Freedom in the World
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India received an upward trend arrow to reflect improvements in the climate for religious freedom, as well as the new government's efforts to amend anti-terrorism legislation and review the content of school textbooks.
n a surprise result, India's ruling coalition government, headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was defeated in an early general election held in May 2004. The main opposition Congress Party assumed power as the lead partner in a minority coalition government, and former finance minister Manmohan Singh was appointed prime minister. The new government pledged to rescind several elements of the BJP's program, including controversial antiterrorism legislation. Despite the sustained efforts of local activists and lawyers and of India's Supreme Court and the National Commission for Human Rights, justice for the 2002 killings in Gujarat continued to be elusive during the year. The BJP-dominated state government of Gujarat remained reluctant to provide an adequate level of rehabilitation for the victims of the violence or to bring those accused of crimes to trial.
India achieved independence in 1947 with the partition of British India into a predominantly Hindu India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and a predominantly Muslim Pakistan. The centrist, secular Congress Party ruled almost continuously at the federal level for the first five decades of independence. After winning the 1991 elections, the Congress government responded to a balance-of-payments crisis by initiating gradual economic reforms. However, even as the economic crisis receded, the party lost 11 state elections in the mid-1990s, with regional parties making gains in southern India and low-caste parties and the BJP gaining in the northern Hindi-speaking belt. 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. Some 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in riots and police gunfire.
After the 1996 elections, a series of minority coalitions tried unsuccessfully to form a stable government. Infighting among centrist and leftist parties enabled the BJP to form a government under Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998, but it faced frequent threats from small but pivotal coalition members. The government fell after a regional party defected, but it won reelection in 1999 as the lead partner in the 22-party National Democratic Alliance.
In February 2002, at least 58 people were killed in Godhra, Gujarat, when a fire broke out on a train carrying members of a Hindu extremist group. A Muslim mob was initially blamed for the fire, and in the anti-Muslim riots that followed throughout Gujarat, more than 1,000 people were killed and roughly 100,000 were left homeless and dispossessed. The violence was orchestrated by Hindu nationalist groups, who organized transportation and provisions for the mobs and provided printed records of Muslim-owned property. Evidence that the BJP-headed state government was complicit in the carnage led to calls for Chief Minister Narendra Modi's dismissal, but he retained the support of the party leadership. In state elections held later that year in which Modi campaigned on an overtly nationalistic and anti-Muslim platform, the BJP won a landslide reelection victory.
The rehabilitation of those displaced by the violence, as well as the prosecution of those responsible for murder, rape, and destruction of property, made little headway during 2004. Some arrests have been made, and a dozen cases are making their way through the judicial system. However, witnesses in the few cases that have been brought to trial, as have lawyers and activists working on their behalf, continue to face threats and intimidation at the hands of local authorities and Hindu nationalist sympathizers. In March 2004, the Supreme Court, responding to petitions from witnesses in several cases, ordered that they be given protection by national forces rather than by Gujarat state police. Further condemnation of the state government's prosecution record was implicit in an April Supreme Court order that the Best Bakery case be retried outside of Gujarat, and an August directive that the state government review more than 2,000 closed riot cases and reexamine acquittals to determine the possibility of filing appeals.
Relations between India and Pakistan worsened in December 2001 following an attack on the Indian parliament building by a Pakistan-based militant group, and the two countries came close to war in 2002, which prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity on the part of the United States. Individuals with connections to Pakistan-based militant groups continued to carry out terrorist attacks within India. Nevertheless, there was some easing of tensions between the two countries by the end of 2003, and formal talks over the disputed territory of Kashmir were held in February 2004 with follow-up discussions continuing in June and September. A number of confidence-building measures, such as improved nuclear safeguards, reopened transport links, and an increased diplomatic presence, were also agreed upon.
Buoyed by improving relations with Pakistan and victories in several key state elections held in late 2003, as well as high levels of economic growth, the government decided to call an early general election. However, in a surprise result, it was defeated - final results announced in May gave the BJP only 137 seats out of 545, and its allies also performed poorly - and the main opposition Congress Party was able to form a minority coalition government with additional parliamentary support from a group of leftist parties. In a further surprise, Congress leader Sonia Gandhi declined the position of prime minister and instead appointed former finance minister Manmohan Singh to the post. However, in a unique power-sharing arrangement, she remains party leader and wields considerable leverage over official policy.
The new United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government is perceived by some analysts as unstable and will need to balance demands from a range of disparate coalition partners. Its effectiveness was also tested by a BJP parliamentary boycott called in protest at the government's appointment of several ministers who are facing criminal charges, as well as increasing civil unrest and violence in several northeastern states. However, the Common Minimum Program (CMP) agreed to by the coalition partners promised a renewed focus on effective governance, a social-democratic budget, and the reversal of several policies initiated by the previous government, including the repeal of controversial antiterrorism legislation and the removal from state-run schools of school textbooks that had been imbued with Hindu nationalist ideology.
