Political Rights: 2
Civil Liberties: 3
Status: Free
Population: 1,068,600,000
GNI/Capita: $460
Life Expectancy: 63
Religious Groups: Hindu (81.3 percent), Muslim (12 percent), Christian (2.2 percent), other (4.5 percent)
Ethnic Groups: Indo-Aryan (72 percent), Dravidian (25 percent), other (3 percent)
Capital: New Delhi


With a current focus on good governance rather than Hindu chauvinism, India's ruling coalition government, headed by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), seems well placed to emerge victorious in national elections scheduled for 2004. Nevertheless, analysts remain concerned that the rhetoric and actions of the main Hindu nationalist groups threaten India's tradition of vibrant and inclusive democracy as well as the rights of the Muslim and Christian minorities. Justice for the 2002 killings in Gujarat continued to be elusive, with the BJP-dominated state government showing a marked reluctance to provide an adequate level of rehabilitation for the victims or to bring those accused of crimes to trial. However, after a widely publicized acquittal verdict in June, the Supreme Court declared that it had no faith in the Gujarat government's ability to dispense justice and decided to oversee the legal process in a number of prominent cases.

India achieved independence in 1947 with the partition of British India into a predominantly Hindu India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and a Muslim Pakistan. The centrist, secular Congress Party ruled almost continuously at the federal level for the first five decades of independence. After winning the 1991 elections, the Congress government responded to a balance-of-payments crisis by initiating gradual economic reforms. However, even as the economic crisis receded, the party lost 11 state elections in the mid-1990s, with regional parties making gains in southern India and low-caste parties and the BJP gaining in the northern Hindi-speaking belt. Congress's traditional electoral base of poor, low-caste, and Muslim voters appeared disillusioned with economic liberalization and, in the case of Muslims, the government's failure to prevent communal violence. In December 1992, India experienced some of the worst communal violence since independence after Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya. Some 2,000 people, mainly Muslims, died in riots and police gunfire.

After the May 1996 parliamentary elections, a series of minority coalitions tried unsuccessfully to form a stable government. In-fighting among centrist and leftist parties enabled the BJP to form a government under Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1998. One of the government's first major acts was to carry out a series of nuclear tests in April 1998. Holding only a minority of seats, the BJP government faced frequent threats and demands from small but pivotal coalition members. The government fell after a regional party defected, but it won reelection in 1999. Final election results gave the BJP-led, 22-party National Democratic Alliance (NDA) 295 seats (182 for the BJP) against 112 seats for Congress.

The government was shaken in 2001 by a scandal over defense contracts, which led to the temporary resignation of Defense Minister George Fernandes and the withdrawal of one partner from the NDA coalition. Perhaps as a reaction to losses during a series of key state elections, the BJP shifted to the ideological right during 2002, with the promotion of hard-liner Lal Krishna Advani to the post of deputy prime minister as well as the selection of Manohar Joshi of the Shiv Sena party as speaker of the lower house of parliament.

In February 2002, at least 58 people were killed when a fire broke out on a train carrying members of a Hindu extremist group. A Muslim mob was initially blamed for the fire, and in the anti-Muslim riots that followed throughout Gujarat, more than 1,000 people were killed and roughly 100,000 were left homeless and dispossessed. The violence was orchestrated by Hindu nationalist groups, who organized transportation and provisions for the mobs and provided printed records of Muslim-owned property. Evidence that the BJP-headed state government was complicit in the carnage led to calls for Chief Minister Narendra Modi's dismissal, but the party leadership continued to support him. In state elections held in December in which Modi campaigned on an overtly nationalistic and anti-Muslim platform, the BJP won a landslide reelection victory.

The rehabilitation of those displaced by the violence, as well as the prosecution of those responsible for the murders, rapes, and destruction of property made little headway during 2003. Witnesses in the few cases that have been brought to trial have faced intimidation and harassment, as have lawyers and activists working on their behalf. In June, 21 people accused of murder in the Best Bakery case were acquitted because witnesses withdrew their testimony after being threatened. However, in October, the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat government to appoint new public prosecutors to try or retry a number of cases stemming from the violence. The first guilty verdict was announced in late November, when 12 Hindus were convicted of killing 14 Muslims in Ghodasar village and were given life sentences.

Following an attack on the Indian parliament building in December 2001 by a Pakistan-based militant group, relations between India and Pakistan worsened. The two countries came close to war in May 2002, which prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity on the part of the United States. Individuals with connections to Pakistan-based militant groups continued to carry out terrorist attacks, including twin bomb blasts in Bombay that killed more than 50 people in August. Nevertheless, there was some easing of tensions between the two countries by the end of the year, amid hopes that their customary animosity could be put aside and that the political leadership could restart talks on the disputed territory of Kashmir.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Indian citizens can change their government through elections. The 1950 constitution provides for a lower house, the 545-seat Lok Sabha (House of the People), whose members are directly elected for five-year terms (except for 2 appointed seats for Indians of European descent). Members of the 245-seat upper house, the Rajya Sabha (Council of States), are either elected by the state legislatures or nominated by the president; they serve six-year terms. Executive power is vested in a prime minister and a cabinet, while an indirectly elected president serves as head of state.

