World Report 2019
Event in India 2018
In 2018, the government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) harassed and at times prosecuted activists, lawyers, human rights defenders, and journalists for criticizing authorities. Draconian sedition and counterterrorism laws were used to chill free expression. Foreign funding regulations were used to target nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) critical of government actions or policies.
The government failed to prevent or credibly investigate growing mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government—often carried out by groups claiming to support the government. At the same time, some senior BJP leaders publicly supported perpetrators of such crimes, made inflammatory speeches against minority communities, and promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence.
Lack of accountability for past abuses committed by security forces persisted even as there were new allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings, including in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Haryana.
The Supreme Court decriminalized homosexual sexual relations, striking down a colonial-era law, paving the way for full constitutional protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.
Impunity for Security ForcesThere were repeated allegations of violations by government forces in Jammu and Kashmir during security operations. In 2018, there was increased violence involving militants that many attributed to political failures to ensure accountability for abuses. Militants killed at least 32 policemen in 2018. In August, in retaliation for the arrest of their relatives, militants in South Kashmir kidnapped 11 relatives of several policemen. The militants released all relatives of police personnel after authorities released the family members of the militants. In November, militant group Hizbul Mujahideen killed a 17-year-old boy in Kashmir on suspicion that he was a police informer, and released the video of the killing as a warning to others. Militants killed several other people in 2018 on suspicions of being police informers. In June, unidentified gunmen killed prominent journalist Shujaat Bukhari, editor of the Rising Kashmir, outside the newspaper’s office in Srinagar.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights released its first-ever report on the human rights situation in Kashmir in June. The report focused on abuses since July 2016, when violent protests erupted in response to the killing of a militant leader by soldiers. The government dismissed the report, calling it “fallacious, tendentious and motivated.”
The report described impunity for human rights violations and lack of access to justice, and noted that the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Jammu and Kashmir Public Safety Act (PSA) impede accountability for human rights violations.
The AFSPA, which is also in force in several states in India’s northeast, provides soldiers effective immunity from prosecution for serious human rights abuses. The government has failed to review or repeal the law despite repeated recommendations from several government-appointed commissions, UN bodies and experts, and national and international rights groups.
In March, in a welcome step, the government removed AFSPA from the northeastern state of Meghalaya and from 8 out of 16 police stations in Arunachal Pradesh.
In May, police shot at demonstrators protesting a copper plant in Tamil Nadu state, killing 13 people and injuring 100. Police said they were compelled to respond with live ammunition after demonstrators stoned the police, attacked a government building, and set vehicles on fire. A fact-finding report by activists and civil society groups said police failed to follow standard operating procedures for crowd control.
After the BJP formed the government in Uttar Pradesh state, 63 people died in alleged extrajudicial killings by state police between March 2017 and August 2018. The National Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court sought responses from the state government. The killings in Uttar Pradesh highlighted the lack of accountability for police abuses and the need for police reforms.
Dalits, Tribal Groups, and Religious MinoritiesMob violence by extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling BJP against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that they traded or killed cows for beef. As of November, there had been 18 such attacks, and eight people killed during the year.
In July, the government in Assam published a draft of the National Register of Citizens, aimed at identifying Indian citizens and legitimate residents following repeated protests and violence over irregular migration from Bangladesh. The potential exclusion of over four million people, many of them Muslims, from the register raised concerns over arbitrary detention and possible statelessness.
Dalits, formerly “untouchables,” continued to be discriminated against in education and in jobs. There was increased violence against Dalits, in part as a reaction to their more organized and vocal demands for social progress and to narrow historical caste differences.
In November, farmers protested against debt and lack of state support for rural communities, and called for establishing rights of women farmers and protecting the land rights of Dalits and tribal communities against forcible acquisition.
In April, nine people were killed in clashes with police after Dalit groups protested across several north Indian states against a Supreme Court ruling to amend the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. In response to a complaint of alleged misuse of the law, the court had ordered that a senior police official should conduct a preliminary inquiry before a case is registered under the law. Following the widespread protests, the parliament passed amendments to the law in August, overturning the Supreme Court order.