Indian citizens can change their government through elections. The 1950 constitution provides for a lower house, the 545-seat Lok Sabha (House of the People), whose members are directly elected for five-year terms (except for 2 appointed seats for Indians of European descent). Members of the 245-seat upper house, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), are either elected by the state legislatures or nominated by the president; they serve staggered six-year terms. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and a cabinet, while an indirectly elected president serves as head of state.
India is a mature democracy that has held regular and reasonably free elections since independence. A large number of regional and national parties participate, and sitting governments are thrown out of office with increasing regularity. Under the supervision of the vigilant Election Commission of India (ECI), recent elections have generally been free and fair. National elections held in April and May saw a decline in levels of election-related violence. However, some vote fraud and other minor irregularities were apparent in several districts of Bihar despite the introduction of new electronic voting machines throughout the country. Badly maintained voters' lists and the intimidation of voters are also matters of concern. Women and religious and ethnic minorities are well represented in national and local government (there are reserved seats for "scheduled castes" and "scheduled tribes"), and in May, Manmohan Singh, a Sikh, became India's first prime minister from a minority group.
Despite the vibrancy of the Indian political system, effective and accountable rule continues to be undermined by political infighting, pervasive criminality in politics, decrepit state institutions, and widespread corruption. Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked India in 90th place out of 145 countries. The electoral system depends on black money that is obtained though tax evasion and other means. Politicians and civil servants are regularly caught accepting bribes or engaging in other corrupt behavior, but are rarely prosecuted. Moreover, criminality is a pervasive feature of political life, with a number of candidates with criminal records being elected, particularly in the state legislatures. In 2002, the ECI was able to implement a Supreme Court directive requiring candidates seeking election to declare their financial assets, criminal records, and educational backgrounds. However, in June, The Economist reported that 100 of the 545 recently elected members of the national legislature were facing criminal charges.
India's private press continues to be vigorous, although journalists face 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 continues; Hindu nationalist activists connected with the BJP attacked the premises of the Bombay daily Mahanagar in June, and reporters in several states face pressure from separatist militant groups or from local or state-level authorities. The broadcast media are predominantly in private hands, but the state-controlled All India Radio enjoys a dominant position and its news coverage favors the government. Potentially inflammatory books and films are occasionally banned or censored by the national or state governments. Internet access is unrestricted, although some states have proposed legislation that would require the registration of customers at Internet cafes.
The right to practice one's religion freely is generally respected, but violence against religious minorities remains a problem and prosecution of those involved in such attacks continues to be inadequate. Attacks on Christian targets, including the murder and rape of clergy and the destruction of property, dramatically increased after the BJP came to power in 1998, mainly in the predominantly tribal regions of Orissa, Gujarat, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. Members of the sangh parivar, a group of Hindu nationalist organizations including the BJP, and some local media outlets promote anti-minority propaganda. Legislation on the books in several states, including Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat, criminalizes conversions that take place as a result of "force" or "allurement." These laws have been opposed by human rights activists and religious groups, who argue that the vague provisions of these statutes could be misused.
The promotion of Hindu nationalist ideology by the BJP government also affected the educational system. According to the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2004, textbooks that had been rewritten to favor a Hindu extremist version of history were introduced in late 2002, despite protests from academics, minority leaders, and advocates of secular values. However, the new Congress-headed government pledged to reverse the "saffronization" of education, and the content of the textbooks is currently under revision. Academic freedom is also occasionally threatened by intimidation of and attacks on professors and institutions: in January, Hindu activists vandalized a research institute in Pune, according to the BBC.
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. Officials occasionally use Section 144 to prevent demonstrations, and police sometimes 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 protest forced relocation from the sites of development projects.
Human rights organizations generally operate freely. However, Amnesty International's 2004 report noted that the intimidation of human rights defenders by state officials and other actors, including threats, legal harassment, the use of excessive force by police, and occasionally lethal violence, remains a concern. In Gujarat, activists and organizations that have taken an active role in pushing for justice following the February 2002 riots have faced harassment from state authorities, including targeted investigations by income tax authorities or the police, according to Human Rights Watch. The work of rights activists may also be hindered by a Home Ministry order issued in 2001 that requires organizations to obtain clearance before holding international 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. The Essential Services Maintenance Act enables the government to ban strikes in certain key industries and limits the right of public servants to strike. It is estimated that there are roughly 55 million child laborers in India. Many work in the informal sector in hazardous conditions, and several million are bonded laborers.
The judiciary is independent of the executive. Judges have exercised unprecedented activism in response to public interest litigation over official corruption, environmental issues, and other matters. However, in recent 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 in the judiciary is reportedly rife, and access to justice by the socially and economically marginalized sections of society remains limited. The court system is severely backlogged and understaffed, which results in the detention of a large number of persons who are awaiting trial. In April 2003, the government-appointed Malimath Committee recommended an overhaul of the Indian criminal justice system. However, rights groups expressed concern that its proposals would weaken the rights of the accused and of women while increasing the power of judges and the police.
