Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
The ruling United Progressive Alliance, a coalition led by the Congress Party, won a decisive victory in the April–May 2009 parliamentary elections, allowing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to remain in office. The Congress-led alliance also maintained its majority in state elections in Maharashtra and Arunachal Pradesh in October, and won a plurality of seats in Haryana. While the year was relatively peaceful, ongoing Maoist and separatist insurgencies contributed to lawlessness and human rights violations in a number of states.
India achieved independence from Britain in 1947, as predominantly Muslim portions of British India were split off to form Pakistan. The centrist, secular Congress Party ruled at the federal level for nearly all of the first 50 years of independence. In the mid-1990s, however, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became a major factor in Parliament, leading a number of subsequent governments. In addition, the pattern shifted from single-party to coalition governments, typically involving large numbers of parties and an increasingly important role for parties based in a single state. The 1990s also featured major economic reform, with a Congress government initiating a shift toward market-oriented policies following a balance-of-payments crisis in 1991.
The BJP, which had held power since 1998, was unexpectedly defeated after calling early national elections in 2004. The Congress Party formed a ruling coalition with a number of regional parties, but Congress leader Sonia Gandhi decided to hand the premiership to former finance minister Manmohan Singh. The new Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government agreed to reverse several of the previous government’s policies, including controversial antiterrorism legislation and the injection of Hindu nationalist ideology into state-run schools. However, the UPA faced internal rifts and opposition from the Communist Party of India–Marxist, one of its leftist allies, on economic issues such as privatization and labor law reform. The government survived a contentious July 2008 confidence vote in Parliament triggered by the Communists’ objections to a nuclear pact with the United States, though the vote was marred by bribery allegations.
The UPA gained strength in the April–May 2009 parliamentary elections, decisively defeating the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance, which remained its closest rival. Congress itself won 206 of 543 lower house seats, compared with 116 for the BJP, and the UPA won 260 seats overall. Moreover, the coalition made alliances with several independent parties, eventually giving it a majority of 322 seats. Mayawatti, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh and a leader of low-caste Dalits, was thought to be a potential contender for the premiership before the elections, but her Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) did not perform as well as expected, securing only 21 seats. Average voter turnout over all five phases of the election was approximately 60 percent.
Congress’s electoral victory led to a more stable government, though the absence of communist parties from the ruling coalition did not lead to any major economic changes in its first budget, released in July. Liberal attempts to introduce reforms were weakened by India’s comparative success during the global economic crisis.
A peace dialogue that began after India and Pakistan came close to war in 2002, but which faltered in 2008 due to a series of terrorist attacks attributed to Islamist militants, resumed in June 2009. The fresh talks came after Pakistan took steps to acknowledge the role of the Pakistani-based militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba in a November 2008 terrorist assault on hotels and other sites in Mumbai that killed 171 people. After a round of talks in July, India and Pakistan issued a joint statement declaring that acts of terrorism would not have any impact on the peace process, although the Indian government was forced to backtrack on the issue following vocal domestic criticism.
India is an electoral democracy. Members of the lower house of Parliament, the 545-seat Lok Sabha (House of the People), are directly elected for five-year terms (except for two appointed members representing Indians of European descent). The Lok Sabha determines the leadership and composition of the government. Most members of the less powerful 250-seat upper house, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), are elected by the state legislatures using a proportional-representation system to serve staggered six-year terms; up to 12 members are appointed. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and cabinet. The president, who plays a largely symbolic role as head of state, is chosen for a five-year term by state and national lawmakers.
Workers in the formal economy regularly exercise their rights to bargain collectively and strike. However, the Essential Services Maintenance Act enables the government to ban strikes in certain industries and limits the right of public servants to strike. Estimates of the number of child laborers vary widely, from 12 million to 55 million. Many work in the informal sector in hazardous conditions, and some are bonded laborers. Children younger than 14 are banned from working as domestic servants or at hotels, restaurants, or roadside food stalls, although in practice the law is routinely flouted.
The lower levels of the judiciary in particular are reportedly rife with corruption, and most citizens have great difficulty securing justice through the courts. In August 2009, following a public debate over judicial accountability, India’s 29 Supreme Court justices announced that they would disclose their assets publicly on the court’s website. The court system is severely backlogged and understaffed, with about 38 million civil and criminal cases pending. This leads to lengthy pretrial detention for a large number of suspects, many of whom remain in jail beyond the duration of any sentence they might receive if convicted. A 2009 report by the Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court indicated that at the current pace it would take 466 years to clear the backlog.