In July, police in Ahmedabad city raided an area, home to 20,000 members of the vulnerable and marginalized Chhara tribe, a denotified tribe. According to residents, police allegedly brutally beat up scores of people, damaged property, and filed false cases against many of them.
A January report by a government-appointed committee on denotified tribes—tribes that were labeled as criminal during British colonial rule, a notification repealed after independence—said they were the most marginalized communities, subject to “social stigma, atrocity and exclusion.”
Tribal communities remained vulnerable to displacement because of mining, dams, and other large infrastructure projects.
In September, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the biometric identification project, Aadhaar, saying the government could make it a requirement for accessing government benefits and filing income tax, but restricted it for other purposes. Rights groups raised concerns that Aadhaar registration requirements had prevented poor and marginalized people from getting essential services that are constitutionally guaranteed, including food and health care.
Freedom of ExpressionAuthorities continued to use laws on sedition, defamation, and counterterrorism to crack down on dissent.
In April, police in Tamil Nadu state arrested a folk singer for singing a song at a protest meeting that criticized Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In August, state authorities detained an activist for sedition, allegedly for describing police abuses against protesters opposing a copper factory at the UN Human Rights Council. When a magistrate refused to place him in police custody, police arrested him in an older case and added sedition to the charges against him. Police have also added charges under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), the key counterterrorism law.
In September, Tamil Nadu state authorities arrested a woman for calling the BJP government “fascist” on board a flight in the presence of the state’s BJP president.
In June, police arrested eight people in Bihar state, including five under the age of 18, for sedition, for playing and dancing to an “anti-India” song.
Journalists faced increasing pressure to self-censor due to threat of legal action, smear campaigns and threats on social media, and even threats of physical attacks. In August, the government withdrew its controversial proposal to monitor social media and online communications and collect data on individuals after the Supreme Court said it would turn India into a “surveillance state.”
State governments resorted to blanket internet shutdowns either to prevent violence and social unrest or to respond to an ongoing law and order problem. By November, they had imposed 121 internet shutdowns, 52 of them in Jammu and Kashmir and 30 in Rajasthan.
Civil Society and Freedom of AssociationAuthorities increasingly used the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act to target civil rights activists and human rights defenders. Police in Maharashtra state arrested and detained 10 civil rights activists, lawyers, and writers, accusing them of being members of a banned Maoist organization and responsible for funding and instigating caste-based violence that took place on January 1, 2018. At time of writing, eight of them were in jail, and one was under house arrest. A fact-finding committee, headed by Pune city’s deputy mayor, found that the January 1 violence was premeditated by Hindu extremist groups, but police were targeting the activists because of pressure from the government to protect the perpetrators.
In Manipur state, police threatened and harassed activists, lawyers, and families pursuing justice for alleged unlawful killings by government security forces.
The Indian government also continued to use the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to restrict foreign funding for NGOs critical of government policies or protesting the government’s large development projects. Cases filed by NGOs challenging government decisions to suspend or cancel their FCRA were pending in court.
Women’s RightsNumerous cases of rape across the country once again exposed the failures of the criminal justice system. Nearly six years after the government amended laws and put in place new guidelines and policies aimed at justice for survivors of rape and sexual violence, girls and women continue to face barriers to reporting such crimes. Victim-blaming is rampant, and lack of witness and victim protection laws make girls and women from marginalized communities even more vulnerable to harassment and threats.
Starting in September, numerous women in India’s media and entertainment industries shared their accounts on social media of workplace sexual harassment and assault, as part of the #MeToo movement. These public accounts, naming the accused, highlighted the failures of due process, lack of mental health services and support for survivors, and the urgent need to fully implement the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act of 2013, which prescribes a system for investigating and redressing complaints in the workplace.