Police routinely torture or otherwise ill-treat suspects to extract confessions or bribes. Custodial rape of female detainees continues to be a problem, as does routine abuse of ordinary prisoners, particularly minorities and members of the lower castes. Police brutality appears to be especially prevalent in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which has high levels of custodial deaths and extrajudicial executions, according to a 2003 briefing paper released by the New Delhi - based Human Rights Documentation Centre. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), whose profile has grown since its creation in 1993, is headed by a retired Supreme Court judge and handles roughly 75,000 complaints each year. However, while it monitors abuses, initiates investigations, and makes independent assessments, its recommendations are often not implemented and it has few enforcement powers. Reports by the NHRC, Human Rights Watch, and a number of other groups 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 2002 and that police have been reluctant to register complaints against those accused of murder, rape, and other crimes, or arrest those known to have played a role in the rioting. Since the riots, scores of Muslim men in Gujarat have been illegally detained and interrogated about their involvement in subsequent attacks such as the killing of former minister Haren Pandya in March 2003, according to Amnesty International. More generally, the failure of the Indian criminal justice system to protect the rights of, and provide equal protection under the law to, minorities, dalits (untouchables), and other underprivileged groups remains a concern.
Police, army, and paramilitary forces continue to be implicated in disappearances, extrajudicial killing, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and destruction of homes, particularly in the context of insurgencies in Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and several other northeastern states. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act remain in effect in several states, and these grant security forces broad powers of arrest and detention. Security forces also continued to detain suspects under the broadly drawn National Security Act, which authorizes detention without charge for up to one year. The criminal procedure code requires the central or state governments to approve prosecution of security force members, which is rarely granted. As a result, impunity for security forces implicated in past human rights abuses remains a concern. After the alleged custodial rape and killing of civilian Thangjam Manorama in July, antigovernment protests erupted in the northeastern state of Manipur, with protestors demanding that the AFSPA be lifted.
In March 2002, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was passed by a special joint session of parliament, amid protests by journalists, human rights groups, and some members of the government and judiciary. In addition to widening the definition of terrorism and banning a number of terrorist organizations, the bill also increased the state's powers of investigation and allowed for up to 90 days of preventive detention without charge. Since its enactment, the act has been used in a number of states to detain political opponents, members of minority groups (including tribal members, dalits, Muslims, and others), and other ordinary citizens, as well as against terrorist suspects. Of the 287 cases registered in Gujarat under POTA as of December 2003, there were 286 against Muslims, according to a September 2004 report by Human Rights Watch. However, in September, the new government announced its decision to repeal POTA.
In India's seven northeastern states, more than 40 mainly tribal-based insurgent groups, who seek either greater autonomy or complete independence for their ethnic or tribal groups, sporadically attack security forces and engage in intertribal violence. The rebel groups have also been implicated in numerous bombings, killings, abductions, and rapes of civilians. Rebel positions were weakened by an operation launched by Bhutan in December 2003 to drive a number of groups out of its territory; during the raids, more than 1,000 rebels were either killed or taken into custody by Indian forces. However, violence continued throughout 2004; a series of bombs planted by various groups in early October killed at least 46 people. 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. Police also continued to battle the People's War Group (PWG), a guerilla organization that aims to establish a Communist state in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh. Nevertheless, in October, the Andhra Pradesh state government held a first set of direct talks with the PWG aimed at ending the decades-old conflict.
The constitution bars discrimination based on caste, and laws set aside quotas in education and government jobs for members of the so-called scheduled tribes, scheduled castes (dalits), and other backward castes (OBCs). However, members of the lower castes, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, continue to routinely face unofficial discrimination and violence. The worst abuse is experienced by the 160 million dalits, who are often denied access to land or other public amenities, abused by landlords and police, and forced to work in miserable conditions. In July, Human Rights Watch criticized the use of excessive police force against dalits who tried to participate in a religious ceremony in Tamil Nadu. Tension between different ethnic groups over land, jobs, or resources occasionally flares into violent confrontation, and sporadic Hindu-Muslim violence remains a concern. Other forms of discrimination against Muslims are sometimes excused in the context of ongoing tensions with Pakistan as well as the global campaign against terrorism. Although India hosts several hundred thousand refugees from various neighboring states, it has no national refugee law, and the treatment of displaced people varies widely, according to Refugees International.
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 and other disputes. Despite the fact that making demands for dowry is illegal and that hundreds are convicted each year, the practice continues to spread. Rape and other violence against women remain serious problems, with lower-caste and tribal women being particularly vulnerable to attacks. Muslim women and girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence during the communal violence that engulfed Gujarat in 2002, and there has been no official attempt to provide rehabilitation for those victims still alive or to prosecute their attackers, according to a 2003 Amnesty International report. Muslim personal status laws as well as traditional Hindu practices discriminate against women in terms of inheritance rights. The malign neglect of female children after birth remains a concern. An increasing use of sex-determination tests during pregnancy, after which female fetuses are more likely to be aborted, and the practice of female infanticide by those who cannot afford the tests have contributed to a growing imbalance in the male-female birth ratios in a number of states, particularly in the northwest.