Despite legal reforms in recent years, the criminal justice system still generally fails to provide equal protection to minorities, lower castes, and tribal members. Muslims, who make up some 13.4 percent of the population, are underrepresented in the security forces, with only 29,000 serving in an army of 1.1 million, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Muslims are also underrepresented in “influential” or “sensitive” areas of government such as the foreign and intelligence services. A 2006 report released by the Sachar Committee—a high level government committee convened to address the social and economic status of Muslims in India—suggested several measures to combat inequalities, but the report has had little impact.
Security forces operating in the context of regional insurgencies continue to be implicated in disappearances, extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and destruction of homes. Despite several calls for its repeal, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and the Disturbed Areas Act remain in effect in a number of states, granting security forces broad powers of arrest and detention. Security forces also continue to hold suspects under the National Security Act, which authorizes detention without charge for up to one year, as well as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. In response to spiraling Naxalite-related violence, theChhattisgarh state government passed the Special Public Protection Act in 2006, with broad language allowing three-year detentions for “unlawful activities” and criminalizing the provision of support to the Naxalite rebels, even if under duress. The criminal procedure code requires the federal or relevant state government to approve prosecution of security force members, but such approval is rarely granted, leading to impunity for personnel implicated in human rights abuses.
In India’s seven northeastern states, more than 40 insurgent factions—seeking either greater autonomy or complete independence for their ethnic or tribal groups—attack security forces and engage in intertribal violence. The rebels have been implicated in numerous bombings, killings, abductions, and rapes of civilians, and they also operate extensive extortion networks. Approximately 843 troops, militants, and civilians were killed in these northeastern states in 2009, according to the SATP. Tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced, and many live in squalid camps. In January 2009, the Assam Legislative Assembly passed the Assam Preventive Detention (Amendment) Act, lifting the maximum period for preventive detention of terrorist suspects from six months to two years.
The constitution bars discrimination based on caste, and laws set aside generous quotas in education and government jobs for the so-called scheduled tribes, scheduled castes (Dalits), and other backward classes (OBCs). In addition, women and religious and ethnic minorities are represented in national and local government; in 2004, Manmohan Singh became India’s first Sikh prime minister, and in 2007 the BSP, formed chiefly to represent Dalits, won an absolute majority in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. However, members of the lower castes and minorities continue to face routine unofficial discrimination and violence. The worst abuse is experienced by the country’s 160 million Dalits, who are often denied access to land and other public amenities, abused by landlords and police, punished by village councils or members of the upper castes for alleged social transgressions, and forced to work in miserable conditions. A government proposal to reserve an extra 27 percent of places in universities and technical institutes for OBCs—taking the total portion of reserved slots to 49.5 percent—was approved in 2008. Indian Muslims are disproportionately more likely to be poor and illiterate, and less likely to have access to government employment, medical care, or loans.
Property rights are somewhat tenuous for tribal groups and other marginalized communities, and members of these groups are often denied adequate resettlement opportunities and compensation when their lands are seized for development projects. While many states have laws to prevent land transfers to non-tribal groups, the practice is widespread, according to a 2008 Asian Indigenous and Tribal People’s Network report. The 2006 Forest Rights Act gave tribal groups ownership rights over forestland they farmed, although recent reports suggest that the law has yet to be effectively implemented. A long-running protest by 1,738 landless Dalit families in Kerala, who demanded land held by a private rubber plantation, was resolved in 2009 when the government granted the families money to build housing elsewhere.
Each year, several thousand women are killed or driven to suicide, and countless others are abused or deserted by husbands, in the context of domestic disputes. Despite the criminalization of dowry demands and hundreds of convictions each year, the practice continues. Rape and other violence against women are serious problems, and lower-caste and tribal women are particularly vulnerable. A 2006 law banned dowry-related harassment, widened the definition of domestic violence to include emotional or verbal abuse, and criminalized spousal rape. However, reports released in 2009 by the Delhi-based Lawyers’ Collective indicated that enforcement of the law was poor in many states. So-called honor killings, in which women are murdered by relatives for perceived sexual or moral transgressions, remain a problem, especially in the northwestern states of Punjab and Haryana.
In a landmark decision in July 2009, a court scrapped colonial-era laws that banned homosexual behavior. The laws had contributed to the harassment of gay men and the NGOs that work with them, according to Human Rights Watch, and the court ruling came after a protracted campaign against the statutes by rights groups. Gay activist groups organize openly, despite harassment and occasional violence.
The numerical ratings and status listed above do not reflect conditions in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which is examined in a separate report.