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Supporting religious pluralism and respect for freedom of religion or belief across South Asia (SAC)

Duration: October 2018 – January 2022

Countries: India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Nepal

Communities: Various

What was this programme about?

This programme brought together an existing regional network – the South Asia Collective (SAC) – with three established research and advocacy organizations, which supported strengthening and scaling up this initiative. Drawing on Minority Rights Group Europe’s expertise in regional network building, producing authoritative research on minority rights and Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), and conducting and supporting partners to engage in targeted advocacy at various levels, this initiative was developed in direct collaboration with the two co-applicants – Misaal in New Delhi and Social Science Baha (SSB) in Kathmandu – as well as the remaining members of the SAC.

What is the South Asia Collective (SAC)?

The SAC is a regional network established in 2015, bringing together researchers, activists, and organizations from across South Asia to systematically track the conditions of minorities and their access to rights in line with international standards of FoRB, minority and human rights; and to engage in advocacy based on these findings to improve outcomes for marginalized communities. SAC members are engaged at various levels ranging from grassroots activism to regional and international advocacy with bodies such as the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) and the UN.

What is the context?

Across South Asia, rising majoritarian nationalisms have accompanied severe challenges to FoRB. Religious minorities are at particularly high risk of violent attacks, hate speech, and intimidation, and these violations are frequently met with a lack of accountability. This occurs against a backdrop of long-standing social, economic and cultural marginalization and exclusion, particularly for those who face intersectional discrimination, such as religious minority women, indigenous peoples adhering to minority religions, and those facing caste-based discrimination.

In India, there has been a rise in vigilante violence since the election of the BJP in 2014, particularly targeting Muslim (14 per cent) and Christian (2 per cent) populations. Divisive rhetoric on the part of authorities coupled with discriminatory legislation, including anti-cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, have emboldened vigilante groups. This has fostered hostility towards religious minorities who have been targeted by these laws themselves but who also face vigilante mob violence.

In Bangladesh, political instability and the entrenchment of an increasingly narrow understanding of national identity have similarly undermined FoRB. Religious minorities (including atheists), and particularly Hindus (8.5 per cent), are frequently victims of reprisals and attacks, especially during election cycles, with the highest levels of such violence recorded during national-level elections in 2014.

In Pakistan, religious and sectarian minorities such as Christians (1.59 per cent), Hindus (1.85 per cent), Ahmadis (0.22 per cent), and Shi’a (10-25 per cent of the Muslim population) have suffered alarming attacks by militant groups, as well as individual targeted attacks and vigilante violence. This violence is often linked to discriminatory provisions and legislation, such as blasphemy laws which provide a cloak of legality to such actions.

In Sri Lanka, violations of religious minority rights and discrimination have inhibited the country’s transition to peace. Christians (7.6 per cent) and Muslims (9.7 per cent) face FoRB violations, including hate speech, discriminatory practices, destruction of property, threats and intimidation, and physical violence perpetrated by both state actors and Buddhist nationalist groups such as Bodu Bala Sena, as highlighted by anti-Muslim violence in late February/early March 2018 in Eastern and Central provinces, sparking a state of emergency.

In Afghanistan, the Constitution does not uphold individuals’ rights to FoRB, and minorities, including Hazara Shi’a, are often victims of violence primarily by non-state actors, and the remaining small numbers of Christians, Sikhs, and Baha’i populations often live covertly.

Aspects of Nepal’s new Constitution (2015) have a discriminatory impact on the country’s religious minorities, in particular Muslims (4.39 per cent) and Christians (1.4 per cent), who have reported fears of rising hostility in recent years. For example, Article 26[3] criminalizing all forms of proselytization and recent criminal code amendments (2017) banning religious conversion have contributed to a reported increase in police harassment of Christians accused of conversion activities.

Despite the severe and widespread nature of FoRB violations in South Asia, many incidents go unreported, and when monitoring does take place, it is often irregular or lacks detailed and sustained investigation of incidents. Meanwhile, discriminatory legislation, policies, and practices, as well as FoRB violations, persist while impunity prevails, and constitutional protections remain unimplemented.

