Dr. John Dayal
New Delhi: Geneva is not the usual place for a government to reassure its people on their future security, but India does have a golden opportunity there during the United Nations-conducted Universal Periodic Review (UPR), which takes place towards the end of May 2012.
In a manner of speaking, the UPR, which every country faces once every four years since the formation four years ago, is a structural device to ensure transparency in how well the 192 member countries observe and implement the UN resolution on Universal Human Rights.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has said the UPR “has great potential to promote and protect human rights in the darkest corners of the world.” It was created through the UN General Assembly on 15 March 2006 by resolution 60/251, which established the UN Human Rights Council itself.
India was among the first batch of countries to face the UPR in Geneva when the process began in 2008. As most countries were new to the system, India avoided serious scrutiny by narrating its long, and important, list of special laws and institutions it has created since Independence to safeguard the human rights of the citizens.
No one, of course, asked India very penetrating questions about how well these laws had been implemented, or how well its institutions had worked.
The people of India know better, and they have been agitating for years against oppressive laws and in favor of new protective legislation even as they dismiss the National Human Rights Commission and other panels such as the National Commission in Minorities as toothless structures that do no more than provide sinecures to retired officials or political sycophants.
There were a few countries that did probe India on the Armed Forces Special Powers Act and on extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances and fake encounters. India wriggled out of them by claiming security concerns.
The second UPR may not be so easy for India. Non-government organizations, human rights groups and research centers have since then done much study and advocacy to pin down India on the dark reality of the human rights situation in the largest and most populous democracy in the world.
Some countries are also eager to remind India that as a perpetual preacher of good manners to other countries, it needs to first heed its own advice.
While NGOs have listed issues ranging from hunger, health, housing and displacement, to the very serious issues of fake encounters, racial profiling and the plight of the Dalits – including Dalit Christians – a sensitive subject is of the situation of religious minorities, especially the Muslims and Christians.
According to India’s 2001 census, Hindus constitute 80.5 percent of the population (827,578,868), Muslims 13.4 percent (138, 188,240), Christians 2.3 percent (24,080,016), Sikhs 1.9 percent (19,215,730), Buddhists 0.8 percent (7,955,207), Jains 0.4 percent (4,225,053) and other religions and persuasions constitute 0.6 percent of 1,028,610,328.
The data for the 2011 census has yet to be published, and there is no official data for India’s many indigenous religions that predate Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism.
Religious minorities are economically poorer and socially discriminated against. Only 6.5 percent have access to institutional finance, 40 percent [by habitation] do not have health facilities, 35 percent do not have education facilities and just over 65 percent live in huts or temporary shelters.
The Constitution of India defines it as a secular state, but the laws discriminate on the basis of religion and caste.
Scheduled Castes, formerly known as untouchable castes, which are given reservation in education, employment and politics, lose these if they choose to profess Christianity or Islam. The legality of the Presidential Order 1950, on which this denial rests, was contested in the Supreme Court of India in 2004, but is still in force as the government delays its response.
Religious minorities have been victims of targeted violence since India’s independence on 15 August 1947. Minister of State for Home Affairs Ajay Maken told Indian Parliament there were over 6,000 cases of such violence in the first decade of the 21st century.
Earlier, in February 1983, in Nellie town of Assam, thousands of Muslim civilians were killed on the suspicion that they were illegal Bangladeshi immigrants. The anti-Sikh attacks in Delhi in 1984 saw more than 5,000 Sikh men, women and children brutally attacked, tortured, raped and killed.
Hindu right-wing activists demolished the historic Babri Mosque in 1992, and anti-Muslim attacks in many parts of the country in 2002, including Mumbai and Surat, killing thousands. The exact numbers are not still known.
A spate of incidents related to anti-Christian violence took place in the late 1990s. The violence in Kandhamal, Orissa in December 2007 and August 2008 targeted dalit and tribal Christians – 56,000 people were internally displaced, 5,600 houses and 296 churches burnt down, several women including a Nun raped and about 96 people killed. Just one person has been convicted of murder in the killing of Christians, while the number of convictions in other cases is insignificant.
On a lower scale, attacks take place on a regular basis in various parts of the country. In such attacks, violence against women is endemic.
Law experts have also faulted the so-called anti-conversion laws enacted by seven states including Orissa, ironically titled the Freedom of Religion Act, for violating freedom of religion guaranteed by the Indian constitution. These laws are being used to harass and intimidate those who voluntarily change their faith from Hinduism. But the same laws do not address forcible conversions to Hinduism.
There have been some recent developments that have elicited considerable interest in many countries, and which may give India an opportunity to provide an example of “best practice” that can be followed by other countries in Asia and Africa where communal and ethnic violence has also been a chronic problem.
This is the draft Law on Prevention of Communal and Targeted Violence Bill of 2007, which civil society and many in government hold will be good not only for India in containing sectarian violence but also become a best practice for wherever there are multi-religious and multi-cultural populations.
This bill was drafted by a group set up by the government’s National Advisory Council and consisting of legal experts and activists from all communities. The draft bill is yet to be made law. It is currently with the government and has to go through the regular procedure of being vetted by the ministries of Law and Home Affairs and the Union Cabinet before it is presented in Parliament.
The Bill, as is to be expected, has had its critics in the right wing political parties, some of whom patronize the groups that do indulge in violence, as also by others who are traditionally opposed to the ruling alliance.
India could, at Geneva, refer to the draft bill as indicative of its desire to end the environment of hate, impunity and complicity of state functionaries in communal and targeted violence, as seen in New Delhi in 1984 against Sikhs, Mumbai in 1993 and Gujarat in 2002 against Muslims, in Kandhamal in 2008 against Christians and, at a lesser level, in Karnataka and some other states at present.