India has held regular and reasonably free elections since independence. A large number of regional and national parties participate, and sitting governments are thrown out of office with increasing regularity. Under the supervision of the vigilant Election Commission of India (ECI), recent elections have generally been free and fair, although violence and irregularities have marred balloting in several districts. In the 1999 national elections, guerrilla attacks in Bihar and northeast India and interparty clashes in several states killed some 130 people. Badly maintained voters' lists and the intimidation of voters are also matters of concern.

Despite the vibrancy of the Indian political system, effective and accountable rule continues to be undermined by political infighting, pervasive criminality in politics, decrepit state institutions, and widespread corruption. Transparency International's 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked India in eighty-third place out of 133 countries. In November, an engineer working on a government-sponsored road project in Bihar was murdered after complaining to the prime minister's office about corruption. The electoral system depends on black money that is obtained through tax evasion and other means. Politicians and civil servants are regularly caught accepting bribes or engaging in other corrupt behavior, but are rarely prosecuted. Moreover, criminality is a pervasive feature of political life, with a number of candidates with criminal records being elected, particularly in the state legislatures. However, after a battle with the government in 2002, the ECI was able to implement a Supreme Court directive that requires candidates seeking election to declare their financial assets, criminal records, and educational backgrounds.

India's private press continues to be vigorous, although journalists face a number of constraints. In recent years, the government has occasionally used its power under the Official Secrets Act to censor security-related articles. Intimidation of journalists by a variety of actors continues, with one reporter being killed in September and another abducted by militants in November. The press in the southern state of Tamil Nadu came under repeated pressure from authorities during the year. In April, a journalist was charged and jailed under antiterrorism legislation, and in November, the state assembly passed a resolution calling for the arrest and imprisonment of six journalists following the publication of an article in a prominent national paper that criticized the state's chief minister. The broadcast media are predominantly in private hands, but the state-controlled All India Radio enjoys a dominant position and its news coverage favors the government.

The right to practice one's religion freely is generally respected, but violence against religious minorities remains a problem and the government's prosecution of those involved in such attacks continues to be inadequate. Attacks on Christian targets, including the murder and rape of clergy and the destruction of property, have dramatically increased since the BJP came to power in 1998, mainly in the predominantly tribal regions of Orissa, Gujarat, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh. Members of the sangh parivar, a group of Hindu nationalist organizations including the BJP, and some local media outlets promote anti-minority propaganda. Legislation on the books in several states, including Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Gujarat, criminalizes conversions that take place as a result of "force" or "allurement." These laws have been opposed by human rights activists and religious groups, who argue that the vague provisions of these statutes could be misused. The promotion of Hindu nationalist ideology by some government officials has also affected the educational system. According to the U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom Report for 2003, textbooks intended for use at most government and private schools have been rewritten to favor a Hindu extremist version of history, despite protests from academics, minority leaders, and advocates of secular values.

There are some restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. Section 144 of the criminal procedure code empowers state-level authorities to declare a state of emergency, restrict free assembly, and impose curfews. Officials occasionally use Section 144 to prevent demonstrations, and police sometimes use excessive force against demonstrators. In November, at least 25 demonstrators were injured and several hundred were detained after police forcibly broke up a protest held by Burmese refugees outside the UN High Commissioner for Refugees office in Delhi. Human rights groups say that police and hired thugs have occasionally beaten, arbitrarily detained, or otherwise harassed villagers and members of nongovernmental organizations who protest forced relocations from the sites of development projects.

Human rights organizations generally operate freely. However, Amnesty International's 2003 report noted that the intimidation of human rights defenders by state officials and other actors, including threats, legal harassment, the use of excessive force by police, and occasionally lethal violence, remains a concern. The work of rights activists may also be hindered by a Home Ministry order issued in 2001 that requires organizations to obtain clearance before holding international conferences or workshops if the subject matter is "political, semi-political, communal or religious in nature or is related to human rights."

Workers regularly exercise their rights to bargain collectively and strike. The Essential Services Maintenance Act enables the government to ban strikes in certain key industries and limits the right of public servants to strike. It is estimated that there are roughly 55 million child laborers in India. Many work in the informal sector in hazardous conditions, and several million are bonded laborers.

The judiciary is independent of the executive. Judges have exercised unprecedented activism in response to public interest litigation over official corruption, environmental issues, and other matters. However, in recent years, courts have initiated several contempt-of-court cases against activists and journalists, raising questions about their misuse of the law to intimidate those who expose the behavior of corrupt judges or who question their verdicts. Corruption in the judiciary is reportedly rife, and access to justice by the socially and economically marginalized sections of society remains limited. The court system is severely backlogged and understaffed, which results in the detention of a large number of persons who are awaiting trial. In April, the government-appointed Malimath Committee recommended an overhaul of the Indian criminal justice system. However, rights groups expressed concern that its proposals would weaken the rights of the accused and of women while increasing the power of judges and the police.

