HRW: Background Briefing On India
President Clinton's South Asia Visit
Human Rights Watch
Religious Intolerance and the Rise of Hindu Nationalism
The increasing domination of Hindu nationalism in India's current political landscape has dramatically undermined India's constitutional commitment to secular democracy. The policies espoused by India's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its sister organizations, collectively known as the sangh parivar, have already resulted in much violence against the country's Christian, Muslim, and Dalit ("untouchable") populations. The international community must now act swiftly to reverse this dangerous trend and join mounting domestic protest against a brand of nationalism that in rhetoric and in action promotes the creation of a Hindu nation.
The United States and other governments must pressure the Indian government to take steps to prevent further violence and to prosecute both state and private actors responsible for attacks on religious minorities. In compliance with the Indian constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which India ratified on April 10, 1979, the government of India should ensure that all citizens may equally enjoy freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, propagate, and adopt religious beliefs.
In October 1999, Human Rights Watch released a report titled Politics By Other Means: Attacks Against Christians in India, which focused primarily on the alarming rise in attacks against Christians in the past two years In addition, right-wing Hindu organizations have also engaged in violence against India's Muslim and non-Christian Dalit communities. In most cases, those responsible for the attacks have yet to be prosecuted.
Between January 1998 and February 1999, the Indian Parliament reported a total of 116 incidents of attacks on Christians across the country. Unofficial figures may be higher. Gujarat topped the list of states with ninety-four such incidents. Attacks have also been reported in Maharashtra, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Haryana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Manipur, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, and New Delhi. Attacks on Christians have ranged from violence against the leadership of the church, including the killing of priests and the raping of nuns, to the physical destruction of Christian institutions, including schools, churches, colleges, and cemeteries. Thousands of Christians have also been forced to convert to Hinduism.
A majority of the reported incidents of violence against Christians in 1998, the same year that the BJP came to power in the state, occurred in Gujarat,. In April 1999 Human Rights Watch visited the Dangs district in southeastern Gujarat, site of a ten-day spate of violent and premeditated attacks on Christian communities and institutions between December 25, 1998, and January 3, 1999. We documented patterns there that are representative of anti-Christian violence in many other parts of the country. These include the role of sangh parivar organizations and local media in promoting anti-Christian propaganda, the exploitation of communal differences to mask political and economic motives underlying the attacks, local and state government complicity in the attacks, and the failure of the central government to meet its constitutional and international obligations to protect minorities.
In a pattern similar to the official response to organized violence against lower castes, the tendency is for local officials, when under pressure, to arrest a few members but not the leaders of the groups involved. The communities being targeted are among some of the poorest in the country and include Dalits and members of local tribal communities, many of whom convert to Christianity to escape abuses under India's caste system. In many cases, Christian institutions and individuals targeted were singled out for their role in promoting health, literacy, and economic independence among Dalit and tribal community members. A vested interest in keeping these communities in a state of economic dependency is a motivating factor in anti-Christian violence and propaganda.
These recent attacks fall into a pattern of persistent abuse against marginalized communities. They represent a clear failure on the part of both the federal and state governments to ensure that such communities enjoy the full protection of their constitutional rights to freedom of religion and equal protection under the law. Despite the existence of comprehensive legislation to address the problem of religious intolerance and communal violence, the authorities have failed to prosecute offending individuals and organizations; instead, the government has in many cases offered tacit support and indirect justification for the attacks.
The Hindu organizations most responsible for the violence are the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS), the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP), and the VHP's militant youth wing, the Bajrang Dal. In the state of Maharashtra, the Shiv Sena political party has also been implicated. The RSS, the parent organization, seeks to promote a Hindu ethos within India and among Indians living abroad. Although an ostensibly cultural organization, RSS cells are involved in supporting political office, trade unions, and student organizations. The VHP was established in 1964 to unite Hinduism's regional and caste divisions under a single ecumenical umbrella. It is actively involved in Sanskrit education, the
organization of Hindu rites and rituals, and in conversions of Christians, Muslims, and animists to Hinduism. These organizations, although different in many respects, have all promoted the argument that although India is a democracy, because Hindus constitute the majority of Indians, India should be a Hindu state. They have also actively promoted religious intolerance and, in some states, incited violence against minority communities. Nationwide violence against Muslims in 1992 and 1993 also stemmed from the activities and hate propaganda of these groups.
Recently, the state governments of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh, which are ruled by the BJP, lifted a ban against civil servants joining the RSS, a move that met with strong criticism. In Gujarat, Delhi, and Orissa, district administrations continue to conduct surveys to assess the activities and whereabouts of minority community members and leaders. The BJP and its allies continue to implement their agenda for the "Hinduization" of education with the mandating of Hindu prayers in state-sponsored schools and the revision of history books to include what amounts to hate propaganda against Islamic and Christian communities. RSS-run schools openly promote communalism and casteism. Throughout the country, over 300,000 training camps, known as shakhas, are dedicated to recruiting young boys and men and providing them with extensive physical and ideological training for the purpose of creating a group of volunteers full of "Hindu fervor" with military-like discipline.
These are but a few examples of the growing and extremely harmful influence of Hindu extremism on India civil society. Domestically, many have joined in protesting such trends, but in the absence of immediate international intervention, India's celebrated traditions as a pluralistic and secular democracy will continue to suffer. As a result, millions remain at risk of further violence and vilification.
President Clinton should urge the Indian government to:
- Provide adequate police protection to minority communities in violence-affected areas, including, where necessary, an increase in the number of police stations and outposts in each district.
- Require that police register
all cases of communal attacks, regardless of the religious
background of the complainant, and enforce this through
frequent reviews of registers by a magistrate or other
competent judicial authority and the establishment of a
civilian review board mandated to investigate complaints.
Police who fail to register complaints should be dismissed.
- Investigate and prosecute state officials complicit in attacks on minorities. Police who are found to be complicit should be brought to justice and dismissed.
- End impunity for past campaigns of violence against minorities. That is, prosecute and punish all those found responsible for murder, rape, assault, and destruction of property during the post-Ayodhya violence of December 1992 and January 1993. Police responsible for excessive use of force should be prosecuted; those who having the power and duty to stop the violence but did not intervene should also be held to account. Victims and their families should receive compensation.
- Strengthen the capacity of the National Commission for Minorities to operate branch offices in all states and equip it with the powers and financial and other resources necessary to initiate prosecutions. Implement the recommendations made by the National Commission for Minorities in their 1999 report. Prohibit surveys by district administrations to assess the activities and whereabouts of minority community members and leaders.
- Launch a nationwide public awareness campaign regarding the dangers of communal violence. This campaign should explain in simple terms what actions are legally prohibited, what recourse is available to minorities, and what the procedures are for filing a First Information Report (the first report, recorded by the police, of a crime). It should also include a program of public service announcements in all states aimed at sensitizing the population against any form of religious extremism, and creating awareness of minority rights.