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Muslims in India deserve more than hopeless possibilities

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By Samrawit Gougsa, Head of Communications at Minority Rights Group International

A few days ago, I read an op-ed by Stephen Rapp in The Diplomat about violence against Muslims in India. Its core message was simple: today there is enough evidence that recent acts of violence against the religious minority may amount to crimes against humanity.

That is a serious assertion, but it’s one made with reason.

The truth is, there is a lot of evidence. Rapp is one of three international human rights experts who formed a Panel of Independent International Experts and investigated the issue. The result of that work is a 494-page report on alleged violations against Indian Muslims since 2019.

The evidence they found suggests that countless human rights of Muslims across India have been violated by the Indian authorities. The range of those violations is staggering and includes: torture and inhumane treatment (including against children); sexual violence incitement to violence; arbitrary detention; violations of freedom of religion or belief; violations of freedoms of expression, association and assembly; violations of fair trial rights; discrimination in law and policy; and violations of other economic, social and cultural rights.

They argue that the situation shows a state-led, systematic targeting of Indian Muslims because of their religion and their status as a minority. Episodes of violence in Uttar Pradesh and Jammu and Kashmir may amount to crimes against humanity and war crimes, while certain instances of hate speech may amount to incitement to commit genocide.

Yet, with such grave violations, why has the reaction from the international community been silence?

When concerns about its human rights record are raised internationally, India responds with either clichés and platitudes, or disdain and open hostility. In September 2021, after various concerns about Jammu and Kashmir were raised by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the Indian government dismissed them as ‘unwarranted remarks’ that ‘do not reflect the ground reality’.  Other experts who cared enough to raise concerns have been personally targeted.

Domestic institutions in India are failing

The experts found that most violations of human rights against Muslims went unaddressed by domestic institutions. Law enforcement authorities rarely investigate independently. Victims go without reparation. India’s National Human Rights Commission has remained a dead letter, while the Indian judiciary has remained passive, despite urgent need. This has left victims of even the most serious violations with no effective remedy.

Of the more egregious violations detailed in the report, no perpetrators have been brought to justice. Instead, accusations of grave human rights abuses against state forces are routinely dismissed by authorities and Indian courts. Last year, the state government of Uttar Pradesh withdrew scores of criminal cases against perpetrators of anti-Muslim mass violence in 2013 in Muzaffarnagar, which saw more than 50 lose their lives and 50,000 people affected.

Just last week brought a shocking development. On 15 August, India celebrated 75 years of independence from colonial rule. Hindu-nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of women’s rights, dignity and Nari Shakti (women power). That same day, 11 men convicted for life in 2008 for the gang rape of Bilkis Bano, and the murder of 14 of her family members during the 2022 anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat, had their sentences remitted.

These trends have not only weakened the rule of law in India, but also exacerbate impunity and embolden perpetrators.

Human rights defenders under attack

To make matters worse, Indian courts now seem to be acting against survivors and human rights defenders seeking justice.

In June, the Indian Supreme Court dismissed a plea by Zakia Jafri, wife of former parliamentarian Ehsan Jafri, who was murdered along with 69 others he was trying to protect from Hindu mobs in the Gujarat 2002 pogroms. Zakia Jafri’s plea was for a wider probe into the role of Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, into the mass violence. The court accused the petitioner and human rights defenders supporting her of a ‘devious stratagem’ to keep the ‘pot boiling’ and noted that those involved in such ‘abuse of process need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law’.

A day later, Gujarat authorities arrested Teesta Setalvad, prominent human rights defender and a vocal supporter of Jafri, along with other activists. Then in July 2022, whilst dismissing a plea by a human rights defender seeking investigation into an 2009 alleged massacre by state forces of indigenous Adivasis in Chattisgarh, another bench of the Supreme Court ruled for legal costs to be recovered by the applicant.

Today, justice and accountability for human rights violations against minorities in India is only a hopeless possibility.

The need for international action

But there is hope. One crucial way forward is for the international community to step up in support of minority rights. The continuing abuses against Indian Muslims, combined with failures of domestic remedies, make international attention and accountability critical. The international community must begin with monitoring, reporting and publicly calling out serious violations against Muslims and other minorities as well as indigenous peoples in India.

UN human rights actors and experts have raised concerns about escalating abuses against Muslims and other minorities. But they must do more to bring these abuses up the agenda publicly. They must do more to demand concrete responses and constructive engagement from Indian authorities to their communications.

Governments of other states too have a duty to monitor the situation in India and speak out publicly about their concerns.

International media must turn their attention to the worsening situation in India and report sensitively.

And the international human rights community must invest more resources and attention in monitoring and responding to the situation in India.

Experience tells us that systemic hostility and discrimination against minorities, in the hands of a mobilised majority, often escalates to mass atrocity crimes, even genocide. As we observe the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, we must keep our sights focused on the worsening situation in India.

Because human rights and democracy must be more than empty slogans.

Photo: A citizen holds a placard during a peace vigil against rising hate crimes and violence against the Muslim community in India, 16 April 2022. Credit: Karma Sonam Bhutia/ZUMA Press Wire

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