Secularism and minorities in India
A. Sattar Alvi
The recurring theme in the aftermath of all these events is impunity. When the state authorities not only fail to investigate but are also party to the crime, the results are always unjust, at best anemic
I was a student at university in the US and I had a class fellow from India. We lived in the same neighborhood and I found him to be a wonderful fellow. We got along well and he used to tell me how wonderful India was and how absolutely mesmerising it was for the westerners. What he also shared with me was another side of India, which is well known but it does not have the same impact as the good side. What he said rather wistfully was that in the same India, non-Hindus (Dalit) are killed for not being Hindu, where non-Hindus are treated inhumanly, where non-Hindus are forced to convert to Hinduism and where non-Hindus don’t get any justice. His words have stayed with me ever since. What secularism does India talk about? Here is a small portion of India’s track record to give you a clearer picture.
Dalit is a designation for a group of people traditionally regarded as the untouchables in the Indian caste system and there are more than 200 million of them excluding the Muslims and the Christians, which if included, would increase the number to well above 500 million.
India has had three major spates of communal violence in recent history. First, the 1984 attacks on Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi, second, the 1992-93 killing of Muslims in Mumbai and the demolition of the Babri Mosque, and third, the 2002 violence against Muslims in the Gujarat state following a mob attack on a train. Thousands of people were killed in each one of these attacks and in all of these cases the accountability remained elusive. Indian authorities failed to investigate and prosecute suspects after major outbreaks of violence, even after reports by independent inquiries implicating officials and members of law enforcement.
This pattern of impunity continues to the present day. There was, for instance, the violence that occurred in Orissa in 2008, after a Hindu leader was assassinated, allegedly by Maoists. After members of an extremist Hindu group incited violence against the area’s Christian population, nearly 40 Christians were killed, thousands of homes were burned, and over 10,000 were displaced. Although many perpetrators were later prosecuted, many were given only minor punishment like fines. The recurring theme in the aftermath of all these events is impunity. When the state authorities not only fail to investigate but are also party to the crime, the results are always unjust, at best anemic. For many years after the violence in Gujarat, the state government failed to do anything. Prosecutions began only after extensive pressure from activists and victims’ families. And Modi, the prime mover, according to BJP has got a clean chit from investigators.
Many Muslim men have been arbitrarily detained, interrogated, and tortured after bombing attacks, especially between 2006 and 2008. (Later investigations found that members of Hindu extremist groups were actually responsible for some of these attacks.) Authorities have also used draconian and abusive laws, including the Sedition Law and the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, to target Muslims. Indian human rights groups have repeatedly expressed concerns over profiling of Muslims and the use of prolonged detention. Not only do Muslims fear arbitrary arrest, they also fear for their lives. In July 2013, the Central Bureau of Investigation filed charges against senior Gujarat police and intelligence officials for the extrajudicial killing of four Muslims, including a 19-year-old woman. The police arrested them and later it was proved that they were executed by police while claiming an encounter.
The Indian armed forces continue to commit human rights violations in Jammu and Kashmir, and in the northeastern states that are home to many ethnic minority groups. Human rights groups have long documented serious abuses by members of the Indian military, including torture, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances. But members of the military are rarely investigated or prosecuted. Indian military personal are effectively shielded from prosecution for incidents in Jammu and Kashmir and the northeast under the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, which provides military personnel immunity from prosecution when deployed in areas under emergency rule. Despite repeated domestic and international condemnations calling for repeal of the law, it remains in force, due largely to military opposition.
Praful Bidwai, a noted Indian correspondent has written extensively on the abuses of Dalits in India and particularly in Rajasthan. Similarly the testimonies offered by Dr Katrina Lantos of the US Commission of International Religious Freedom in as late as April 2014 and by John Sifton of the Human Rights Watch have painted horrendous pictures about the plight of these people in India. Despite being a functioning democracy since its independence more than 60 years ago, Indian law enforcement and judiciary are lacking in both the will and capacity to tackle the cases of human rights violations by Hindutva organizations.
In all this, there may be a lesson for us. I should perhaps not say this, lest it annoys the more hypocritical among us; but India is only as much secular as Pakistan is Islamic.