The latest report by the Human Rights Watch (HRW) on India concludes that the government has adopted policies and laws that systematically discriminate against Muslims. The report further concludes that the ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s prejudiced policies have eroded independent institutions, such as the police and the courts, empowering nationalist groups to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities with impunity.

The report comes ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Delhi riots that claimed the lives of 53 people, 40 of them being Muslims. The international watchdog claims that the investigative authorities were complicit in the attacks, and allegations of BJP leaders inciting the violence were investigated impartially instead of targeting activists and protest organizers. 

“The BJP’s embrace of the Hindu majority at the expense of minorities has seeped into government institutions, undermining equal protection of the law without discrimination,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government has not only failed to protect Muslims and other minorities from attacks but is providing political patronage and cover for bigotry.”

The counter-crackdown on the protestors and victims has framed opposition to the ruling party as anti-national and arrested leading figures of the protests against India’s controversial citizenship laws that would have led to discrimination and possible marginalization of the Muslim minority. The government passed a citizenship law in December 2019 that discriminates against Muslims, making religion the basis for citizenship for the first time. In August 2019, the government also revoked the constitutional autonomy granted to the only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and imposed restrictions in violation of people’s basic rights. Since October 2018, Indian authorities have threatened to deport Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar despite the risks to their lives and security, and have already repatriated over a dozen.

One of the prominent Muslim activists arrested in the aftermath of the riots was Umer Khalid, a former student of the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. 

On February 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in parliament, describing people participating in various peaceful protests as “parasites” and calling international criticism of increasing authoritarianism in India a “foreign destructive ideology.”

HRW’s website states: “BJP leaders and affiliated groups have long portrayed minority communities, especially Muslims, as a threat to national security and to the Hindu way of life. They have raised the bogey of ‘love jihad,’ claiming that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam, labelled Muslims illegal immigrants or even extremists, and accused them of hurting Hindu sentiment over cow slaughter.”

Furthermore, the report alleges that States use laws against cow slaughter to prosecute Muslim cattle traders, even as BJP-affiliated groups attack Muslims and Dalits on rumours that they killed or traded cows for beef. Three BJP-ruled states have recently passed an anti-conversion law, which in practice is used against Muslim men who marry Hindu women.

These policies are in violation of India’s domestic laws and the international charters that India is a signatory of, also violating its international obligations, which require that prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion, and require the governments to provide residents with equal protection of the law. The Indian government is also obligated to protect religious and other minority populations and to fully and fairly prosecute those responsible for discrimination and violence against them, Human Rights Watch said.

“The BJP government’s actions have stoked communal hatred, created deep fissures in society, and led to much fear and mistrust of authorities among minority communities,” Ganguly said. “India’s standing as a secular democracy is at serious risk unless the government rolls back discriminatory laws and policies and ensures justice for abuses against minorities.”

Systemic Prejudice 

In November, India’s Uttar Pradesh state government passed a law aimed at curbing interfaith relationships. The phrase “love jihad” is used by BJP politicians to promote a baseless theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam. The law, Prohibition of Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance, requires anyone wishing to convert to seek approval from the district authorities and carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for converting another person through coercion, fraud, misrepresentation, or inducement. While this law ostensibly applies to all forced religious conversions, enforcement has largely targeted Muslim men in Hindu-Muslim relationships.

The State of Uttar Pradesh, in November, passed a law aimed at curbing interfaith relationships. Since the law came into effect, authorities have filed cases against 86 people, 79 of whom are Muslim, accusing them of “enticing a woman” and forcing her to convert to Islam. In most such cases, the complainant is not the woman in question, but her family who oppose the interfaith relationship. 

Jammu and Kashmir

In August 2019, the constitutional autonomy of the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir was unilaterally revoked by the Indian government, after which the government imposed broad restrictions and arbitrarily detained thousands of people—including elected officials, political leaders, activists, journalists, and lawyers. These arrests were made without any information given to the detainees’ families; several were even transferred to jails outside the state. 

The report further states that the Indian authorities also violated the basic provision of justice and fundamental rights by delaying the hearings on habeas corpus petitions, the international principle of justice that protects citizens from unlawful arrests and detention.

554 habeas corpus petitions were filed in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court after August 5, 2019, and till September 2020, the court had passed judgment in only 29 cases. The harsh and discriminatory restrictions on Muslim-majority areas in Jammu and Kashmir remain in effect. With scores of people detained without charge and critics threatened with arrest, the report concluded. 

Islamophobia

The report also took an in-depth view of the situation that emerged after the COVID-19 outbreak in India, which led to the government singling out a mass Muslim religious congregation in Delhi.

BJP leaders calling the meeting a “Talibani crime” and “Corona Terrorism,” and pro-government media accusing those who attended the gathering and Indian Muslims in general of not just being responsible for the outbreak but deliberately spreading it as a move against India. 

The report took cognisance of the use of fake news that spread misinformation, claiming that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus, leading to weeks of abuses against Muslims, boycotts of their businesses and individuals, and numerous physical attacks on Muslims, including volunteers distributing relief supplies.

In August, the Bombay High Court stated that the cases appeared to have been filed to warn Indian Muslims who had been protesting against the citizenship policies across the country: “This action indirectly gave warning to Indian Muslims that action in any form and for anything can be taken against Muslims.”

The comprehensive report by the HRW has shed light on how India has changed in the last decade, from a stable secular democracy in South Asia, to a Hindu fundamentalist state that has eroded all independent institutions and created state machinery that functions on Hindu nationalism and has marginalized minorities in the country. 

The author works as a sub-editor at The Correspondent, focusing on Student Politics, Social issues and International Relations.

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