India | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2003

2003 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

India received a downward trend arrow as a result of ongoing state-sanctioned communal violence in the state of Gujarat and the state's subsequent response.


India's ruling coalition government, headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), faced a number of challenges in 2002. The BJP suffered further electoral defeats in several key state elections. After part of a train carrying Hindu extremists was torched in Godhra station in February, a frenzy of violence directed at the Muslim minority erupted in the state of Gujarat. The BJP-controlled state government showed an initial unwillingness to contain the unrest, which continued sporadically for several months, and evidence later surfaced that both the state administration and the police force had been complicit in the killing and destruction. The national BJP leadership rejected calls on the part of the opposition, the press, and other nongovernmental actors for accountability, and in December, the BJP won state elections in Gujarat on an anti-minority platform. Analysts expressed concern that the rising majoritarianism expressed by Hindu nationalists threatened India's tradition of vibrant and inclusive democracy. Heightened tensions with neighboring Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir brought the two countries close to war in May and led to increased international concern about the possibility of a nuclear confrontation.

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 at the federal level for the first five decades of independence, except for periods of opposition from 1977 through 1980 and from 1989 through 1991.

After winning the 1991 elections, the Congress government responded to a balance-of-payments crisis by initiating gradual reforms of the autarkic, control-bound economy. However, even as the economic crisis receded, the party lost 11 state elections in the mid-1990s. Congress's traditional electoral base of poor, low-caste, and Muslim voters appeared disillusioned with economic liberalization and, in the case of Muslims, the government's failure to prevent communal violence. In December 1992, India 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 BJP gained in the northern Hindi-speaking belt.

During 1996 and 1997 a series of minority coalitions--led by both the BJP and a leftist-regional combine--tried unsuccessfully to form a stable government after parliamentary elections held in May 1996. Because of infighting among centrist and leftist parties, the BJP was able to form a government under Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998. One of the government's first major acts was to carry out a series of underground nuclear tests in May 1998. Holding only a minority of seats, the BJP government faced frequent threats and demands from small but pivotal coalition members. The government fell after a Tamil Nadu-based party defected, but it won reelection in 1999. Final election results gave the BJP-led, 22-party National Democratic Alliance 295 seats (182 for the BJP) against 112 seats for Congress.

The government was shaken in 2001 by a sting operation conducted by an investigative-news Internet site that caught both defense officials and key party leaders taking bribes, which led to the resignation of Defense Minister George Fernandes. While the coalition government survived the loss of one of its partners, its credibility was further weakened by the reinduction of Fernandes into the cabinet prior to the completion of a judicial inquiry into the scandal. The BJP was defeated in five key state elections that year, and in state elections held in February the party suffered further losses, including that of Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous and politically important state. Perhaps as a reaction to its electoral losses, the BJP continued to shift to the ideological right during 2002, with the promotion of hardliner Lal Krishna Advani to the post of deputy prime minister in July as well as the selection of Manohar Joshi of the Hindu extremist Shiv Sena party as speaker of the lower house of parliament in May.

On February 27, at least 58 people were killed when a fire broke out on a train carrying members of a Hindu extremist group, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP, or World Hindu Council). A Muslim mob was initially blamed for the Godhra fire (although subsequent forensic tests have proved inconclusive), and in the backlash that followed throughout Gujarat, more than 1,000 people were killed and roughly 100,000 were left homeless and dispossessed. Hindu mobs converged on Muslim neighborhoods, looting and destroying homes, businesses, and places of worship. The violence was orchestrated by Hindu nationalist groups such as the VHP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Service), and the Bajrang Dal, who organized transportation and provisions for the mobs provided printed records of Muslim-owned property, calling for an economic boycott of all Muslims. Evidence that the BJP-headed state government led by Chief Minister Narendra Modi was complicit in the carnage led to calls for Modi's resignation or dismissal, but the party leadership continued to support him. Hoping to capitalize on a wave of Hindu support, Modi dissolved the state assembly in July and asked permission to hold fresh elections immediately, but the Election Commission ruled out holding early elections, citing continuing problems with law and order. In elections held in December in which Modi campaigned on an overtly nationalistic and anti-Muslim platform, the BJP won a landslide reelection victory, gaining control of 126 of the state assembly's 182 seats.