Notwithstanding variations across the region, official initiatives to address these issues at local and national levels are overall limited, as is international pressure to address FoRB violations.

What did we aim to achieve?

Our overall objective was to promote and protect FoRB in South Asia by improved, more collaborative monitoring, reporting, and advocacy on FoRB violations.

Specifically, we aimed to strengthen the capacity of a regional researchers’ and activists’ network to monitor incidents, trends, and patterns of FoRB violations; produce and publish authoritative reports; and carry out advocacy to combat religious discrimination, intolerance, and violence, and improve the protection of FoRB in South Asia.

Our expected results included:

  • Strengthened and increased the capacity of a network of Human Rights Defenders (HRDs), researchers, and organizations across South Asia, working securely and collaboratively to promote the rights of religious minorities.
  • Regular and authoritative information and research regarding violations of FoRB in South Asia are distributed to key national, regional, and international actors.
  • Strengthened capacity and opportunities for CSOs to engage in joined-up sustained advocacy based on research findings at the local and national levels to improve accountability for FoRB violations against religious minorities and legislation regarding FoRB.
  • Greater priority is given to addressing discrimination, intolerance, and violence on the grounds of FoRB in South Asia amongst regional and international actors, in particular the SAARC, UN human rights mechanisms, and international agencies.

What were some of our results?

Annual Reports

Over three years, we facilitated the release of three annual reports on violations of FoRB in South Asia.

The theme for the 2021 report was hate speech in South Asia. South Asia State of Minorities Report 2021: Hate Speech against Minorities presents chapters from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka to highlight how hate speech has been used in the various country contexts to advocate violence against minority groups and how it has led to their further suppression.

The launch event was held virtually over Zoom. With keynote speaker Hina Jilani and moderator Aakaar Patel, the 1.5-hour webinar covered key components of the report.

The theme for the 2020 report was minorities and shrinking civic space. This report focused on the status of civic space in South Asia, including social movements, national and international non-governmental organizations (NGOs), civil society organizations (CSOs), the media, academics, and activists. A functional civic space depends on the rights i) to associate, ii) to assemble peacefully, and iii) to freely express views and opinions. Hence, each chapter of the report explored the status of these three ‘basic freedoms’ in several ways. Read the press release here and watch the launch webinar here.

The theme for the 2019 report was minorities, refugees and statelessness. The report, which was the outcome of a collaborative initiative of researchers and activists from across South Asia, highlighted how numerous communities, including religious minorities, are denied official refugee or minority status by politicized and discriminatory citizenship laws, leaving them deprived of essential rights and services.


In addition, seven biannual bulletins were released throughout this period.

International Advocacy

At the UN side event to the 46th session of the Human Rights Council, Minority Rights Group (MRG), along with the South Asia Collective, Article 19, FORUM-ASIA, the International Commission of Jurists and the World Organization against Torture, organized the event ‘From hate to violence: Preventing & countering hate speech against minorities in South Asia‘. Watch it here.

Support grants

The South Asia Collective and Minority Rights Group, with funding support from the European Union and Norad, launched a sub-grant programme to fund short-term projects that examine and address the specific issues that South Asia’s minorities have been facing. The types of interventions were broad and varied, and included documentation and advocacy efforts, public awareness campaigns, and engagement with local advocacy to address violations and combat Covid-19 related misinformation and disinformation. All initiatives made a concerted effort to highlight the minority dynamics of the pandemic. To view the original calls for action, click here and here.


  • Organization for the Women and Disable Care: ‘Advocacy Campaign to enable religious minorities to address their issues in two Districts of South Punjab’ (2019)

HRDs from districts Khanewal and Muzaffargarh formed a Rapid Response Committee to act as peace agents. The committee went through capacity-building training, awareness, and sensitization sessions, and finally a roundtable consultation on minority issues, held with lawyers, journalists, HRDs, civil society members, religious leaders and community leaders. A lobbying meeting was held with the political leadership, where each was presented with the organization’s Religious Minorities Charter of Demand. The RRC also met with religious leadership who stressed the need for such networks. In addition, the OWDC team arranged for a fact-finding mission to investigate the victimization of a Christian domestic worker by his employer, which was then submitted to the Human Rights Commission.