In September, the government launched a national registry of sexual offenders, which would store the name, address, photo, fingerprints, and personal details of all arrested, charged, and convicted of sexual offenses. The database, available only to law enforcement agencies, raised concerns regarding data breaches and violations of privacy protections, including for individuals never convicted of a sexual offense.
In September, the Supreme Court lifted the ban on entry of women of menstruating age—between 10 and 50—to a temple in southern India, on grounds of nondiscrimination, equality, and women’s right to practice religion. This prompted protests from devotees, including women, who tried to stop girls and young women from entering the temple. The same month, the top court struck down an archaic law that criminalized adultery.
Children’s RightsIn April, the government passed an ordinance introducing capital punishment for those convicted of raping a girl under 12 years of age. The new ordinance also increased minimum punishment for rape of girls and women.
The ordinance was a response to the widespread criticism and protests after two prominent cases. In one, some leaders and supporters of the ruling BJP defended alleged Hindu perpetrators of the abduction, ill-treatment, rape, and murder of an 8-year-old Muslim child in Jammu and Kashmir state. The second was in Uttar Pradesh state, where authorities not only failed to arrest a BJP legislator accused of raping a 17-year-old girl, but also allegedly beat her father to death in police custody.
The ordinance was widely criticized by rights groups. However, in August, with parliament’s approval, the ordinance became law.
Child labor, child trafficking, and poor access to education for children from socially and economically marginalized communities remained serious concerns throughout India.
Sexual Orientation and Gender IdentityIn September, India’s Supreme Court struck down section 377 of India’s penal code, decriminalizing consensual adult same-sex relations. The ruling followed decades of struggle by activists, lawyers, and members of LGBT communities. The court’s decision also has significance internationally, as the Indian law served as a template for similar laws throughout much of the former British empire.
In December, the lower house of parliament passed the Transgender Persons (Protection of Rights) Bill, 2018. Rights groups and a parliamentary committee had criticized an earlier version of the bill for contradicting several provisions laid down in a 2016 Supreme Court ruling. Although the government incorporated several amendments in the revised bill, it failed to adequately protect the community, including transgender people’s right to self-identify.
Disability RightsWomen and girls with disabilities continue to be at a heightened risk of abuse. Even though the laws on sexual violence include several provisions to safeguard the rights of women and girls with disabilities and facilitate their participation in investigative and judicial processes, girls and women with disabilities face serious barriers in the justice system.
Foreign PolicyThe Indian government spoke out against Maldives President Abdulla Yameen’s crackdown on opposition leaders and declaration of a state of emergency, despite concerns that criticism of the Maldives’ leader would push the country further toward China. This led to tense relations between the two countries. India aimed to repair ties with the Maldives after Yameen was defeated in elections held in September 2018.
In June, India joined 119 other countries in voting in favor of a United Nations General Assembly resolution that deplored Israel’s “excessive, disproportionate and indiscriminate” use of force against Palestinian civilians in Gaza after the United States vetoed a similar resolution at the UN Security Council.
In May, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj visited Myanmar and said India would help to ensure a “safe, speedy and sustainable” return of hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslim refugees who had fled to Bangladesh during a campaign of ethnic cleansing by security forces in late 2017. Swaraj reaffirmed India’s commitment to socioeconomic development projects in Myanmar’s Rakhine State, but did not call on the Myanmar government to check abuses by its security forces or amend its discriminatory citizenship law that effectively keeps the Rohingya stateless. In October, the Indian government deported seven Rohingya to Myanmar, where they are at grave risk of abuse, prompting condemnation from rights groups at home and abroad.
A public call on rights protections did not feature during bilateral engagement with other neighbors including Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan. Relations with Pakistan were marked by angry allegations and counter-allegations of sponsoring violent groups.
Key International ActorsIn September, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense James Mattis visited India to hold talks with their counterparts to strengthen trade, economic, and defense cooperation between the two countries, but there was no public discussion of the human rights situation in either country.
Throughout the year, the UN special procedures issued several statements raising concerns over a slew of issues in India including sexual violence, discrimination against religious minorities, targeting of activists, and lack of accountability for security forces.
