No prosecution or ‘serious effort’ seen to prevent attacks by vigilante groups claiming to be BJP supporters.
An increase in violence against women, government failure to control growing attacks on Dalits and religious minorities, often led by vigilante groups claiming to be supporters of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), continuance of demeaning manual scavenging, curbs on free speech ill-treatment of tribal groups and crackdown on protests in Jammu and Kashmir, are some of the violations by the Indian government noted by the Human Rights Watch World Report 2017, released recently by the New York-based non-profit.
“Indian authorities have proven themselves unwilling to protect minority religious communities and other vulnerable groups from frequent attack,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, in a statement, adding that “there needs to be a serious effort to prevent future attacks and to prosecute all those responsible for the violence.”
“In 2016, students were accused of sedition for expressing their views; people who raised concerns over challenges to civil liberties were deemed anti-Indian; Dalits and Muslims were attacked on suspicion they had killed, stolen, or sold cows for beef; and nongovernmental organisations (NGOs) came under pressure due to India’s restrictive foreign funding regulations,” says the 2017 report, noting that the crackdown on violent protests in Jammu and Kashmir beginning in July killed over 90 people and injured hundreds, fueling further discontent against government forces.
This time round, the 28th edition of the 643-page Human Rights Watch report also reflected on the judicial system’s response and progress made by schemes and policies – their scope spanning gender-specific rights, freedom of expression, treatment of minorities and impunity by security forces.
“Supreme Court rulings in 2017 strengthened fundamental rights, equal rights for women, and accountability for security forces violations,” said the 28th edition of the report, noting some favourable rulings, such as in the case of making instant triple talaq void, declaring a citizen’s right to privacy as ‘fundamental’.
“In July, the Supreme Court of India took a strong stand against impunity for security forces, ruling that the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act (AFSPA) does not protect soldiers from prosecution for abuses committed while deployed in internal armed conflicts. The court also gave new life to a challenge to a discriminatory colonial-era law criminalising homosexuality,” said the report.
Women and girls’ rights
Calling for more government action on gender rights, the report lauded the landmark judgment in August 2017, wherein a CBI special court sentenced Dera Sacha Sauda Chief Ram Rahim to 20 years in jail for raping two of his followers, but expressed dismay at the low conviction rate, a key reason for growing crimes again women.
“In a setback for women’s rights, in July the Supreme Court passed several directives on section 498A of the penal code – the anti-dowry law – to curb what it said was “abuse” of the law, directing police not to make arrests until complaints are verified by family welfare committees, bodies the court recommended be comprised of members of civil society, not police,” the report says. Between 2012-2014, out of 31,446 cases of crimes against women in Delhi, only 150 convictions were made – an abysmal 0.47%. The year 2016 saw a conviction rate of 18.9%, the lowest in a decade.
On December 16, 2012, Jyoti Singh, 23, was brutally gang-raped in a moving bus in Delhi. The report notes that after five years after the crime, although the government has put in place certain guidelines and policies and has amended laws to protect the victims, “girls and women continue to face barriers to reporting such crimes, including humiliation at police stations and hospitals; lack of protection; and degrading “two-finger” tests by medical professionals to make characterisations about whether the victim was “habituated to sex.”
The “two-finger” test is an examination method used by doctors on victims of sexual assault. Statements like, “admits two fingers easily” are not uncommon in medico-legal reports. It implies that the victim is habituated to sex and, therefore, had intercourse with consent. The ministry of health’s 2014 medico-legal guidelines abolished this test. However, a November 2017 report by Scroll.in claims that only nine states have adopted these guidelines.
Minority rights and sanitation
Manual scavengers are deemed illegal for recruitment under the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013. Under this Act, it is illegal to employ manual scavengers and is necessary to rehabilitate them with a one- time package of Rs 40,000. Despite such legal apparatus available, 39 manual scavengers lost their lives on the job in 2017.
Unsurprisingly, the implementation of this Act has not been consistent. According to the Socio-Economic and Cast Census 2011, there were over 1,82,505 manual scavengers in India’s rural areas as on March 3, 2015 – the highest being in Maharashtra. Post the implementation of the act, however, a survey has revealed that the number of manual scavengers across 12 states is 12,226. The act requires local authorities to verify the declaration of a worker as a manual scavenger so that provisions for rehabilitation can be made. The web address where the list of verified manual scavengers should be available is, however, not functional. Moreover, since 1993, 323 deaths have been officially reported pan India – the number is disputed by NGOs who work with sanitation workers, claiming that the number of manual scavenger deaths in the last ten years is well over 1,340, the highest being in Tamil Nadu.
In a similar stride of poor implementation, the government’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), although having built over 5,97,78,500 toilets till date, remains incomplete in addressing the wider problem of maintaining these toilets and urging people to use them effectively, since many don’t want to use toilets because of the responsibility to clean them. The Union Territory of Chandigarh was declared open defecation free by SBM in September 2016. However, even a year later, many slum dwellers choose to defecate in the open due to the poor upkeep of the toilets.
Impunity for armed forces and communal unrest
Thounaojam Herojit, head constable of the Manipur state police made a confession in early 2016 about executing over 100 civilians in Manipur’s struggle with separatists’ insurgency – he claimed that the command to carry out these killings came from his superiors within the system.
In July 2017, the Supreme Court ordered a probe through a Special Investigation Team into 98 extra-judicial killings carried out in Manipur during the last decade.
The counter-insurgency killings are not restricted to Manipur however, 184 people were killed in over 42 attacks in Jammu and Kashmir in 2017. Amidst this, in May, the army gave a commendation to an officer who used a bystander as a “human shield” in order to evacuate security personnel and election staff from a mob in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam district.
Further, in July, the Armed Forces Tribunal rescinded the life sentences of five army personnel convicted in 2014 for the unlawful killings of three villagers in the Machil sector in Jammu and Kashmir.
Several cases of lynchings made headlines throughout the year where the victims were mostly Muslims. One of the recent cases of communal violence came to light in early December when a migrant Muslim labourer from West Bengal was hacked to death and burnt by Shambhu Lal Regar, who alleged him of carrying out “love jihad.”
In 2017, India has been witness to an increasing number of attacks on press freedom and vigilante violence that targets critics of the ruling government, the BJP. In over 39 such attacks over the course of the year, 11 have been killed. Both the reports, of 2017 and the present year echo the building concerns over the disintegrating communal harmony in the country, receding freedom of expression and the dangerous empowerment of armed personnel.
Also read: Eleven Journalists Killed, 46 Attacked, 27 Cases of Police Action: Report on Press Freedom 2017
“In Chhattisgarh, journalists, lawyers, and civil society activists faced harassment and arrest. In March, the Editors Guild of India reported that media in Chhattisgarh state were “working under tremendous pressure” from authorities, Maoist rebels, and vigilante groups,” the report said.
In August, the Supreme Court declared the right to individual privacy “intrinsic” and fundamental under the country’s constitution, and emphasised the constitution’s protections, including free speech, rule of law, and “guarantees against authoritarian behavior.”
However, Indian authorities also harassed and brought charges, including for sedition and criminal defamation, against activists, academics, journalists, and others critical of government actions or policies. Threats of legal action and arbitrary corruption investigations put increasing pressure on journalists and media outlets to self-censor, HRW said.
However, the report also noted some positive developments in 2016. “The Narendra Modi government took steps toward ensuring greater access to financial services such as banking, insurance, and pensions for economically marginalised Indians and launched a campaign to make modern sanitation available to more households,” it said.
Mehr Gill is a graduate of the Shri Ram College of Commerce, University of Delhi, and an intern at The Wire.