  • Pakistan Rural Workers Social Welfare Organization: ‘Active Engagement of formers Local Government Elected Representative (Minority Group) to fight against Covid-19 aiming to prevent Hindu Community in District Bahawalpur’ (2020)

Activities included identifying elected representatives of Local Government and organizing a meeting at a temple and other home-based worship places, explaining the Covid-19 protection measure, i.e., Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) as advised by the Government. They also organized an FM radio program comprising of on interview of the Hindu Religious leader. Lastly, they organized a press conference where they briefed about the Covid-19 situation widely, but more about the Hindu community. They advised adopting precautionary measures and following messages that were delivered through brochures and distributed to the community as well.

  • Saher Arts for Peace and Development: ‘We are Equal’ (2020)

This project focused on the Bagri community. The organization formed a social action group that included local political activists, social activists, media persons, young religious persons and members of the minority community. They organized three advocacy meetings to discuss issues of minorities with different stakeholders, including local representatives of political parties and civil society organizations. They held a seven-day general survey of various locations of minority groups at the district level. The organization conducted three awareness-raising theatre programmes for the general community at various locations. The organization also made video documentaries according to the proposed project with respect to minority issues.

  • Youth Empowerment and Action for Change: ‘To foster a peaceful environment for religious minorities to live as equal citizens in Quetta’ (2020)

This project included identification, selection, and organization of young peace ambassadors, capacity-building training on minority rights under the Pakistan constitution, advocacy, peer-to-peer education activities, stakeholder consultation to identify religious minorities’ issues, FM/radio programs in 4 different local languages, engaging four religious scholars to end hate speech during Friday sermons, development and dissemination of IEC/training materials, advocacy-meetings with media, lawyers, and local authorities, and finally, a one-day conference on religious minority rights and promotion of tolerance and peace. Download the output >

  • AWAM: ‘Capacity-building minority women to amplify their voice for minority rights protection across Faisalabad and Nankana Sahib’ (2021)

An identification and formation working group on minority rights focused on inviting the potential women human rights defenders who are already engaged in such type of work but in isolation. A Two-Day Training Workshop on minority rights was organized about the Basic Concept of Human Rights, the Local Context of Human Rights, Advocacy Tools and Techniques, Lobbying Tools, and connectivity with protection mechanisms. Four One-Day Public Forums engaged the 200 grassroots people to discuss the issues related to minorities and mobilized them to raise a collective voice for a comprehensive legal framework with strong implementation mechanisms for preventing discrimination and promoting the concept of equality of citizenship and opportunities. Lastly, public petitions sensitizing the authorities and political decision-makers about minority rights and highlighting the technical glitches of minority-related laws were sent to 13 departments.

  • Khwendo Kor: ‘Resilient Communities for Inclusive Societies’ (2021)

The project’s overall goal was ‘To promote social cohesion, religious harmony with a special focus on access of minority to their basic rights in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan’. To achieve this, the focus was on two main areas: advocacy on the rights of minorities, and strengthening of the Council of Communal Harmony-Network (CCH). A study was carried out by a male and a female consultant belonging to Hindu and Bahai faith respectively to identify the core issues of minority populations living in Peshawar. Radio programs were held to advocate for the rights of minorities, because of which, listeners gained knowledge on Local Government Act 2013. A program was also aired to increase acceptance for transgender as members of our society who are otherwise excluded from the mainstream society. A strategy development workshop was also conducted. Download the output >

  • Peace and Development Foundation: ‘Protecting the Rights of Religious Minorities in Pakistan’ (2021)

Activities included capacity-building training workshops, and community-based awareness sessions. The overall objectives were to build capacity of 50 people (people of multiple faith backgrounds) to raise their voices against unjust government policies and harmful social practices as their basic rights as an equal citizen to have freedom of religion and belief and a life of dignity, and to engage and sensitize 500 people through 10 community based session about the impact of religion driven violent conflicts and structural religious discrimination particularly on the lives of marginalized groups and faith communities and in society generally.