Police routinely torture or otherwise ill-treat suspects to extract confessions or bribes. Custodial rape of female detainees continues to be a problem, as does routine abuse of ordinary prisoners, particularly minorities and members of the lower castes. Police brutality appears to be especially prevalent in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, which has high levels of custodial deaths and extrajudicial executions, according to a briefing paper released in August by the New Delhi-based Human Rights Documentation Centre. While the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) monitors abuses and makes independent assessments, its recommendations are often not implemented and it has few enforcement powers. Reports by the NHRC, Human Rights Watch, and a number of other groups alleged that police in Gujarat had been given orders by the state government not to intervene during the communal violence that engulfed the state in 2002, and that police have been reluctant to register complaints against those accused of murder, rape, and other crimes, or arrest those known to have played a role in the rioting. Since the riots, scores of Muslim men in Gujarat have been illegally detained and interrogated about their involvement in subsequent attacks such as the killing of former minister Haren Pandya in March 2003, according to Amnesty International. More generally, the failure of the Indian criminal justice system to protect the rights of, and provide equal protection under the law to, minorities, dalits (untouchables), and other underprivileged groups remains a concern.

Police, army, and paramilitary forces continue to be implicated in disappearances, extrajudicial killing, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and destruction of homes, particularly in the context of insurgencies in Kashmir, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, and several other northeastern states. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act and the Disturbed Areas Act remain in effect in several states, and these grant security forces broad powers of arrest and detention. Security forces also continued to detain suspects under the broadly drawn National Security Act, which authorizes detention without charge for up to one year. The criminal procedure code requires the central or state governments to approve prosecution of security force members, which is rarely granted. As a result, impunity for security forces implicated in past human rights abuses remains a concern.

In March 2002, the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was passed by a joint session of parliament, amid protests by journalists, human rights groups, and some members of the government and judiciary. In addition to widening the definition of terrorism and banning a number of terrorist organizations, the bill also increases the state's powers of investigation and allows for up to 90 days of preventative detention without charge. Since its enactment, the act has been used in a number of states against political opponents, members of minority groups, tribals, dalits, and other ordinary citizens, as well as against terrorist suspects. In February, the Gujarat state government charged 131 Muslims under POTA for the Godhra attack, according to Human Rights Watch, while no Hindus were charged under the act for violence against Muslims.

In India's seven northeastern states, more than 40 mainly tribal-based insurgent groups sporadically attack security forces and engage in intertribal violence. The rebel groups have also been implicated in numerous killings, abductions, and rapes of civilians. The militants ostensibly seek either greater autonomy or complete independence for their ethnic or tribal groups. Negotiations between the central government and separatist groups in Nagaland, where some 25,000 people have been killed since 1947, continued during 2003 without resolution, but authorities were able to sign an agreement with a Bodo tribal group in Assam in February. In a number of states, left-wing guerrillas called Naxalites control some rural areas and kill dozens of police, politicians, landlords, and villagers each year. Police also continued to battle the People's War Group, a guerrilla organization that aims to establish a Communist state in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, and Chhattisgarh.

The constitution bars discrimination based on caste, and laws set aside quotas in education and government jobs for members of the so-called scheduled tribes, scheduled castes (dalits), and other backward castes (OBCs). However, members of the lower castes, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, continue to routinely face unofficial discrimination and violence. The worst abuse is faced by the 160 million dalits, who are often denied access to land or other public amenities, abused by landlords and police, and forced to work in miserable conditions. Tension between different ethnic groups over land, jobs, or resources occasionally flares into violent confrontation; in November, several dozen people were killed during attacks on Bihari migrants in Assam. Various forms of discrimination against Muslims are sometimes excused in the context of ongoing tensions with Pakistan as well as the global campaign against terrorism.

Each year, several thousand women are burned to death, driven to suicide, or otherwise killed, and countless others are harassed, beaten, or deserted by husbands in the context of dowry and other disputes. Despite the fact that dowry is illegal and that hundreds are convicted each year, the practice continues to spread. Rape and other violence against women remain serious problems, with lower-caste and tribal women being particularly vulnerable to attacks. Muslim women and girls were subjected to horrific sexual violence during the communal violence that engulfed Gujarat in 2002, and there has been no official attempt to provide rehabilitation for those victims still alive or to prosecute their attackers, according to an Amnesty International report issued in March. Muslim personal status laws as well as traditional Hindu practices discriminate against women in terms of inheritance rights. The malign neglect of female children after birth remains a concern. An increasing use of sex-determination tests during pregnancy, after which female fetuses are more likely to be aborted, and the practice of female infanticide by those who cannot afford the tests have contributed to a growing imbalance in the male-female birth ratios in a number of states, particularly in the northwest.

This 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.