
These actions violate domestic law and India’s obligations under international human rights law that prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion, and require the governments to provide residents with equal protection of the law. The Indian government is also obligated to protect religious and other minority populations, and to fully and fairly prosecute those responsible for discrimination and violence against them, Human Rights Watch said.
“The BJP government’s actions have stoked communal hatred, created deep fissures in society, and led to much fear and mistrust of authorities among minority communities,” Ganguly said. “India’s standing as a secular democracy is at serious risk unless the government rolls back discriminatory laws and policies and ensures justice for abuses against minorities.”
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Discriminatory Laws and Policies
In November, India’s Uttar Pradesh state government passed a law aimed at curbing interfaith relationships. The phrase “love jihad” is used by BJP politicians to promote a baseless theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam. The law, Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, requires anyone wishing to convert to seek approval from the district authorities and carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for converting another person through coercion, fraud, misrepresentation, or inducement. While this law ostensibly applies to all forced religious conversions, enforcement has largely targeted Muslim men in Hindu-Muslim relationships.
Since the law came into effect, Utter Pradesh authorities have filed cases against 86 people, 79 of whom are Muslim, accusing them of “enticing a woman” and forcing her to convert to Islam. Seven others are accused of coercing women to convert them to Christianity. The government has even unlawfully used the law retroactively, and sometimes even brought cases against families of the accused Muslim men. In most cases, the complainant is not the woman but her relatives, who oppose an interfaith relationship.
The law has created considerable fear among interfaith couples already at risk of censure from families and Hindu nationalist groups. In November, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh had to grant protection to 125 interfaith couples. Hindu nationalist groups, including those affiliated with the BJP, have openly harassed and attacked interfaith couples and filed cases against them.
On December 5, men from the militant Hindu group Bajrang Dal, which supports the BJP, forcibly took a 22-year-old Hindu woman married to a Muslim man to the police. The police sent the woman to a government shelter, and arrested her husband and his brother under the anti-conversion law. The woman alleged that she suffered a miscarriage at the shelter due to medical negligence. She was reunited with her husband after she told the court that she was an adult and had married by choice.
BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh states passed similar laws and other BJP-ruled states, including Haryana and Karnataka, are considering it. Several states – Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand – already have anti-conversion laws that have been used against minority communities, especially Christians, including from Dalit and Adivasi communities.
In December 2019, the Modi administration achieved passage of the discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act, which fast-tracks asylum claims of non-Muslim irregular immigrants from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Coupled with the government’s push for a nationwide citizenship verification process through a National Population Register and a proposed National Register of Citizens, aimed at identifying “illegal migrants,” it has heightened fears that millions of Indian Muslims could be stripped of their citizenship rights and disenfranchised.
Before the government passed the law, Home Minister Amit Shah said at an election rally in Delhi in September 2018: “Illegal immigrants are like termites and they are eating the food that should go to our poor and they are taking our jobs.” He promised that “if we come to power in 2019, we will find each and every one and send them away.”
Justice System Bias
In many states, the criminal justice system increasingly reflects the discriminatory views of the BJP, targeting religious and other minorities and critics of the government, and shielding its supporters.
The government’s citizenship policies sparked weeks of nationwide protests beginning December 2019. During the protests, police in several cases did not intervene when BJP-affiliated groups attacked protesters. In at least three BJP-governed states, police used excessive and unnecessary lethal force, killing at least 30 people during protests and injuring scores more. Some BJP leaders called the protesters anti-national and pro-Pakistan, while others led chants to “shoot the traitors.”
On February 23, 2020, after a BJP leader, Kapil Mishra, advocated forcibly dispersing peaceful protesters, many of them Muslim, BJP supporters gathered in the area, leading to clashes between the groups. The situation was aggravated as Hindu mobs armed with swords, sticks, metal pipes, and bottles filled with gasoline, targeted Muslims in several neighborhoods in northeast Delhi. While most of the 53 people killed were Muslim, a policeman