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, Bhutan, the Maldives

Communities: Various

What is this programme about?

This programme brings together an existing regional network – the South Asia Collective (SAC) – with three established research and advocacy organisations, which will provide support to strengthen and scale-up this initiative. Drawing on Minority Rights Group Europe’s expertise in regional network building, producing authoritative research on minority rights and FoRB, and conducting and supporting partners to engage in targeted advocacy at various levels on in these areas, 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 organisations 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 marginalised 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 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 (14.2%) and Christian (2.3%) 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 has similarly undermined FoRB. Religious minorities (including atheists), and in particular Hindus (8.5%), are frequently victim to reprisals and attacks, particularly 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%), Hindus (1.85%), Ahmadis (0.22%), and Shi’a (10-25% 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%) and Muslims (9.7%) 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 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%) and Christians (1.4%) 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.

In Bhutan and the Maldives, efforts to homogenize society have severely curtailed FoRB, and even the ability of non-Buddhists and non-Muslims, respectively, to acquire citizenship.

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 are we aiming to achieve?

Our overall objective is to promote and protect freedom of religions or belief (FoRB) in South Asia by improved, more collaborative monitoring, reporting, and advocacy on FoRB violations.

Specifically, we aim 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 linked advocacy to combat religious discrimination, intolerance, and violence, and improve the protection of FoRB in South Asia.

Our expected results include:

  • Strengthened and increased capacity of a network of HRDs, researchers, and organisations across South Asia (SAC) working securely and collaboratively to promote the rights of religious minorities.
  • Regular and authoritative information and research regarding violations of FoRB in South Asia 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/legislation regarding FoRB.
  • Greater priority given to addressing discrimination, intolerance, and violence on the grounds of FoRB in South Asia amongst regional and international actors, in particular SAARC, UN human rights mechanisms, and international agencies.

Who are our partners?

Our partners are:

Misaal is a national network of activist volunteers, community based organisations, 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. Misaal is housed in Aman Biradari – Centre for Equity Studies, New Delhi.


Social Science Baha is a prominent Kathmandu-based research organisation which aims to promote and enhance the study of social sciences, with a focus 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 is funding this programme?

This programme is funded by the European Union.

This content is the sole responsibility of Minority Rights Group International and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the European Union.

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