The UN special rapporteur on racism called the decision to deport seven Rohingya back to Myanmar a “flagrant denial of their right to protection.”
The Dalits | Still untouchable
Years after Independence, political rhetoric and Constitutional protection have failed to end atrocities against Dalits. Is Ambedkar's dream of social and economic equality a bridge too far?
Ajit Kumar JhaFebruary 3, 2016
Illustration by Saurabh Singh
"The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker section of the people, and in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation."
-Article 46 of the Indian Constitution.
Today, 68 years after Independence, as Dalits continue to bear the brunt of violence and discrimination-highlighted in recent weeks by the tragic suicide of Rohith Vemula, a Ph.D student in the Hyderabad Central University who hanged himself, blaming his birth as a "fatal accident" in a chilling final note-we could not be any further away from what the Constitution had demanded from a free and fair India.
Students protesting against the death of doctoral student Rohith Vemula. Photo: M ZhazoRohith's is not the lone tragedy. A spectre of suicide deaths by several Dalit students is haunting India. Out of 25 students who committed suicide only in north India and Hyderabad since 2007, 23 were Dalits. This included two in the prestigious All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, and 11 in Hyderabad city alone. Systematic data does not exist for such suicides, but the problem runs far deeper than a few students deciding to end their own lives after being defeated by the system.Dalit dilemma in India reads like an entire data sheet of tragedies. According to a 2010 report by the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) on the Prevention of Atrocities against Scheduled Castes, a crime is committed against a Dalit every 18 minutes. Every day, on average, three Dalit women are raped, two Dalits murdered, and two Dalit houses burnt. According to the NHRC statistics put together by K.B. Saxena, a former additional chief secretary of Bihar, 37 per cent Dalits live below the poverty line, 54 per cent are undernourished, 83 per 1,000 children born in a Dalit household die before their first birthday, 12 per cent before their fifth birthday, and 45 per cent remain illiterate. The data also shows that Dalits are prevented from entering the police station in 28 per cent of Indian villages. Dalit children have been made to sit separately while eating in 39 per cent government schools. Dalits do not get mail delivered to their homes in 24 per cent of villages. And they are denied access to water sources in 48 per cent of our villages because untouchability remains a stark reality even though it was abolished in 1955.
We may be a democratic republic, but justice, equality, liberty and fraternity-the four basic tenets promised in the Preamble of our Constitution-are clearly not available to all. Dalits continue to be oppressed and discriminated against in villages, in educational institutions, in the job market, and on the political battlefront, leaving them with little respite in any sphere or at any juncture of their lives.
All this even while there has been no dearth of political rhetoric, or creation of laws, to pronounce that Dalits must not get a raw deal. The Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955, and the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, prescribe punishments from crimes against Dalits that are much more stringent than corresponding offences under the IPC. Special courts have been established in major states for speedy trial of cases registered exclusively under these Acts. In 2006, former prime minister Manmohan Singh even equated the practice of "untouchability" to that of "apartheid" and racial segregation in South Africa.In December 2015, the SC and ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, passed by Parliament, made several critical changes. New activities were added to the list of offences. Among them were preventing SCs/STs from using common property resources, from entering any places of public worship, and from entering an education or health institution. In case of any violation, the new law said that the courts would presume unless proved otherwise that the accused non-SC/ST person was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim.
So why have violent incidents against Dalits increased, rather than decreased over the years, in spite of Constitutional protection and legal safeguards? "Caste is not simply a law and order problem but a social problem. Caste violence can only be eradicated with the birth of a new social order," says Chandra Bhan Prasad, co-author of Defying the Odds: The Rise of Dalit Entrepreneurs. He argues that the upward mobility of some Dalits caused by market reforms post-1991, ironically leads to higher incidence of atrocities in the form of a backlash.
