Freedom in the World
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A massive earthquake struck the northwestern state of Gujarat on January 26, 2001, causing widespread devastation and killing an estimated 30,000 people. The ruling National Democratic Alliance coalition was weakened by an arms bribery scandal, which threatened to bring down the government in mid-March, and by defeats in five key state elections in May. Indian and Pakistani leaders met at Agra in July, but the summit failed to resolve their long-standing dispute over the territory of Kashmir. Following an attack on the Indian parliament building on December 13 by suspected members of Kashmiri separatist militant groups, in which eight police officers and a gardener were killed, relations between the two countries worsened. India accused Pakistan of fostering crossborder terrorism and mobilized its army along their common border. India achieved independence in 1947 with the partition of British India into a predominantly Hindu India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and a Muslim Pakistan. The centrist, secular Congress Party ruled continuously for the first five decades of independence, except during periods of opposition from 1977 through 1980 and from 1989 through 1991. During the campaign for the 1991 elections, a suspected Sri Lankan Tamil separatist assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, heir to the political dynasty of Congress standard-bearers Nehru and Indira Gandhi. After Congress won the elections, the incoming prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, responded to a balance- of-payments crisis by initiating gradual reforms of the autarkic, control-bound economy.
Even as the crisis receded, Congress lost 11 state elections in the mid-1990s. The party's traditional electoral base of poor, low-caste, and Muslim voters appeared disillusioned with the economic liberalization and the government's failure to prevent communal violence. In December 1992 and January 1993, northern India and Bombay had experienced some of the worst communal violence since independence after Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya. The rioting killed some 2,000 people, mainly Muslims. Regional parties made gains in southern India, and low-caste parties and the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gained in the northern Hindi-speaking belt.
These trends continued at the national level in the April-May 1996 parliamentary elections. The BJP captured 161 seats versus 140 for Congress. However, in May a BJP-led minority government resigned after 13 days in office after failing to attract secular allies. A minority United Front (UF) government, dominated by leftist and re gional parties, took office but collapsed in November 1997 after the Congress Party withdrew its support. The turmoil among centrist and leftist parties provided an opening for the BJP to form a government under Atal Behari Vajpayee after winning the early elections held in February and March 1998. One of the government's first major acts was to carry out a series of underground nuclear tests in May 1998. Archrival Pakistan responded with its own atomic tests.
Holding only a minority of seats, the BJP government faced frequent threats and demands from a small but pivotal number of coalition members. The government fell after a Tamil Nadu-based party defected, but it won reelection in voting held in September and October 1999. Final results gave the BJP-led, 22-party National Democratic Alliance 295 seats (182 for the BJP) against 112 seats for Congress. Among smaller parties, the election confirmed the continued decline of leftist parties and the growing importance of regional and caste-based parties.
Vajpayee spent much of 2000 trying to build support for the government's economic liberalization policies. While Congress endorsed the liberalization process, it was opposed by some leftist coalition members as well as by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, or National Volunteer Service), a far-right Hindu organization that exerts considerable influence on the Vajpayee government but which favors economic selfreliance. Both Congress and some coalition members heavily criticized Vajpayee's backing in December 2000 of calls for a Hindu temple to be built in Ayodhya on the site of the mosque that Hindu fundamentalists razed in 1992.
In 2001 progress on economic reform continued to be hindered by political considerations. The government was shaken in March by a sting operation conducted by the investigative news website tehelka.com, which caught both defense officials and politicians apparently taking bribes from reporters posing as arms dealers. The ensuing scandal led to the implication of several key party leaders as well as the resignation of Defense Minister George Fernandes. While the coalition government survived the loss of one of its partners, its credibility was further weakened in October by the reinduction of Fernandes into the cabinet prior to the completion of a judicial inquiry into the scandal. In May 2001, the BJP suffered defeat in five key state elections, losing ground to Congress and its allies in Tamil Nadu, Assam, Kerala, and the territory of Pondicherry, while the communist Left Front returned to power in West Bengal. Although it has retained a comfortable hold on power at the center, building coalitions and alliances with regional parties is likely to remain crucial to its future electoral success.
Indian citizens can change their government through elections. However, democratic rule continued to be undermined by pervasive criminality in politics, decrepit state institutions, a weak rule of law, and widespread corruption. The Berlin-based Transparency International's 2001 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked India in 71st place, out of 91 countries, with a relatively low score of 2.7 on a 0-10 scale. The 1950 constitution provides for a lower, 543-seat Lok Sabha (House of the People), directly elected for a five-year term (plus 2 appointed seats for Indians of European descent), and an upper Rajya Sabha (Council of States), whose 220 representatives are either elected by the states or nominated by the government. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and cabinet. Recent elections have generally been free although not entirely fair. Violence and irregularities have marred balloting in many districts. The BBC reported in May that violence during state elections in Assam and West Bengal killed 16 people, including two policemen. In the 1999 national elections, guerrilla attacks in Bihar and northeast India and interparty clashes in several states killed some 130 people.