Sri Lanka

  • Women Solidarity Fund: ‘Empowering Local Council Women Members the Minority Rights and Gender Equality’ (2019)

Two exposure programs were run in Ampara and Kandy. Local council members met the Nuwara Eliya Town Council Deputy Mayor and discussed the challenges faced by women elected to the local council (Pradesiya Sabha). The Deputy Mayor emphasized the need to eradicate violence against women who have been since elected to the local council. In addition, they visited remote tea plantation areas and met tea pluckers to see the living conditions and livelihood issues. This program was telecasted on DAN TV news. The Chairman of Karaithivu Ampara council rendered his fullest cooperation in response to these programs.

  • Sri Lanka Press Institute: ‘Countering Hate Speech Through Ethical Communication’ (2020)

A panel of journalists observed mainstream print media and social media trends to monitor and identify news items, articles, posts, and opinions of hate speech that are racially charged and incite hatred. Counter-narratives and counter-posts were prepared in the languages of Sinhala, Tamil and English.

  • Center for Communication Training: ‘Sustaining Livelihoods of Youth in Plantation Communities Affected by Covid-19 Pandemic’ (2020)

Activities under this project included information dissemination through mobile announcements using three-wheel taxis; promotion of stay-at-home activities such as home gardening, awareness creation on small-scale farming activities; needs assessment of the most vulnerable youth in the target communities and refer them to institutions providing post-Covid-19 assistance; an analysis of Covid-19 responses and recommendations which were then shared with the relevant local authorities.

  • Center for Society and Religion: ‘Shanty Dwellers, stay safe from Covid-19’ (2020)

This project ran in a school in a district of Colombo. Activities included making the students and their parents aware of the need to stay safe by observing the instructions given by the government health officials, conducting awareness programmes for the different categories of the people in that area, training students in song and drama to perform awareness programmes stage them in the area, and preparing posters to exhibit in the area on how to prevent the spread of this virus.

  • National Christian Evangelical Alliance of Sri Lanka: ‘Covid-19: Restrictive laws and Minorities’ (2020)

Under this project, the activities included researching current laws and identifying gaps in light of current needs. The effect these laws have on minorities were analyzed and recommendations proposed. International law was analyzed as well to learn from the direction taken in other countries. This policy paper was translated into Tamil and Sinhala. Download the output >

  • Verité Research: ‘Promoting ethical reporting, especially on ethnoreligious minorities, to foster better journalism and inter-community relations via Ethics Eye’ (2021)

Ethics Eye, a platform managed by Verité Media, undertook the following activities to advance media accountability and boost media literacy pertaining to reporting on minorities. The Ethics Eye team identified three target groups for its intervention: media organizations, advocacy-based groups, and the wider public. Some decision-makers, including members of the Sri Lankan parliament and journalists, engaged with Ethics Eye’s intervention. After the training, it was reported that participants better understood what constituted ethical reporting on minorities. Download the output >


  • Aman: ‘Upholding the Rights of the Minority Waste-Picker Community During Covid-19’ (2020)

Activities included forming a Task Force, conducting a baseline survey to expose the challenges during lockdown by mapping the area concerned with ragpickers, and to sensitize administration rag picker community, connecting local stakeholders and duty bearers with waste picker communities, creating a help desk at the local health care system to ensure training of community members towards creating a safe and healthier environment, advocacy on daily wage workers’ rights and discrimination in accessing government services, and workshops for creating awareness on discrimination and biased practices and basic human aids. Download the output >

  • Organization for Community Development: ‘Survey Research on Structural Discrimination and Social and Economic Exclusion of the Christian Minority ‘Mukkuvar’ Indigenous Community, For Advocacy and Resilience Building’ (2020)