Education, the hotbed
Protest is starting to brew in institutions of higher education. At Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, hundreds of students gathered at the Ganga dhaba on the eve of Vemula's 27th birthday on January 29 to organise a candlelight vigil. Slogans sliced the silence of the winter night: "Tum kitne Rohithon ko maroge? Har ghar se Rohith niklega (How many Rohiths will you murder? A Rohith will rise from every household)", and "Jaativaad pe halla bol, Brahminvaad pe halla bol, Hindutva pe halla bol, Manuvaad pe halla bol (Raise you voice against casteism, Brahminism, Hindutva, and discrimination)!" Next afternoon, the students held a protest rally at the city's RSS headquarters in Jhandewalan to celebrate Rohith's birthday. The police retaliated with batons.
Organised under the aegis of Joint Action Committee (JAC), the students were led by the Birsa Munda, Phule and Ambedkar Student's Association (BAPSA), a body formed on November 14, 2014. Birsa, Phule and Ambedkar have replaced Marx, Lenin and Mao in JNU as icons of "identity", and "caste" replaces "class" as the main issue.Who are the new student leaders? Sanghapalli Aruna Lohitakshi, a linguistics Ph.D student from Vishakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, is one of the founding members of BAPSA, which is akin to poet Namdeo Dhasal's Dalit Panthers of the 1970s. She speaks of "ghettoisation by upper-caste students," and "Dalit faculty seats being converted into general seats on the pretext that no suitable Dalit candidates were found". Though BAPSA and groups such as the Ambedkar Students' Association spew venom and spit fire, their struggle highlights a form of subversive protest that fights suppression with suicide. To borrow from JNU Professor Gopal Guru, it showcases the "clash between the life of the mind versus the life of the caste".
The primary reason for educational institutions emerging as pulpits of protest lies in the fractured social structure in universities, where the elite of the Dalits are competing with general students. Not only are they more aware of Constitutional provisions, they feel they are treated unfairly by university authorities and student bodies such as the ABVP by virtue of their selection in the reserved category. This is what Rohith had articulated in his suicide note, and was seemingly corroborated by the circumstances behind his suspension from the university after a skirmish with the ABVP.
In villages and urban slums, however, where segregation is rampant to this day, voices are stifled even before they can be raised. A stark example of this is a dusty little hamlet called Sunpedh-meaning empty trees-in Ballabhgarh, Haryana, barely 40 kilometres from Delhi. The tension is palpable, the stillness stifling, as the centre of the village feels like a fortress with 65 Haryana police personnel posted to prevent inter-caste clashes. No one greets anyone, no one is smiling.Untouchability is practised widely in Sunpedh. Ask about Ram Prasad, a local grocery shop-owner, and the instant response from a young man on a motorbike is: "Chamaron ke ilake mein jayiye (Go where the Dalits live). The upper-caste areas are separated from the low-lying Dalit quarters with mud puddles all around.
The entire hamlet comprises approximately 2,700 bighas of land, of which 2,000 bighas is owned by 300 families of Thakurs. The rest is owned by Dalit communities, including 150 Ravidas families, and smaller numbers of Valmikis, Garerias, and Dhimars. Most of the Dalits survive as daily-wage labourers in the farms of the Thakurs.
Here, on the night of October 21, 2015, four members of a Dalit family were set ablaze inside their house: Jitender, his wife Rekha, and their children Vaivhav, 2, and Divya, nly 10 months old. The village erupted in grief and indignation the next day when the bodies of the infants, wrapped in white shrouds, arrived for cremation. Jitender escaped while Rekha suffered serious burn injuries. Their gutted home is officially sealed, guarded by the police.
Jitender's mother Santa Devi, his 85-year old grandmother Buddhan Devi, his aunt Kanta (all three are widows) and his married sister Gita, sleep in the open in the severe winter cold since the house is officially sealed. "There seems no flame of justice, no place to live, no one to earn, no money for lawyers, no one to care for us three widows," says Buddhan. "My brother Jitender threatens to commit suicide every day. Suicide, like the Rohith Vemula case, seems like the only option for a Dalit," laments Gita. A majority of the heinous crimes against Dalits, as documented by the NHRC, are perpetrated in villages in which they are treated as second-class citizens.