Following an attack on the Indian parliament building in December 2001 by a Pakistan-based militant group, relations between India and Pakistan worsened and remained tense throughout 2002. India accused Pakistan of fostering cross-border terrorism in Kashmir and mobilized hundreds of thousands of troops along their common border. The two countries came close to war in May, prompting a flurry of diplomatic activity on the part of the United States. Pakistan-based militant groups carried out several major attacks during the year, including an attack on the Kaluchak army camp in Kashmir in May and an attack on a Hindu temple in Gujarat in September.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Indian citizens can change their government through elections. The 1950 constitution provides for a lower, 543-seat Lok Sabha (House of the People), directly elected for a 5-year term (plus 2 appointed seats for Indians of European descent), and an upper Rajya Sabha (Council of States), whose 245 representatives are either elected by the state legislatures or nominated by the president. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and a cabinet. A new president, nuclear scientist Abdul Kalam, was elected by members of the central and state assemblies in July. Recent elections have generally been free and fair, although violence and irregularities have marred balloting in several electoral districts. In the 1999 national elections, guerrilla attacks in Bihar and northeast India, and interparty clashes in several states, killed some 130 people. The BBC reported that during the state elections in Manipur held in February, 10 people were killed by militants.

Democratic rule continued to be undermined by political infighting, pervasive criminality in politics, decrepit state institutions, and widespread corruption. Transparency International's 2002 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked India in 71st place out of 102 countries. The electoral system depends on a system of "black" money that is obtained though tax evasion and other means. Moreover, criminality is a pervasive feature of political life. In July, the Asian Times reported that roughly 10 percent of national and state legislators were facing charges of murder, rape, or armed robbery. A proposed directive issued by the Election Commission that would have required candidates seeking election to declare their financial assets, criminal records, and educational backgrounds, along with their nomination forms was rejected by all major political parties.

India's private press continued to be vigorous although journalists faced a number of constraints. In recent years, the government has occasionally used its power under the Official Secrets Act to censor security-related articles. Intimidation of journalists by a variety of actors increased in 2002. A crime reporter for a Hindi-language daily was assassinated in April, and in October, a television journalist in Manipur was tortured and killed by suspected separatist rebels. In April, police attacked a group of journalists covering a peace demonstration in Gujarat, and an attack on a newspaper in Tamil Nadu in July left several journalists injured. Official harassment of the investigative news Internet portal and one of its funders continued throughout the year. Radio is both public and private, but the state-owned All India Radio enjoys the dominant position and its news coverage favors the government. Television is no longer a government monopoly, and according to the government press agency, 90 percent of channels are privately owned. In June, the government ended a 50-year ban on foreign ownership of the print media.

Religious freedom continued to be generally respected, but violence against religious minorities remained a problem. In September, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended that India be designated a "country of particular concern" in response to the horrific attacks against Muslims by Hindu mobs in the state of Gujarat, coupled with evidence of state government complicity in the violence and its failure to prosecute those responsible. Attacks on Christian targets, including murders and rapes of clergy and the destruction of property, have dramatically increased since the 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 group of Hindu nationalist organizations including the BJP, promote anti-Christian propaganda. In October, legislators in Tamil Nadu overwhelmingly approved a bill banning forced religious conversions. The law had been opposed by Christian, Muslim, and low-caste Hindu groups, who argued that its provisions could be misused.