Moreover, criminality has penetrated the electoral process. Last year, the chief vigilance commissioner, N. Vittal, told a seminar on corruption in New Delhi that India's "political process and the system of election depend on black money" that is obtained illegally through tax evasion and other means, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP). In 1998, The New York Times cited studies showing that more than one-third of state legislators in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, had criminal records. In neighboring Bihar, many legislators reportedly lead criminal gangs, and political killings are routine. In a significant judgment, the supreme court ruled in August that a public servant convicted in a corruption case should not hold office until the charges could be cleared by another court. The verdict was put to the test in the case of J. Jayalalitha, who was forced to resign as chief minister of Tamil Nadu in September after a panel of judges ruled that her appointment in May was unconstitutional because she had previously been convicted of corruption.
The judiciary is independent. In recent years judges have exercised unprecedented activism in response to public interest litigation over official corruption, environmental issues, and other matters. However, during the past year, courts have initiated several contempt-of-court cases against activists and journalists, raising questions about their misuse of the law to intimidate those who expose the behavior of corrupt judges or who question their verdicts. Corruption is reportedly rife among lower-level judges; poor people generally cannot afford to take cases to court; and there is a backlog of more than 30 million cases. As a result, cases take an average of 20 years to be settled, according to AFP. Police continued to routinely torture suspects to extract confessions and to abuse ordinary prisoners, particularly low-caste members. Custodial rape of female detainees continues to be a problem.
Police, army, and paramilitary forces continue to be implicated in "disappearances," extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, arbitrary detentions, and the destruction of homes, particularly in the context of insurgencies in Kashmir and in Assam and other northeastern states. (A separate report on Kashmir appears in the Related Territories section.)
Amnesty International noted in January that while the government had recognized that torture was a serious problem and had taken several positive steps, such as human rights training for police officers and compensation for victims of abuse, more remained to be done. In November, a new police manual was introduced in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, which gave added attention to human rights issues. While the National Human Rights Commission continued to monitor custodial deaths (with 1,037 deaths being reported from April 2000 to March 2001) and other abuses, it had few enforcement powers. This is partly because the criminal procedure code requires the central or state governments to approve prosecution of security force members, which is rarely granted. In August, Indian human rights groups expressed concern over government plans to give amnesties to security force personnel facing human rights charges. Security forces continued to detain suspects under the broadly drawn 1980 National Security Act, which authorizes detention without charge for up to one year (two in Punjab). In October, the cabinet approved the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance 2001, which widens the definition of terrorism and bans 24 terrorist organizations. It would also increase powers of investigation, allow for up to three months of preventative detention without charge, and require all citizens to provide authorities with "information relating to any terrorist activity," a clause that was later dropped after opposition from lawyers as well as journalists. Activists are worried that the bill could be used to harass members of certain organizations as well as minority groups. In the first case of implementation of the bill, an entire family was evicted from their house in Kashmir after they were wrongly suspected of having built it from the "proceeds of terrorism." In India's seven northeastern states, more than 40 mainly tribal-based insurgent groups sporadically attacked security forces and engaged in intertribal and internecine violence. The rebel groups have also been implicated in numerous killings, abductions, and rapes of civilians. The militants ostensibly seek either greater autonomy or independence for their ethnic or tribal groups. In recent years the army has committed atrocities with impunity during counterinsurgency operations in Assam, Manipur, and other northeastern states.
The 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act grants security forces broad powers to use lethal force and detention in Assam and four nearby states, and provides near immunity from prosecution to security forces acting under it. In June, the federal government imposed "direct rule" in Manipur after the state government collapsed, and thousands of demonstrators clashed with police and set fire to the Manipur state legislature in protest of the federal government's negotiations with neighboring Naga rebels.
Left-wing guerrillas called Naxalites control some rural areas in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa, and kill dozens of police, politicians, landlords, and villagers in these states each year. The Naxalites also run parallel courts in parts of Bihar. Naxalites and the Ranvir Sena, a technically illegal private army backed by middle-caste politicians and upper-caste landlords, continued to engage in tit-for-tat atrocities in Bihar that killed scores of people during the year.
