India is home to a diverse set of ethnic and religious communities. On most days, people in India enjoy their civil rights and the freedom to profess their religious beliefs. But it is not always the case.
Tensions do exist, and in some cases, these tensions escalate into violence. One of the recent incidents that come to mind is the Muzaffarnagar riots of September 2013, in which at least 60 people died. At least six cases of sexual violence were reported, and Muslims from more than 150 villages were compelled to flee their homes.
Indemnity during communal violence cases
Local forces usually wait for orders before acting during communal violence, or worse, are specifically instructed not to act. The problem becomes even more severe when the responsible officials aren’t held accountable. During some of the most prominent spates of communal violence in the country ( read 1984 anti-Sikh Riots, riots in 1992 after the demolition of Babri Mosque, 2002 Gujarat riots) accountability has proved elusive. After the Gujarat riots, the government failed to undertake any comprehensive investigation. The Supreme Court, as well as the National Human Rights Council, has to intervene in order to force the government to start prosecutions.
Arrests of Muslims in Terrorism Cases
Muslim men are regularly and arbitrarily detained and tortured after bombing attacks. ( Investigations found that many of the bombings were actually perpetrated by Hindu extremist groups.) Draconian and abusive laws such as the Sedition Law and Unlawful Activities ( Prevention ) Act have often been used to target Muslims. In 2013, the CBI charged senior Gujarat police officers for the extrajudicial killings of four Muslims. ( One of them was a 19-year-old woman .) The police claimed that the four of them had conspired to assassinate the then Chief Minister of Gujarat, Mr. Narendra Modi, and the police intercepted them, which led to an exchange of gunfire during which they died. Independent investigation during the aftermath found out that it was not the case. The four of them had been taken into custody, where they were later executed by the Gujarat police.
Protection of cows legislation
Cows are considered sacred in Hinduism. In India, the people found guilty of cow slaughter are subject to fines and imprisonment. It has also remained a primary source of tension between Hindu, Muslim as well as Dalit communities as beef is a critical source of nutrition for many minority groups. Members from these groups often work in beef industries or cattle transportation. The Islamic festival of Eid-ul-Adha also involves the slaughtering of animals. The ban has been challenged in the courts on the grounds that it infringes the rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19(1)(g) and 25, but the courts regularly cite Article 48 to justify its validity. Such laws lead to even more pronounced anti-Muslim sentiment. One of the examples is the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq by Hindu mobs in 2015. He was accused of eating beef and storing the meat in his house. A local BJP leader was one of the prime accused in the case.
Social Activism for minority rights
One of the means to fight back against tyranny is social activism. There is a dearth of prominent social activists who are actively working against the state’s divisive policies. On the other hand, the state itself works to actively thwart any activity that it perceives to not align with its own narrative. Regardless, there still are numerous activists who work for the welfare of minority communities.
The social activist that I had the privilege to talk to was Mr. Dev Desai, a minority rights social worker. He works for an organization called ANHAD(Act Now for Harmony and Democracy). For him, the primary motivation to work for an organization like ANHAD came from personal experience. He had a story about the incident that inspired him to work for the welfare of minority communities in the country. The year was 2002 when Dev was a student studying in the 10th standard, and he used to live and study in a locality primarily populated by Muslims. We all know about the horrors that people had to witness during the Hindu-Muslim riots of 2002 in Gujarat, and the memories of the incident are stiff fresh in the minds of the victims as well as other witnesses. During such riots, most people focus on the tangible damage that is caused, such as lives lost or property damaged, but hardly anyone talks about the cultural and psychological impact that such incidents can have. Mr. Dev narrated a story on similar lines about how most of the Hindu students of his school started dropping out of the school due to its location. The parents must have been wary about the security concerns that their Hindu children could possibly face in a Muslim majority region. This was an indicator of the kind of rift that had been created between the two religious communities where even a simple act of receiving education together had started seeming problematic. The dropping out of many Hindu students was a major problem for the school, and hence the administration and the teachers began requesting the students not to leave but most didn’t comply with the school administration. In fact, Mr. Dev was the only student who decided not to leave the school and to continue studying there. Hence, for around two years, he was the only Hindu child in the school. It was during this time that he realized that the narrative of hate being propagated by some groups with vested interests in mind was completely uncalled for. Such stories about the cultural impact that communal violence has on the lives of people are generally ignored, and hence more emphasis has to be given to how communal tension leads to the weakening of the social fabric of the country.
India’s constitution has provisions that seem to ensure legal equality for all its citizens regardless of their religion, and it prohibits any violence or discrimination based on faith. It provides various safeguards for minority groups, yet the constitutional provisions and laws do not comply with international standards of freedom of religion encapsulated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Religious minorities and Dalits have often faced persecution due to such ill-defined laws as well as due to the inefficient criminal justice system. Hate crimes, assaults, forced conversions as well as social boycotts have escalated dramatically. Immediate attention is required to protect the rights of these communities and to improve their conditions of welfare.
Ngawang Phuntsok is currently pursuing an MBA from the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad.