Minorities in “Secular and Democratic” India
Posted on August 23rd, 2009

Written by: Mamoona Ali Kazmi

Recently, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed India on its “Watch List” for 2009 because it found the Central government had failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several States. It is not the first time that the Commission has taken such a step. In 2002 and 2003, the Commission had recommended that India be designated a “country of particular concern (CPC)” in the wake of the “severe riots” in Gujarat . This is a grade higher than “Watch List,” which includes countries “where religious freedom conditions do not rise to the statutory level requiring CPC designation but which require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments.”

The USCIRF annual report states that “despite the Congress Party’s commitment to religious tolerance, communal violence has continued to occur with disturbing results, and the government’s response, particularly at the State and local levels has been largely inadequate.” The Commission had sought permission to visit the country in June this year to discuss religious freedom conditions with officials, religious leaders, civil society activists and others, but the government did not issue visas. Nor did the Indian government offer alternative dates for a visit which the Commission requested. In particular, the report of the Commission focuses on the attacks on Christians in Orissa since the Christmas of 2007, which left 40 people dead and over 60,000 members of the community homeless. The report mention, “The inadequate police response failed to quell the violence, and mass arrests following the Orissa violence did not translate into the actual filing of cases”. The report not only mentions the Orissa violence, it also brings to note the Gujarat violence of 2002, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, the violence in Jammu & Kashmir in the summer of 2008 over transfer of forest land to Sri Amarnath Shrine Board, stray attacks on Christian institutions across the country, and the hate speeches of Bharatiya Janata Party MP Varun Gandhi.

 It is surprising that despite remarkable pluralism and general commitment to religious freedom, Hindu extremist organisations retain broad popular support in many communities in India . It seems as if India is intolerable of religious minorities. Indian government has tried several times to purge Sikh identity and merge them into Hinduism. For this purpose it used all techniques including killing their young generation, destroying their history and distorting their culture. Since independence, Sikhs remained mistrusted and are being discriminated and treated as aliens. During British rule Gandhi and Nehru promised the Sikhs to have full rights and freedom over Punjab . As soon as the British left India Sikhs were fired from their jobs and declared as traitors of India . Even in the Indian constitution, Sikhs were declared “ƒ”¹…”Hindus with long hair’. After independence when Nehru was asked to fulfill his promise of creating a separate Punjabi state, he brushed it off by saying “circumstances have changed now”. In order to hit the Sikhs, the Indian government planned to attack Golden Temple . On 31st May 1984, a large contingent of Indian army launched an attack on Golden Temple . This operation was given the name of Blue Star. Sadly, there were only 251 Sikhs inside to protect the complex of the Golden Temple as compared to thousands of fully equipped Indian troops. When the Indian troops found that only 251 men had stopped them from entering the temple for 6 days they started killing innocent Sikhs who had come there to visit the Temple . This was to hide their humiliation. About 50,000 Sikhs were killed that day. Sikh artifacts were burnt. All the literature written by the Gurus was taken away by the army. The whole Amritsar city was burnt. Sikhs’ shops were looted and houses were set on fire. Hindu mobs went to every house and burnt Sikhs alive, women were dishonored. Most Sikhs between ages 5 to 40 were killed.

            Apart from Sikhs, Muslims always remained the victim of Hindu hatred. This hatred led the extremist Hindus to inflict harm to Muslim’s belongings. On 6 December 1992, Hindu extremists demolished 16th century old Babri mosque. The demolition of the Babri Mosque was not only a serious blow to Indian secularism and the fundamental rights granted by the Indian Constitution to the religious minorities, but it also symbolised the virtual subjugation of Muslim identity in the post-1947 India . More than 2000 people were killed in the ensuing riots following the demolition. Sixteen years have passed and still the Muslims are waiting for justice regarding Babri Mosque demolition.  Similarly, in 2002 something as horrendous as the Gujarat riots, having no parallel in India ‘s modern history occurred. Gujarat pogrom occurred in the wake of burning of Sabarmati Express carrying Hindu extremists. In the fire 59 Hindu militants were killed. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its Rashtriya Sawyamsevak Sangh (RSS) allies have insisted that Muslims executed this incident and launched a pogrom against the local Muslim population. They looted and torched Muslim-owned businesses, assaulted and murdered Muslims, and gang-raped and mutilated Muslim women. By the time the violence spluttered to a halt, about 2,500 Muslims had been killed and about 200,000 driven from their homes. Despite the passage of seven years since the February-March 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in the Indian state of Gujarat , not a single one of the principal perpetrators of this horrific crime has been punished.

Christian minorities are also not safe in India . Hindu groups are running an anti Christian campaign for several years. There have been multiple incidents of such violence since the BJP began its rule at the center in March 1998. From 1964 to 1996, 38 incidents of violence against Christians were reported. In 1997, 24 such incidents were reported. Since 1998, Christians in India have faced a wave of violence. In 1998 alone, 90 incidents were reported. In June 2000, four churches around India were bombed. In Andhra Pradesh, church graves were desecrated. A church in Maharashtra was ransacked. In September 2008, two churches were partly damaged in Kerala. The Times of London called September 2008 violence as the worst anti-Christian violence in India since its independence.

 Since August 2008, supporters of the Hindu militant groups Vishwa Hinud Parishad and Bajrang Dal in Orissa have attacked Christians, many of them tribal minorities or Dalits. According to the Roman Catholic Church in India , 300 Christian villages have been destroyed in Orissa, 4,400 houses burnt, 50,000 people made homeless and 59 Christians killed and 18,000 injured. Churches and schools have been destroyed and in one particularly brutal attack a nun was seized and raped while local police stood by without intervening. Churches have also been attacked in six other states, largely in the south, but even in Delhi Christians have been threatened.

            India preaches democracy and rule of law but does not practice it. The image of India abroad is of a tolerant country but the reality is otherwise as democracy notion include protection of minorities. The world community must respond immediately. Just like UNCIRF, the other international human right organizations need to condemn the Indian government more openly. The Hindu fundamentalists must forced to end the persecution of the poor and hapless minorities in India. India ‘s political system based on democratic pluralism theoretically provides space for all ethnic groups and sub-nationalities. But, in actuality, there have been severe deficiencies in the way it functions. Suffice it to say, political empowerment of the people is still far from complete, even after six decades of independence. Despite an overarching commitment to respecting citizens’ freedom to express their views, peacefully protest, and form their own organizations, the Indian government lacks the will and capacity to implement many laws and policies designed to ensure the protection of rights. There is a pattern of denial of justice and impunity, whether it is in cases of human rights violations by security forces, or the failure to protect women, children, and marginalized groups such Dalits, tribal groups, and religious minorities. The failure to properly investigate and prosecute those responsible leads to continuing abuses. The government has failed to protect vulnerable communities including Dalits, tribal groups, and religious minorities such as Sikhs, Muslims and Christians.

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