on the world: a view on human rights
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is currently seeking re-election as the world’s largest democracy goes to the ballot boxes on 11 April to 19 May. Emulating his “Gujarat model” at national level, the past five years have witnessed growing unrest, discrimination, inequality and widespread rights abuses.
Narendra Modi’s rise to power as Chief Minister of the west Indian state of Gujarat on the back of anti-Muslim riots in 2002 is well documented. Thousands of people were brutally and systematically murdered and communities remain displaced to the present day. While Modi’s supporters have denied his involvement in the violence and he has never faced charges, many of his close allies have been charged and prosecuted in relation to the 2002 massacre and consequent anti-Muslim and communal violence in the state. Modi himself used the politics of hate, division and fear to promote his “economic model”, neo-liberal measures facilitated by mass land grabs from farmers and circumventing environmental and planning regulations.
Discriminatory policies and action against religious minorities such as Muslims, Dalits and Christians do not hide the fact that inequality and poor access to basic public facilities affect large parts of the wider community. At the same time, Modi’s friends, such as Gautam Adani, have prospered, creating multinational empires operating a similar economic model. The effects of such policies reverberate today, as Gujarati fishermen take their claim against the World Bank to the US courts for financing a project to build a power plant near their village which threatens their lives and livelihoods, and breaches environmental standards.
The politics of divide and rule, employed by the British coloniser over 70 years ago, set the scene for Modi’s tenure as Prime Minister. India’s 170 million Muslims, one of the world’s largest religious minorities, have provided a convenient scapegoat for the BJP and Narendra Modi. In 2016 alone, there were over 700 incidents of communal violence leading to 86 deaths and over 2000 injuries. These include mob lynchings, sometimes filmed, and without intervention by the authorities.
One of the most well-known such incidents was the 2015 attack on villager Mohammad Akhlaq following rumours at the local temple that he and his family had killed and eaten a cow. Over a 3-year period, Amnesty India recorded 34 deaths in cow-related violence. One of Akhlaq’s attackers, released on bail in 2017, Hari Om Sisodia, is standing in the national election for a Hindutva group, the Uttar Pradesh Navnirman Sena.
The same group is also fielding Shambhulal Regar, currently in jail, who was filmed beating a Muslim labourer to death and then burning his body, for being in a relationship with a Hindu woman. When asked why the group is fielding murder suspects, its leader said, “What Regar and others have done is akin to what many politicians are doing by encouraging people to convert their faith. No one stops them from contesting elections”.
The main campaigns of violence Muslims and other minorities have faced over the past 5 years nationally across India, and instigated by Hindutva outfits, along with gau rakshak (cow protection vigilantism), have been a campaign of forced reconversion (ghar wapsi), largely of Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, shoring up legislation and policies that aim to reconstruct India as a Hindu homeland in much the same way that Israel is being restructuring as a Jewish homeland. These include the Citizenship Amendment Bill, with a discriminatory anti-Muslim provision that was later dropped.
On the other hand, Muslim men have been accused of committing love jihad, using love as a tactic to entrap Hindu women into relationships, the reason for which Shambhulal Regar saw fit to murder a stranger. Many families have been torn apart, partners murdered and women hunted down and forced to return to their families. While ostensibly targeting Muslim men, such a practice emphasises the misogynistic view Hindutva ideology has of women, as lacking agency and needing to be protected from themselves. At the same time, the rising tide of sexual and physical violence against women goes unaddressed.
As part of an ongoing Amnesty India campaign, in 2018, 218 alleged hate crimes were recorded: “142 of these were against Dalits, 50 against Muslims, and 8 each against Christians, Adivasis, and Transgender people”. Of these, there were 97 assaults, 87 killings and “40 incidents were reported where women from marginalized groups or transgender persons faced sexual violence”. A day after this report was published, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a warning about India’s “divisive policies” targeting minorities and fuelling inequality.
Physical violence is not the only problem religious minorities and women face. There is also considerable discrimination in housing, creating physical segregation between communities. In many cases, this means that Muslims and Dalits are forced to live in slums and overcrowded neighbourhoods. There is also discrimination in employment and education. Making such groups invisible in public life and pushing them to the physical margin of society makes it easier to create false narratives. In addition, millions of Muslims, Dalits and women have been deliberately disenfranchised through exclusion from the electoral register for this year’s election.
Religious minorities are not the only groups targeted by the Hindutva ideology of the ruling BJP party and its politics of hate. India’s more than 100 million indigenous tribal people, adivasis, are also a target. Adivasis and other forest dwellers often have their land taken away to make way for urban expansion and industrial development. Even though the Indian Supreme Court has stayed a ruling it made in February that could have seen over a million people evicted by July and their land seized, tribal and forest lands still remain at risk of being appropriated.