There are some restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. Section 144 of the criminal procedure code empowers state-level authorities to declare a state of emergency, to restrict free assembly, and to impose curfews. In recent years, officials have occasionally used Section 144 to prevent demonstrations. Human rights groups say that in recent years police and hired thugs have occasionally beaten, arbitrarily detained, or otherwise harassed villagers and members of nongovernmental organizations who were protesting forced relocations from the sites of development projects. Following the U.S.-led air strikes in Afghanistan in October, protestors faced increased harassment from the police and several were killed during demonstrations. In addition, some minority groups criticized the government's decision to ban the Students Islamic Movement of India as part of the general crackdown on terrorism while ignoring the activities of right-wing Hindu groups.
India's private press continued to be vigorous although journalists face numerous constraints. In recent years, the government has occasionally censored articles critical of its policies by using its power under the Official Secrets Act to censor security-related articles. In May, income tax officials ransacked the Bombay offices of Outlook, an independent newsmagazine. Following an expose of official corruption by the Internet news portal tehelka.com, First Global, a successful securities house which had invested in the website, was accused by several government departments of a number of tax and regulatory infractions and was effectively prevented from doing business despite the lack of evidence of any wrongdoing. In June, police detained two foreign journal- ists in Assam, and detentions of local journalists in the northeastern states are common. Journalists protested when the cabinet approved a communications bill in July that would empower an autonomous commission to "intercept and monitor" press messages, data, or information intended for publication. Radio is both public and private, with India's first private FM radio station being launched on July 4. However, the state-owned All India Radio enjoys a dominant position, and its news coverage favors the government. The government maintains a monopoly on domestic television broadcasting, although foreign satellite broadcasts are available.
Human rights organizations generally operated freely. However, Amnesty International reported last year that authorities occasionally carried out or tolerated abuses against human rights activists, including "threats, harassment, false criminal cases and in some cases torture, ill-treatment, 'disappearances' and even political killings." In March, Amnesty International appealed for an impartial investigation to be initiated in the case of the murder of two human rights defenders in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The work of rights activists could also be hindered by a Home Ministry order issued in July which requires organizations to obtain clearance before holding conferences or workshops if the subject matter is "political, semi-political, communal or religious in nature or is related to human rights."
The constitution bars discrimination based on caste, and laws set aside quotas in education and government jobs for members of lower castes. However, evidence suggested that members of so-called scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, continued to routinely face unofficial discrimination and violence. The worst abuse is faced by the 160 million dalits, or untouchables, who are often denied access to land, abused by landlords and police, and forced to work in miserable conditions.
Religious freedom continued to be generally respected, but violence against religious minorities remained a problem. In July, six people were killed and several women raped during an attack on the minority Muslim population in Moradabad, a town in Uttar Pradesh. Attacks on Christian clergy and churches have dramatically increased since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 1998, mainly in the predominantly tribal regions of Orissa, Gujarat, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Local media and some members of the sangh parivar, a grouping of Hindu nationalist organizations including the BJP, promote anti-Christian propaganda. Human Rights Watch noted last year that the BJP and its allies have mandated Hindu prayers in certain state-sponsored schools and support the revision of history books to include negative portrayals of Muslims and Christians. However, the government did take some steps to prosecute the perpetrators of violence against religious minorities. In May, a district court sentenced ten men to life in prison for the 1998 gang-rape of four Christian nuns, and the prosecution of Dara Singh, the main accused in the 1999 murder of an Australian missionary and his two sons, continued in 2001.
Each year, several thousand women are burned to death, driven to suicide, or otherwise killed, and countless others are harassed, beaten, or deserted by husbands, in the context of dowry disputes. Despite the fact that dowry is illegal, convictions in dowry deaths continued to be rare. Rape and other violence against women also continued to be serious problems, with lower-caste and tribal women being particularly vulnerable to attacks. Although the authorities have acknowledged the severity of the issue, local officials continue to ignore complaints, take bribes, and cover up abuses, according to an Amnesty International report issued in May. However, in June the government announced a new Domestic Violence Prevention Bill, which is intended to safeguard women's rights. By many accounts, families often withhold inheritances to Hindu women, and tribal land systems, particularly in Bihar, often deny tribal women the right to own land. Under Sharia (Islamic law), Muslim women face discrimination in inheritance rights. In August, an existing law was amended to give Christian women the same divorce rights as Christian men. In an effort to combat the continuing problem of child marriage, the state government of Rajasthan approved legislation in October requiring all couples to register marriages with the authorities.
Major cities all have thousands of street children, many of who work in the informal sector. UNICEF estimates that overall there are up to 60 million child laborers in India. Many work in hazardous conditions, and several million are bonded laborers. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, only about 16 million of India's 340 million workers are unionized. However, unionized workers wield disproportionate political and economic influence because they are concentrated in key industries, including power, banking, and the railways. Workers regularly exercise their rights to bargain collectively and strike.