New Delhi: The annual assessment by the US state department of human rights concerns across the world took note of Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah’s characterisation of Bangladeshi migrants in Assam as ‘termites’ and observed the rise in ‘anti-refugee’ rhetoric before elections.
The 2018 country reports were released, last week, by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who stated that “even some of our friends, allies, and partners around the world have human rights violations”. “We document those reports with equal force. Our aim is always to identify human rights challenges and use American influence and power to move every nation towards better, more consistent human rights practices,” he said
The US has been issuing country reports on human rights practices for over 40 years. India has usually not responded publicly to the criticism in these reports.
.@SecPompeo on #HumanRights Report: We hope this report will push governments to change course and cause oppressive regimes to honor human rights in places where voices are often silenced and deep yearnings for tolerance and respect go unfulfilled. https://t.co/bNDWYYR81c pic.twitter.com/4lsLKRk4zJ
— Department of State (@StateDept) March 13, 2019
The 2018 report on India has a new section on the National Register of Citizens, which lists Indian citizens in the state of Assam as directed by the Supreme Court. There has always been a strong undercurrent of anxiety in Assam that foreign nationals, especially from Bangladesh, would migrate to the state and overwhelm the indigenous population.
In this context, the state department report noted that the BJP president has described Bangladeshi migrants with a slur.
“On September 24, ruling BJP party president Amit Shah called Bangladeshis who may be in Assam “termites” who will be struck from the list of citizens,” said the report.
Shah had first referred to Bangladeshi migrants as ‘termites’ at a rally in Rajasthan and repeated the slur again at another political event in Delhi, two days later. He had also added that when BJP formed the government after the Lok Sabha elections, the party would “undertake a nationwide identification of illegal infiltrators living in the country”.
On the NRC process, the report said that the future legal status of those who would be excluded in the final list was not clear. “Many individuals may be declared citizens at the end of the process, while others may be at risk of statelessness”.
While noting that India has traditionally welcomed refugees, the report observed that political parties were using increasingly hostile antirefugee rhetoric.
“UNHCR and NGOs observed an increase in antirefugee (specifically anti-Rohingya) rhetoric throughout the year in advance of state and 2019 national elections, which reportedly led to an increased sense of insecurity in refugee communities,” it stated.
Last October, India deported seven Rohingyas after their plea to halt their deportation was rejected by the Supreme court. The US state department’s report quoted the Human Rights Watch and noted that the Indian government has “disregarded its long tradition of protecting those seeking refuge within its borders”.
On the subject of media freedom, the report noted that press independence had declined in India. “There were a number of reports, including from journalists and NGOs, that government officials, both at the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment/attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, and encouraging frivolous lawsuits,” it stated.
The report cited the example of the resignation of Harish Khare, the editor-in-chief of The Tribune newspaper, after the publication of a report on privacy and security flaws in the Aadhar program. There was also a reference made about the Tamil Nadu government’s Arasu cable network blocking the live transmission of television channels during the anti-sterlite protests.
It also referred to The Wire’s report on the resignation of two senior editors from ABP news, Punya Prasun Vajpai and Milind Khandekar.
“In August internet news portal The Wire reported the government disrupted the broadcast signal of ABP News and pressured the outlet into sidelining several of its journalists, including its editor in chief, in response to a story that claimed inaccuracies in one of the prime minister’s speeches. ABP anchor Punya Prasoon Vajpai and editor Milind Khandekar resigned, and the Editors Guild of India demanded action against officials for “throttling media freedom.”
Another The Wire article cited in the report was on the cancellation of the launch of a magazine and panel discussion under pressure of Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) in the section on “academic freedom”.
Overall, the US report states that India continues to be plagued by human rights concerns ranging from custodial deaths, use of libel laws, curbing of financial activities of non-government agencies, violence based on religious and caste discrimination.
The report said that there was a lack of accountability for misconduct at all levels of the government. “Investigations and prosecutions of individual cases took place, but lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and under-resourced court system contributed to a small number of convictions”.
It has also criticised terror and insurgent groups in Kashmir, northeast and Maoist-affected areas for “serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and of civilians, and recruited and used child soldiers”.