The “deteriorating” state of India’s human rights situation has been described as “massive, systematic, and dangerous” by Fernand de Varennes, the Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues for the UN.
In his opening remarks, De Varennes stated that “India risks becoming one of the world’s main generators of instability, atrocities, and violence, because of the massive scale and gravity of the violations and abuses targeting primarily religious and other minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others. It is not just individual or local, it is systematic and a reflection of religious nationalism.” His statement came at a hearing on policy options for advancing religious freedom in India, organised by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Washington, DC, on September 20, 2023.
He said that “in the last decade, issued numerous communications and press releases, communications being way allegations of human rights violations raised though diplomatic channels to the concerned governments. They show a steady and alarming erosion of fundamental rights, particularly for religious and other minorities from the review of communications from 2011 to now: By 2022, almost all of them involve grave allegations of denial of fundamental rights, particularly targeting religious minorities. From 12 May 2020 to 23 May 2023, around 46 communications and an estimated 20 press releases.”
The UN Special Rapporteur brought up Manipur issue many times, as well as the widely circulated video of an event on May 4 in which a mob forces two women to march in the street without clothes. Varennes also said that two women “from the Christian Kuki community [were] being paraded naked, beaten and gang raped”. He said “there was inaction from authorities until this video caught the international attention”.
He talked of Manipur as being “symptomatic of large-scale scapegoating and dehumanising of Muslims and religious ‘others’ that could lead to a slide towards horrific atrocities”. He gave reference to a study which “noted a 786% increase in hate crimes against minorities between 2014 and 2018”. The “discriminatory citizenship determination process in Assam, and potentially other regions of the country, and which could lead to millions denied citizenship,” especially Muslims came up. And similarly, the revocation in 2019 “of the special status or autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir.”
De Varennes also cited Indian general elections of 2024 to hold the Indian government accountable for the atrocities. He said, “With national elections scheduled for early 2024, there are concerns that the targeting of minorities, and human rights defenders will worsen. Indian authorities have not taken any tangible steps to hold perpetrators of abuses against minorities to account. Indian authorities have not engaged constructively with criticism, boasting instead of democratic values and the rule of law. Some senior leaders have either remained silent, or have indeed contributed, through their own rhetoric, to the hostile environment against religious minorities.”
At the hearing, the response of Canada to Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s murder was discussed. Without addressing the validity of the accusations, the UN Special Rapporteur stated that the deceased man was a Sikh and a member of a religious minority, and that his death was “an important message to India that certain type of conduct is not acceptable.”
The necessity for “international pressure,” particularly “government to government” pressure from the US and allies, was discussed in order to persuade the Modi administration to “change certain policies” and “to change direction.”
The UN Special Rapporteur compared the situation of religious liberties in Tajikistan, a nation identified as one of particular concern, by stating that Tajikistan “pales when we look at massive atrocities in India on the basis of religion.”
When asked in his first press conference as prime minister where he took one question, which turned out to be about religious freedoms, the status of minorities, and free speech in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded that democracy “was in the DNA” of both the US and India while on a trip to the US in June. He said, “We have always proved that democracy can deliver. And when I say deliver, this is regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender. There’s absolutely no space for discrimination.”
In its 2022 Annual Report, USCIRF proposed that the US Department of State identify India as a “country of particular concern,” due to its involvement in or toleration of systemic, persistent, and grave religious freedom abuses, as stated by the International Religious Freedom Act.