Last Updated: Wednesday, 24 December 2014, 12:47 GMT

USCIRF Annual Report 2003 - India

Publisher United States Commission on International Religious Freedom
Publication Date 1 May 2003
Cite as United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, USCIRF Annual Report 2003 - India, 1 May 2003, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/485569662.html [accessed 25 December 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

In the Commission's September 2002 letter to Secretary Powell regarding CPC recommendations, Commissioners Gaer and Young stated: "Although we are appalled by the violence against Muslims that took place in Gujarat this year, we respectfully dissent from the decision to recommend that India be named a CPC. India is a respected democracy with a judiciary, which is independent, albeit slow-moving and frequently unresponsive, and can work to hold the perpetrators responsible; many vigorous, independent non-governmental human rights organizations that have investigated and published extensive reports about the government's handling of the situation; and a free press that has widely reported on and strongly criticized the situation on the ground in Gujarat. Moreover, the worst levels of violence were contained in a short time period relative to other similar outbreaks in the past and were confined to the state of Gujarat, not spreading to other states, largely because of the actions of Indian officials. Thus we do not agree that in the case of India as a whole, it can be said that 'systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom' have been 'engaged in or tolerated' by the Indian government to an extent to warrant CPC status."

Despite India's democratic traditions, religious minorities in India have periodically been subject to severe violence, including mass killings, in what is called "communal violence." Those responsible for the violence are rarely ever held to account. It has become increasingly clear that an increase in such violence has coincided with the rise in political influence of groups associated with the Sangh Parivar, a collection of Hindu extremist nationalist organizations that view non-Hindus as foreign to India and hence deserving of attack. With the rise in power of the Sangh Parivar's political wing, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the current ruling party in the national government coalition, the climate of immunity for the perpetrators of attacks on minorities appears to have strengthened.

Since 1998, there have been hundreds of attacks on Christian leaders, worshippers, and churches throughout India. These attacks have included killings, torture, rape and harassment of church staff, destruction of church property, disruption of church events, and attempts to force renunciation of Christianity and reconversion back to Hinduism. As recently as January 2003, armed members of a Hindu extremist group attacked an American missionary and seven others with swords.

At the end of February 2002, in the town of Godhra, a mob of Muslims set fire to a train resulting in the death of 58 Hindus. Within days, hundreds of Muslims were killed across Gujarat by Hindu mobs. In addition, hundreds of mosques and Muslim-owned businesses and other kinds of infrastructure were looted or destroyed. More than 100,000 fled their homes. Many Muslims were burned to death; others were stabbed or shot. Other atrocities were committed against the victims, including the rape of Muslim women and girls; many were mutilated or burnt to death. India's National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), an official body, found evidence in the killings of premeditation by members of Hindu extremist groups; complicity by Gujarat state government officials; and police inaction in the midst of attacks on Muslims. Official reports issued in June by the Gujarat Police Administration reveal that the Gujarati government failed to take even basic steps to halt the upsurge in violence against Muslims and that orders were given to police not to interfere with the Hindu mobs. The NHRC also noted "widespread reports and allegations of well-organized persons, armed with mobile telephones and addresses, singling out certain homes and properties for death and destruction in certain districts – sometimes within view of police stations and personnel," suggesting the attacks may have been planned in advance. Christians were also victims in Gujarat, and many churches were destroyed. There have also been instances of retaliatory violence against Hindus.

Although the BJP-led central government may not be directly responsible for instigating the violence against religious minorities, it is clear that the government is not doing all that it could to pursue the perpetrators of the attacks and to counteract the prevailing climate of hostility against these minority groups. Though the severe violence in Gujarat provided the national government with adequate grounds – under the Constitution and existing laws to counteract communal violence – to invoke central rule in the state, the BJP government did not do so, despite many requests and the fact that the killing of Muslims continued (on a lesser scale) for many weeks. Some positive steps were taken by the federal government, particularly in the dispatching to Gujarat of a senior police official in May, after which time the violence largely ceased. However, many thousands remain displaced, without homes, employment, or businesses to return to. In reportedly retaliatory violence, Muslim terrorist gunmen opened fire at a Hindu temple in September, killing 32 people. In December 2002 elections in Gujarat, the BJP was soundly returned to power, though many observers accused it of capitalizing on the religious violence in the state. Even after one year, few Hindus have been arrested and held to account for the deaths of at least 1,000 Muslims; most of those initially arrested have been released without charge. Officials have focused largely on prosecuting the perpetrators of the attack on the train at Godhra.

In March 2003, the Gujarat government passed a bill against religious conversions. The bill, which is modeled on similar laws in the states of Tamil Nadu and Orissa, was hastily brought to a vote almost immediately after an attack on Hindus by Muslim extremists in the disputed state of Kashmir. Under the terms of the bill, government officials must assess the legality of conversions and the District Magistrate must grant prior permission. Where prior permission is not secured, individuals are subject to punishment. Ostensibly designed to prevent "forced" religious conversions, the bill is reportedly targeted against conversions of Hindus to Christianity and Islam, and as such, it inhibits the ability of persons in Gujarat to exercise their internationally recognized right to adopt a religion free from coercion.

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