New York, January 15 : A prominent international human rights watchdog body has denounced Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government for intensifying repression in Jammu and Kashmir, targeting Muslims in India and for harassing, arresting and prosecuting activists, journalists, and others critics.
In its World Report 2021, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the government continued to impose harsh and discriminatory restrictions on Muslim-majority areas in Jammu and Kashmir since revoking the state’s constitutional status in August 2019 and splitting it into two federally governed territories.
Attacks continued against minorities, especially Muslims, even as authorities failed to take action against BJP leaders who vilified Muslims and BJP supporters who engaged in violence, the report said.
The Covid-19 lockdown disproportionately hurt marginalized communities due to loss of livelihoods and lack of food, shelter, health care, and other basic needs, it said.
“The Indian government seems determined to punish peaceful criticism using draconian laws, while sending a broader message that chills dissent,” Meenakshi Ganguly, South Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. “Instead of addressing growing attacks on Muslims, minorities, and women, Indian authorities increased their crackdown on critical voices in 2020.”
In the 761-page World Report 2021, its 31st edition, Human Rights Watch reviews human rights practices in more than 100 countries.
In his introductory essay, Executive Director Kenneth Roth argues that the incoming United States administration should embed respect for human rights in its domestic and foreign policy in a way that is more likely to survive future US administrations that might be less committed to human rights.
Roth emphasizes that even as the Trump administration mostly abandoned the protection of human rights, other governments stepped forward to champion rights. The Biden administration should seek to join, not supplant, this new collective effort.
The report said that last February communal violence in Delhi killed at least 53 people, with over 200 injured, properties destroyed, and communities displaced in targeted attacks by Hindu mobs. While a policeman and several Hindus were also killed, the vast majority of victims were Muslim. The attacks came after weeks of peaceful protests against the Indian government’s discriminatory citizenship policies.
Violence broke out after BJP leaders openly advocated violence against the protesters, while witness accounts and video evidence showed police complicity. The Delhi Minorities Commission reported that the violence was “planned and targeted,” and found that the police were filing cases against Muslim victims, but not taking action against the BJP leaders who incited it.
In Kashmir, the report said scores of people remained detained without charge under the draconian Public Safety Act, which permits detention without trial for up to two years. The government also clamped down on critics and journalists.
In June, it said, the government announced a new media policy in Jammu and Kashmir that empowers the authorities to decide what is “fake news, plagiarism and unethical or anti-national activities” and to take punitive action against media outlets, journalists, and editors. The policy contains vague provisions that are open to abuse and could unnecessarily restrict and penalize legally protected speech. The government also clamped down on critics, journalists, and human rights activists.
The restrictions, including on access to communications networks, since August 2019 adversely affected livelihoods, particularly in the tourism-dependent Kashmir Valley. The Kashmir Chamber of Commerce and Industries estimated that the first three months of the lockdown to prevent protests since August 2019 cost the economy over US$2.4 billion, for which no redress was provided. Losses nearly doubled since the government imposed further restrictions to contain the spread of Covid-19 in March 2020.
The pandemic made access to the internet crucial for information, communication, education, and business. However, even after the Supreme Court said in January that access to the internet was a fundamental right, authorities permitted only slow-speed 2G mobile internet services, leading doctors to complain that the lack of internet was hurting the Covid-19 response.
The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act continued to provide effective immunity from prosecution to security forces, even for serious human rights abuses. In July, security forces killed three people in Shopian district, claiming they were militants. However, in August, their families, who identified them from photographs of the killings circulated on social media, said they were laborers. In September, the army said that its inquiry had found prima facie evidence that its troops exceeded powers under the AFSPA and it would take disciplinary proceedings against those “answerable.”
The security forces also continued to use shotguns firing metal pellets to disperse crowds, despite evidence that they are inherently inaccurate and cause injuries indiscriminately, including to bystanders, violating India’s international obligations
The intensifying repression in India resulted in international criticism, including by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, who raised concerns over human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, arrests of activists, and restrictions on civil society, the report added.
Crimes against Dalits increased, in part as backlash by members of dominant castes against what they might perceive as a challenge to caste hierarchy, the report said. Crimes against women increased too. In September, a 19-year old Dalit woman died after being gang-raped and tortured, allegedly by four men of dominant caste in Uttar Pradesh. The authorities’ response highlighted how women from marginalized communities faced even greater institutional barriers to justice.