Human Rights in the Doldrums

Cedric Prakash Cedric Prakash
27 Mar 2023
India as a sovereign nation does not need other nations to analyse or report on its human rights situation.

December 10, 1948 was a significant day for the world. On that day nearly all the democracies and other peace-nations came together to sign the historic and path-breaking Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). India, which attained independence about sixteen months earlier, was also a signatory. The UDHR would in fact inspire the Constitution of the new-born nation which was promulgated a few months later, on 26 November 1949. 

After a long, brutal, bloody war everybody desperately wanted peace. The overwhelming chorus of the world was ‘Never Again’ – but for all sustainable peace would be achieved only if the human rights of every person was respected and guaranteed. Signing the UDHR clearly meant that the nation State concerned would not only promote the human rights of their citizens but would conscientiously protect them.

India, after years of enslavement by colonialists, was one of those nations, which certainly cherished the ideals of the UDHR and did its best to internalise and actualise both in letter and in spirit. The debates in the Constituent Assembly, the assurance of these rights in the Preamble and in the Directive Principles of the Constitution and the unwavering commitment of the political leadership to ensure these rights were clear indicators of this. 

Over the years, however, there was a gradual deterioration which began to take ugly shape in 2014. Since then, the political leadership has abdicated its responsibility of promoting and protecting human rights of its citizens. This abdication has permeated to different levels of society where not only officialdom but crony capitalists, vigilantes and other fascist, fundamentalist and fanatic regimes take law and order in their own hands. 

At the receiving end of a system, which has become not only immoral but totally inhuman, are the poor and the vulnerable, the excluded and the exploited, the minorities and the marginalised, the differently abled and the LGBTQIA community, the media, writers, poets, cartoonists, comedians who defy the system, human rights defenders and all those who have the courage to take a stand for human rights, justice and truth.

India as a sovereign nation does not need other nations to analyse or report on its human rights situation.  On the other hand, India is so desperate to seek approval ratings from almost any country of the world – including tyrannical ones and blatant dictatorships. The country hankers for finance, loans, investments and every form of trade and other material help the world over. It flaunts its current status of G20 Presidency and postures itself as a ‘Vishwa Guru’ (no one though seems ready to buy it). 

So, on the two recent reports -- one by V-Dem, the prestigious Swedish institute of Democracy, and the other by the United States Department of State – both on the gross violations of human rights and democracy in India, the country cannot complain. The reports are not saying anything new but merely highlighting the stark realities which is the lot of a sizeable section of Indians today: the failure of the Government of India to protect the human rights of its citizens. The truth is plainly visible: human rights are in the doldrums.

The annual Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2022 were released from the United States Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor and by the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken. The 57-page India section is replete with facts and figures and reports the ground realities in India which in fact no one with an iota of objectivity or love for truth, can contest. The Report states:   “Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extra-judicial killings by the government or its agents; torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by police and prison officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; political prisoners or detainees; arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy; restrictions on freedom of expression and media, including violence or threats of violence, unjustified arrests or prosecutions of journalists, and enforcement of or threat to enforce criminal libel laws to limit expression; restrictions on internet freedom; interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; restrictions on freedom of movement and on the right to leave the country; refoulement of refugees; serious government corruption; harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including domestic and intimate partner violence, sexual violence, workplace violence, child, early, and forced marriage, femicide, and other forms of such violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of national/racial/ethnic and minority groups based on religious affiliation, social status or sexual orientation; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons; and existence of forced and compulsory labor.”

The Report goes on to add: “A lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and under-resourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions. Terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, north-eastern states, and Maoist terrorism-affected areas committed serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians; kidnapping; and recruitment and use of child soldiers”.

Earlier this week, at a State Department briefing in Washington DC, while releasing the report, when asked about India’s record, Erin M Barclay, acting assistant secretary of the bureau of democracy, human rights and labour, said that the US and India regularly consult at the highest levels on democracy and human rights. He said, “We have and we will continue to strongly urge India to uphold its human rights obligations and commitments. Not surprisingly, we also regularly meet with civil society both in the US and in India to hear their perspectives and learn from their experiences, and we encourage the Government of India to consult with them as well.” 

To date, the Government of India has not responded to the report, though it has taken note of it. Actually, if they stand by the accuracy and authenticity of the report – they will have at most a pathetic lame-duck response. In the past, India has rejected similar reports by the US government. The government has asserted that India has well-established democratic practices and robust institutions to safeguard the rights of all (all who are attuned to the truth know that the Government’s response is just a pack of lies).

Then we have another alarming report released recently by the V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy) Institute at the University of Gothenberg in Sweden titled Defiance in the Face of Autocratization . The report puts India as one of the worst autocratisers among democratic nations. A sudden lockdown in 2020 displayed how easily the lives of people at the margins of Indian society could be disrupted. In 2021, the V-Dem institute classified India as an “electoral autocracy”, while in the same year, Freedom House listed India as “partly free”. 

Also in 2021, the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance classified India as a backsliding democracy and a “major decliner” in its Global State of Democracy (GSoD) report. The data made available by the GSoD report demonstrated that between 1975 and 1995 India’s representative government score moved from .59 to .69. In 2015 it was .72. However, in 2020 it stood at .61, i.e., closer to the score India had in 1975 when it was under Indira Gandhi’s Emergency. 