In recent months, environmental clearance has been given for open cast coal mining in the ancient dense Hasdeo Arand forest, to be operated by a company run by Modi ally Gautam Adani: “Adani companies routinely pick up mining contracts on behalf of government companies in states ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party, whose leader Modi is seen to be close to Adani”. It is not just the usurpation of their legal and cultural rights to land that the advisasi face; they are also subject to attacks by cow vigilantes.
Racist attacks have also increased on foreign nationals, particularly Africans studying and working in India. Bangladeshi migrant workers are subject to both physical violence and nationalist rhetoric against “illegal immigrants”, with BJP President Amit Shah referring to them as “termites” in a pre-election speech. Rohingya refugees who fled to India have been caught up in this violence and rhetoric too, with one BJP politician stating they should be “shot” if they do not leave the country.
Five years of BJP rule under Narendra Modi have taken their toll on Indian democracy; press freedom is one of its victims. The World Press Freedom Index for 2019 saw India continue to slide down the rankings to 140th place. At least six journalists were murdered doing their work in 2018. In the run-up to the election, “Attacks against journalists by supporters of Prime Minister Narendra Modi increased in the run-up to general elections in the spring of 2019. Those who espouse Hindutva, the ideology that gave rise to Hindu nationalism, are trying to purge all manifestations of “anti-national” thought from the national debate.” In 2018, Reporters without Borders issued its first ever Incident Report about India following a continuing increase in murders and intimidation of journalists.
Female journalists are at heightened risk of rape threats and sexual assault. Journalists working in non-English media and in rural areas are at particular risk of violence and murder. The same applies to journalists working in Kashmir; during increased violence in the region in 2016, local newspapers were banned from publication for several days and one was later ordered to shut down.
The BJP government uses the colonial-era Sedition Law to stifle dissent, by restricting what can be published and arresting journalists and editors for what it considers “anti-national” content, leading to self-censorship. Student activists and other critics of Modi’s government have also been arrested under this same law. In counterweight to the fielding of murder and terrorism suspects by Hindutva parties, former Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader Kanhaiya Kumar, arrested on sedition charges in 2016, is standing in the election for the Communist Party of India. JNU students and teachers have also pledged to campaign against Modi in the election, along with colleagues at 20 other universities, in response to the lack of funding and freedom of expression on campus.
Student opposition to the Modi regime is not merely youthful rebellion; in a country with a large and educated youth population with wide-scale unemployment and corruption, India’s youth pay a heavy price for his policies.
In order to crush dissent, Modi’s government has also taken aim at civil society organisation funding by using the law to strip and restrict the foreign funding of non-governmental organisations; since 2014, over 20,000 organisations have had their licenses cancelled. In addition, NGOs and individual rights defenders have had their offices raided, property seized and have been subject to travel bans. Amnesty India and Greenpeace had their accounts frozen in October, seriously compromising their ability to operate.
Terrorism charges laid against 10 human rights defenders from the state of Maharashtra in 2018 ahead of a public meeting to mark an important anniversary in Dalit history were condemned by UN human rights experts; the ten remain in detention to date. Such measures intimidate both activists and victims, deny victims of rights abuses a voice and prevent critical oversight of the work of the BJP government and its allies.
Prior to his election in 2014, Modi was subject to travel bans preventing his entry to the US, the UK and the European Union over his handling of the 2002 Gujarat riots. The world is now a very different place and Modi is one of a growing number of right-wing populist heads of state backed by the multinational corporatist interests of the like of billionaire Guatam Adani. Modi and the BJP are embraced, not shunned, and their actions overlooked by an international community keen to tap into India’s financial strength and one billion consumers.
Hate is not a policy that wins elections. Nor is the politics of fear by promoting the myth that Hinduism is somehow at risk in India or at risk from an external adversary, typified in the increasing alienation and hardened stance against Kashmir and the recent military engagement against Pakistan. Blaming particular sections of the community has not reduced unemployment or inequality or countered the effects of Modi’s disastrous demonetisation policy.
While five years under Narendra Modi and the BJP has indeed sown fear into people, the effect of the politics of hate has not legitimised far-right violence but emboldened and facilitated groups and parties even more extreme right than the BJP itself. The upshot has not just been a disaster for people but the land and the environment too. The current election has already been marred by violence and deaths. Nonetheless, the outcome of the election and where it could lead India and all of its one billion plus people remains to be seen.