New Delhi: Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, has termed the status of the “deteriorating” rights situation in India as “massive, systematic and dangerous”.
In his opening remarks at a hearing on policy options for advancing religious freedom in India, organised by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Washington DC on September 20, 2023, De Varennes said that “India risks becoming one of the world’s main generators of instability, atrocities and violence, because of the massive scale and gravity of the violations and abuses targeting mainly religious and other minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others. It is not just individual or local, it is systematic and a reflection of religious nationalism.”
He spoke of how “in the last decade, issued numerous communications and press releases, communications being way allegations of human rights violations raised though diplomatic channels to the concerned governments. They show a steady and alarming erosion of fundamental rights, particularly for religious and other minorities from the review of communications from 2011 to now: By 2022, almost all of them involve grave allegations of denial of fundamental rights, particularly targeting religious minorities. From 12 May 2020 to 23 May 2023, around 46 communications and an estimated 20 press releases.”
The UN Special Rapporteur invoked Manipur several times, and the viral video of an incident on May 4, which shows a mob and two women disrobed and made to march on the road. Varennes said that two women “from the Christian Kuki community [were] being paraded naked, beaten and gang raped”. He said “there was inaction from authorities until this video caught the international attention”.
He cited Manipur as being “symptomatic of large-scale scapegoating and dehumanising of Muslims and religious ‘others’ that could lead to a slide towards horrific atrocities”. He cited a study which “noted a 786% increase in hate crimes against minorities between 2014 and 2018”. The “discriminatory citizenship determination process in Assam, and potentially other regions of the country, and which could lead to millions denied citizenship,” especially Muslims came up. As did the revocation in 2019 “of the special status or autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir.”
De Varennes said, “With national elections scheduled for early 2024, there are concerns that the targeting of minorities, and human rights defenders will worsen. Indian authorities have not taken any tangible steps to hold perpetrators of abuses against minorities to account. Indian authorities have not engaged constructively with criticism, boasting instead of democratic values and the rule of law. Some senior leaders have either remained silent, or have indeed contributed, through their own rhetoric, to the hostile environment against religious minorities.”
The actions of Canada in response to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar came up at the hearing. The UN Special Rapporteur, noting that the slain man was a Sikh and a member of a religious minority, “without going into the veracity of the charges” said was “an important message to India that certain type of conduct is not acceptable.”
There was a discussion on the need for “international pressure” especially “government to government” pressure and from the US and allies to force the Modi government to “change certain policies” and “to change direction.”
A parallel was drawn to the status of religious freedoms in Tajikistan, a country recognised as being one of special concern, by the UN Special Rapporteur who said Tajikistan “pales when we look at massive atrocities in India on the basis of religion.”
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on a trip to the US in June and was asked in his first press conference as prime minister where he took one question which turned out to be about religious freedoms, status of minorities and free speech in India, he said democracy “was in the DNA” of the US and India. He further said, “We have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender. There’s absolutely no space for discrimination.”
In its 2022 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the US Department of State designate India as a “country of particular concern,” for engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as set forth by the International Religious Freedom Act.