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, restrict free assembly, and impose curfews. In recent years, officials have occasionally used Section 144 to prevent demonstrations, and police frequently use excessive force against demonstrators. Human rights groups say that 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. In July, Amnesty International called for an inquiry into reports of police brutality during an operation to forcibly evict and relocate villagers in Madhya Pradesh. Some minority groups criticized the government's 2001 decision to ban the Students Islamic Movement of India as part of a general crackdown on terrorism while ignoring the activities of right-wing Hindu groups.

Human rights organizations generally operated freely. However, Amnesty International's 2002 annual report noted that the harassment of human rights defenders by state officials and other actors, including beating, shooting, and the use of excessive force by police, remained a concern. An Amnesty International team that was hoping to assess the situation in Gujarat was denied visas by the Indian government in July. A report issued by Human Rights Watch documented numerous cases of police harassment of HIV/ AIDS-outreach workers in several states. The work of rights activists could also be hindered by a Home Ministry order issued in July 2001 that 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."

Workers regularly exercise their rights to bargain collectively and strike. In April, around 10 million workers held a one-day strike to protest proposed labor-law changes and privatization plans. The Essential Services Maintenance Act enables the government to ban strikes in certain "essential" industries, and limits the right of public servants to strike. The BBC estimated in May that there are up to 100 million child laborers in India. Many work in the informal sector in hazardous conditions, and several million are bonded laborers. Several cases involving the trafficking of child laborers across state lines were reported during 2002.

The judiciary is independent. Judges have exercised unprecedented activism in response to public-interest litigation over official corruption, environmental issues, and other matters. However, during the past two years, 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, and access to justice by the socially and economically marginalized sections of society remains limited. According to the U.S. State Department's human rights report, the court system is severely overloaded, which results in the detention of a large number of unconvicted persons who are awaiting trial.

Police routinely torture suspects to extract confessions and abuse ordinary prisoners, particularly members of the lower castes. Custodial rape of female detainees continues to be a problem. While the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) monitors custodial deaths (with 1,305 deaths being reported from April 2001 to March 2002) and other abuses, it has 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. However, in January, a court in Rajasthan sentenced five policemen to life imprisonment for the killing of three people in custody nearly 14 years ago. Nongovernmental organizations alleged that police in Gujarat had been given orders by the state government not to intervene during the communal violence that engulfed the state in March, and that police have also refused to register complaints against those accused of murder, rape, and other crimes, or arrest those known to have played a role in the rioting. Reports by the NHRC, Human Rights Watch, and a number of other groups implicated the state's political leadership, as well as the administrative and police apparatus, in both the initial violence and the official response to it.

Police, army, and paramilitary forces continue to be implicated in "disappearances," extrajudicial killings, rapes, tortures, arbitrary detentions, and destruction of homes, particularly in the context of insurgencies in Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and several 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 August 2001, Indian human rights groups expressed concern over governmental 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.

In March, the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance was passed by a joint session of parliament. In addition to widening the definition of terrorism and banning a number of terrorist organizations, the bill also increases the state's powers of investigation and allows for up to 90 days of preventative detention without charge. Activists are worried that the bill could be used to harass members of certain organizations as well as minority groups. A large number of Muslims suspected of involvement in the Godhra train attack were detained under the provisions of the bill, but were later charged under other legislation.

In India's 7 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 complete independence for their ethnic or tribal groups. Police in Andhra Pradesh continue to battle the People's War Group (PWG), a guerilla organization. It is estimated that more than 6,000 people have been killed during its violent 20-year campaign to establish a Communist state in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Mahrashtra, Orissa, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh. Peace talks between the PWG and the state government broke down in July after the government decided to renew its ban on the group. In a number of states, left-wing guerrillas called Naxalites control some rural areas and kill dozens of police, politicians, landlords, and villagers each year.

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, continue 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.

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 2001. Muslim women and girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence during the communal violence that engulfed Gujarat in March. Muslim personal status laws as well as traditional Hindu practices discriminate against women in terms of inheritance rights. The increasing use of sex-determination tests during pregnancy has led to a growing imbalance in the male-female birth ratios in a number of states, particularly in the northwest.