The GSoD report also listed India alongside Sri Lanka and Indonesia for the lowest score on the religious freedom indicator since 1975. Therefore, it is not surprising that the 2023 V-Dem report refers to India as “one of the worst autocratisers in the last 10 years” in a blurb on page 10 and places India in the bottom 40-50% on its Liberal Democracy Index at rank 97. India also ranks 108 on the Electoral Democracy Index and 123 on the Egalitarian Component Index.

All this is not good news for a regime that thrives on lies, unfulfilled promises, rampant corruption and denial of human rights to its citizens. The facts bared both by the US State Department and by V-Dem cannot be contested. There are umpteen examples day-in and day-out to substantiate the human rights violations in the report.

The recent Global Human Index put India at a pathetic low rank of 132 out of 191 countries evaluated. This is a sheer disgrace! There are several other global indices today which put India at rock bottom; unfortunately, the Government of India seems to be totally unconcerned about all these. The poor in India become poorer every day. The Adivasis are robbed of their jal, jungle and jameen. The Dalits and OBCs and other subaltern groups are still denied the dignity, equality and justice which are legitimately theirs. The minorities (specially the Muslims and Christians) are targeted with hate speech and by a regime which systematically denigrates and demonizes them with their divisive and violent agenda. How else can one explain the virulent and vicious attacks on the minorities through issues like beef-eating, the hijab controversy and the so called ‘love jihad’? We saw how they abrogated the Constitutional provisions of Article 370 and 35A where Kashmir is concerned.

Why do a slew of blatantly unconstitutional laws like the anti-conversion laws take centre-stage in a nation which professes the freedom to preach, practice and propagate one’s religion as a fundamental right? They have not been able to prove one instance of ‘forced conversion’! The Government has pushed through legislation and policies which are against the democratic ethos of the country.  A few days ago, a lower functionary of the Sangh Parivar in North Gujarat spewed venom on the Christians, the nuns and the establishment there, including derogatory comments on the Pope. Despite a police complaint, the person is still not booked. On the other hand, if one takes on the Government, with good reason, one is charge-sheeted and arrested very easily.

Not long ago there were the anti- farmer laws; the farmers are naturally still sceptical that these laws may be reintroduced by the back door. Thousands of farmers of Maharashtra last week marched towards Bombay for an MSP for onions. The four labour codes go against the rights of the workers and favour the big corporates. The pitiable conditions of the migrant workers came to the fore when the lockdown was announced in March 2020. The fishermen of Kerala were fighting against Adani. 

India has been placed last in the recent Global Environmental index; the regime has catered to the whims and fancies of those who want to profiteer by destroying the environment: the auctioning of the coal blocks, the destruction of the Aarey forest in Bombay, the introduction of the Ahmedabad-Bombay bullet train project despite opposition. The ecological destruction of the Aravalli and the Western Ghats is there for all to see. The regime has not even spared rivers -- be it the Ganges or the Sabarmati.

Freedom of Speech and expression is also in the doldrums. Those who take a stand, write and speak against the Government, are hauled up, and false cases are foisted on them; they are attacked and even killed as in the case of Gauri Lankesh. Most of the media (both print and electronic) are godified. It is not surprising that India ranked 150 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index 2022. The Chief Justice of India referred to this reality at a public function in New Delhi this week.

Then we have the issue of the human rights defenders (HRDs) and many others who have taken a visible and vocal stand on critical issues, be it the Citizenship Amendment Act or for the rights of the excluded and the exploited. The Human Rights Defenders in the Bhima Koregaon conspiracy case are still languishing in jail. The list is endless of such people: Teesta Setalvad, RB Sreekumar, Sanjiv Bhatt, Umar Khalid, Disha Ravi, Safoora Zargar to name a few.

The new National Education Policy NEP has been pushed through without necessary deliberations and debate in Parliament. This policy is clearly anti-poor and anti-minority and caters only to a small section of the rich and the elite to the disadvantage of the vast majority of the population. Corruption is mainstreamed. crony capitalism is rampant. The BJP allegedly reaped a mind-boggling amount to its coffers through demonetization and the electoral bonds. Elections everywhere today for the ruling regime is about the money, muscle, media and machines -- which they manipulate so easily.

Obviously, it does not really require the US or an institute in Sweden to tell us all these about India: any objective minded person living here would be able to predict that we are well on our way to joining the dishonourable club of the 54 not free countries in the world. Every relevant index is screaming the truth from the rooftops -- Press Freedom Index, Human Freedom Index, Democracy Index, Human Development Index, Hunger Index, Inequality Index, etc. The erosion of the rule of law, the undermining of institutions, the daily attacks on the higher judiciary, the misuse of police, the atrocities on minorities, the hounding of liberals and activists, the deliberate suborning of elected state governments -- all these are the visible signs of the dismantling of the substantive democratic structure of India. If things continue in the current mode, it will take just one more general election to topple our democratic edifice which is 75 years old, perhaps for ever.

The people of India need to wake up NOW before it is too late and to ensure human rights for ALL!

(Fr Cedric Prakash is a human rights, reconciliation and peace activist/writer. Contact:

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