Under this project, they gathered qualitative and quantitative data from the Mukkuvar minority community. The data analysis and findings were shared in a meeting with Local and District Level Government Officials. The Fisherwomen Head Load Vendors’ Federation (FHVF) members were also involved in the process. Out of this project, plans for future projects have also evolved. Download the output >

  • Polis Project: ‘Watch the State: Documenting state violence during the lockdown in India’ (2020)

Polis Project researchers set up an anonymous system to track, log, and document instances of State violence against anti-CAA protestors, from illegal detentions and use of tear gas to custodial torture and surveillance. The current phase of the Watch the State (WTS) research focuses on documenting and analyzing violence, and human rights violations perpetrated by the State and its enforcement agencies against minorities in the context of the Covid-19 lockdown. Researchers at The Polis Project used the WTS project data for an article that analyses the media narratives around two religious gatherings in India during the Covid-19 pandemic.

  • Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative: ‘The Media and Discrimination at a Time of the Pandemic’ (2020)

The project has produced a report documenting and analyzing the news coverage and government responses to racial discrimination faced by ethnic minorities from India’s Northeast and the specific targeting of the Muslim community to paint them as responsible for spreading the virus during the Covid-19 pandemic. It is proposed that the report be disseminated electronically to the Press Council of India, Press Clubs, Editors Guild, schools of journalism, media, and social media. It will be disseminated to key stakeholders and oversight bodies such as the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Minorities. Download the output >

  • ROHRingya Human Rights Initiative: ‘Covid-19 Protection Monitoring and Advocacy for Rohingya Refugees in India’ (2020)

Under this project, they set up protection monitoring mechanisms in Rohingya settlements to regularly assess the specific problems, including the spread of Covid-19, over three months. This protection monitors highlighted key areas of misconceptions and misinformation, negative practices which may increase vulnerability to Covid-19 and negative coping mechanisms. This was compiled in a report shared with UNHCR, its implementing partners, local NGOs, and government agencies to strengthen their responses and allocate available resources where required. Download the output >

  • Jana Vikas (2021)

They ran a project to ensure that the religious minority community of district Kandhamal, Odisha, India, is secured and has an equitable stake in the mainstream development of the country. The goals included ensuring effective implementation of the Govt. Provisions and programmes to enhance educational support and socio-economic status and ensure the effective function of a government mechanism to access adequate protection and equitable share of vaccination for religious minority communities. Workshops were held with village leaders, NGOs, and local leadership. A Minority Scholarship was introduced for writing on the issue, as well as advocacy initiatives and lobbying with the district administration.

  • Ramp Up: ‘RIGHTWISE- A socio-political project for empowering minorities and marginalized communities’ (2021)

The project was run in Kerala, and contained an educational component, campaigns, and communications. A creative writing workshop was held for marginalized communities, and along with this, social media awareness and a web publication focusing on marginalized and minority communities. They worked on the structural discriminations in the resource allocation and distribution of the Kerala Government regarding the representation of Muslims and other marginalized minorities in the aided sector in terms of the proportion of available seats, staff, and students who got higher educational opportunities. This was made into a report, and it was shared with top-profile journalists in Kerala. The data in the report was used by various prominent and mainstream Minority political organizations, rights groups, and NGOs to claim their rights and expose the empirical divide. Download the output >


  • Chinishpur Dipshikha Mohila Samity: ‘Awareness Program on Covid-19 in Harijan Community’ (2020)

Raising awareness of Covid-19 risks within the community was the project’s core focus. Activities included creating community leaders in five different clusters to address Covid-19-related issues. A 30-member committee was formed with the help of the 13 community leaders to ensure the proper transfer of knowledge within the community. Through a training program the basic safety guideline was provided to community members. Different government personnel and social leaders were present at the program. Safety kits like masks and hand sanitisers were distributed. There were around 2,000 leaflets distributed within the community and safety guidelines and awareness were created through mic broadcasting.