But discrimination isn't a rural problem alone. Joblessness among Dalits runs through the urban landscape as well. According to 2011 Census data, the unemployment rate for SCs between 15 and 59 years of age was 18 per cent, including marginal workers seeking work, as compared to 14 per cent for the general population. Among STs, the unemployment rate was even higher at over 19 per cent.
Government data suggests that the usual suspect in terms of incidence of crime committed against SCs is the Hindi heartland. Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan top the list with 8,075 and 8,028 cases respectively in 2014. Bihar is the third-worst with 7,893 incidents. Neither the political regime, nor the ideology of the ruling political party, nor the presence of major Dalit parties within the states makes a difference. Rajasthan and MP are ruled by BJP governments, Uttar Pradesh by the SP and Bihar by the JD (U). All the parties are equally guilty of sins of omission and commission.
"The absence of social reform movements in the heartland states in contrast to the southern states has contributed to the presence of brutal caste wars in the north," says P.S. Krishnan, a former welfare secretary. In the south, the undivided Andhra Pradesh is the worst performer with 4,114 atrocities recorded in 2014.
Part of the reason for this is the backlash by privileged groups against a new form of assertion of rights and display of aspirations by Dalit youth. The emergence of Dalit parties such as Mayawati's BSP, and the rise of Maoists in Bihar and Andhra Pradesh, explains the rise of violent incidents in these states. An assertion of Dalit rights, whether in terms of identity politics (in Uttar Pradesh), or class politics (Bihar and Andhra Pradesh), leads to a backlash. All through the 1990s, Bihar was wracked by caste wars-most notably Ranvir Sena versus Lal Sena-in parts of Jehanabad, Aurangabad, Gaya and Bhojpur.
Dalit politics typically takes two forms: militant movements and electoral coalitions. The democratic electoral route is ironically poised on the cusp of a cruel paradox in which Dalit groups must either ally with mainstream political parties and risk compromising with the Dalit agenda; or fight it out alone and risk getting pushed to the margins. It is a Hobson's Choice.
The reason is that the spread of Dalit population throughout India is such that by themselves they are always in a minority. In any electoral battle, they can only benefit if they form an alliance either with other dominant caste groups, or mainstream political parties.
In Uttar Pradesh, for example, Mayawati allied initially with mainstream parties-Congress, BJP and the Samajwadi Party-but ended up quitting the alliance each time in a huff. Later, she changed her strategy by forming alliances "directly with upper-caste groups and minorities", says BSP's Sudhindra Bhadoria. "The Brahmins and Thakurs form an alliance with BSP not because they have an ideological affinity but because they want to defeat the Yadav-led SP," adds another BSP leader. In spite of such alliances, however, the BSP faced defeats in the 2012 Assembly polls and 2014 Lok Sabha elections in UP because its math was trumped by the Yadav-Muslim combine and the consolidation of the Hindu vote.
The way out
The obvious ways to ensure that the lot of the Dalits is improved are education, rise in economic status, market reforms transforming the lives of millions of Dalits living in impecunious conditions. But not many experts are convinced of this path to empowerment. "Market reforms can touch the life of a few thousands of Dalits but it simply creates an island of prosperity amongst a sea of penury," says Guru, arguing that social movements are the only solution.
Krishnan, on the other hand, believes that constitutional safeguards and protective legal clauses can play a great enabling role. But, more than any of this, a change of attitude is needed among the ruling classes to stem the tide. Perhaps the best solution was provided by B.R. Ambedkar in the Constituent Assembly. "We are entering an era of political equality. But economically and socially we remain a deeply unequal society. Unless we resolve this contradiction, inequality will destroy our democracy," he had warned.
But nothing learnt; little progress made. The Dalit dilemma, ironically, is the dilemma of India. Some hard questions remain: How long must the discrimination continue? How many dreams must be shattered? How many flames of justice must be extinguished? How many Vaibhavs and Divyas must be burnt alive? How many Rohiths must die to change India, once and for all?