  • Indigenous Peoples Development Services (IPDS): ‘Indigenous Peoples’ Context Assessment and Monitoring’ (2020)

This project collected data regarding the Covid-19 situation facing 1,205 indigenous peoples both in and around Dhaka. They made a report which was launched at a press conference with national media. Indigenous community leaders from two divisions gave comments and recommendations. These five daily newspapers published the report with top emphasis in both printed version and online version. The report received good local media coverage in 5 different publications. Download the output >

  • Initiative for Right View: ‘An Initiative to understand the situation of Indigenous Munda community facing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic’ (2020)

Activities included preparing a list of the vulnerable Munda community members and submitting it to the local Union parishad chairman and local administrative office for support. An online meeting was organized with Environment Protection Manch of Khulna, regarding information of their support situation, gap, and discrimination of relief distribution. For broader sharing of the problem and discrimination, a messenger group was developed with different stakeholders.

  • Uddipto Mohila Unnayan Sangstha: ‘Dalit and ethnic communities awareness-building against Covid-19 protection’ (2020)

The goals were to reduce the risks of Covid-19 through the empowerment of Dalit, ethnic women and youth, building a healthy environment among Dalit and ethnic women and youth, enhancing access to different local services, reducing poverty, and making a home garden to grow fresh vegetable for the Dalit and ethnic community.

  • Human Rights Alliance Bangladesh (HRAB) (2021)

They ran a project whose overall objective was to promote freedom of religion and peace by supporting human rights defenders in Bangladesh, to advocate for the promotion of sustainable development of religious minority communities, and to challenge governmental practices that violate fundamental rights. Trainings that were designed to build technical capacity, enhance knowledge on national and international human rights law, and identify and document minority rights violations were carried out. In addition, advocacy campaigns to advance anti-discrimination legislation and call for improved security of minorities were held, alongside national-level networking meetings among CSOs.


  • Digital Broadcast Initiative Equal Access (DBIEA): ‘Bolstering awareness about Covid-19 among Nepalese marginalized population through multi-lingual radio Public Service Announcements (PSAs)’ (2020)

DBIEA produced three high-quality creative audio Public Service Announcements (PSA) in Nepali, with other six local and regional languages. The PSAs covered issues ranging from basic information on Covid-19, measures to keep safe, misinformation and disinformation, the importance of validating information and referring to reliable sources of information.

  • LIFE Nepal: ‘Campaign for Coronavirus (CfC)’ (2020)

Under this project LIFE Nepal translated two posters and flyers, and made one animated video for Pregnant and Lactating Women in the local language Maithili. That information, communication education (IEC) materials by the government of Nepal were in Nepali language having key messages of symptoms, preventive measures of Covid-19, and hand washing. In coordination with Covid-19 Management Coordination Committee (CMCC), Dhanusha, Provincial government, Province No.2, and collaboration with UNICEF, LIFE printed 13000 posters, 29000 flyers and disseminated to 16 health facilities and 24 convergent Palikas through mobilizing local trained volunteers.

Who were our partners?

Our partners were:

  • Misaal is a national network of activist volunteers, community-based organizations, social enterprises, research centres, advocacy groups, and concerned citizens’ groups, local and national, working with and for marginalized communities and other weaker sections, minorities, Dalits and Adivasis – to enable change.
  • Social Science Baha is a prominent Kathmandu-based research organization that aims to promote and enhance the study of social sciences, focusing on areas including gender, social inclusion, and governance. SSB has published a number of books, reports, and journals; hosted prominent workshops and conferences; and provided advisory and policy support to numerous domestic and foreign government bodies, regional and international agencies, and CSOs.

Who funded this programme?

The European Union funded this programme.

Read the full evaluation

The objectives of this final evaluation were:

  1. Assess the relevance, efficiency, effectiveness, sustainability and impact of the project towards objectives and outputs, providing MRGE with an opportunity to learn from programme design and implementation processes;
  2. Provide recommendations for future and continued MRGE and its partners’ activities;
  3. Report to the EU and other funders on the use of their resources.

Overall, results suggest that the programme has been well-received and produced positive results for participants and end-users, suggesting a platform for continuing the development of the SAC as a catalyst for change, with important modifications on boosting readership and influence and on the management of sub-grants.