Significant developments affecting freedom of religion or belief have taken place in India in the past year. Parliamentary elections in May 2004 resulted in a defeat for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, which was replaced by a coalition government headed by the Congress Party. Under the previous BJP leadership, the Commission found the Indian government's response to increasing violence against religious minorities in the state of Gujarat and elsewhere to be inadequate. In addition, several senior BJP government leaders had publicly allied themselves with, or refused to disassociate themselves from, extremist Hindu organizations that were implicated in that religious violence. In response, in 2002-2003, the Commission recommended that India be designated a "country of particular concern," or CPC. Following the May 2004 parliamentary elections, however, the new prime minister, Manmohan Singh, promptly stated that the Congress-led government would reject any kind of religious intolerance and vowed to return the country to its pluralistic traditions. As a result of the dramatic changes taking place in India since the 2004 elections, the Commission no longer recommends that India be designated a CPC.

Unlike many of the other countries that draw Commission attention, India has a democratically elected government, is governed essentially by the rule of law, and has a tradition of secular governance that dates back to the country's independence. India has a judiciary that is independent, albeit slow-moving and frequently unresponsive, that can work to hold the perpetrators of religious violence responsible; contains a vibrant civil society with many vigorous, independent non-governmental human rights organizations that have investigated and published extensive reports on the rise of religiously-motivated violence; and is home to a free press that has widely reported on and strongly criticized the situation on the ground in India and the growing threats under the BJP government to a religiously plural society.

Despite these democratic traditions, religious minorities in India have been the victims of violent attacks, including killings, in what is called "communal violence." In the late 1990s, there was a marked increase in violent attacks against members of religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, throughout India, including killings, torture, rape, and destruction of property. Those responsible for communal violence were rarely held responsible for their actions. This violence against religious minorities 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 aggressively press for national governmental policies to promote "Hindutva," or the "Hinduization" of culture. The ascent to power in 1998 of the Sangh Parivar's political wing, the BJP, helped to foster a climate in which violence against religious minorities was not systematically punished. Although it was not directly responsible for instigating the violence against religious minorities, it was clear that the BJP-led government did not do all in its power to pursue the perpetrators of the attacks and to counteract the prevailing climate of hostility against these minority groups.

Of particular concern to the Commission were the February 2002 events in the state of Gujarat, when, after a fire on a train resulted in the death of 58 Hindus, 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 people fled their homes and, in the end, as many as 2,000 Muslims were killed. India's National Human Rights Commission, an official body, found evidence of premeditation in the killings by members of Hindu extremist groups; complicity by Gujarat state government officials; and police inaction in the midst of attacks on Muslims. Christians were also victims in Gujarat, and many churches were destroyed.

In the months following the violence, the BJP-led state government in Gujarat headed by State Minister Narendra Modi was widely accused of being reluctant to bring the perpetrators of the killings of Muslims to justice. Few persons had been arrested and held to account for the deaths.

In response to the failures of the Gujarat government, India's Supreme Court declared in October 2003 that it had "no faith left" in the state's handling of the investigations and instructed the Gujarat state government to appoint new prosecutors to examine the religious violence of 2002. In April 2004, in what was described as an indictment of Modi's Gujarat government, the Supreme Court overturned the controversial acquittal of the 21 accused in a particular case and ordered a new trial of those indicted. India's highest court also ordered a transfer of that trial to neighboring Maharashtra state and directed both state governments to provide protection to witnesses and victims, appoint a new public prosecutor, and institute new police investigations into the case. In August 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the Gujarat government to reopen its investigation of the 2002 violence, criticizing the local police officials for poor investigative practices and follow-up.

In addition to the steps taken by the Supreme Court, the defeat of the BJP in the May 2004 parliamentary elections and the actions taken by the new government have resulted in a marked improvement in conditions for freedom of religion or belief in India. In contrast to the "culture of impunity" in place under the previous BJP-led government, in July 2004, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was quoted in the Indian press as saying that "under my government the violence against Christians of recent years will be a thing of the past." Prime Minister Singh reportedly stated that among the priorities of his government would be "promoting social harmony and rejecting every kind of fundamentalism." The new government also pledged to take immediate steps to reverse the "communalization" of education that had occurred under the BJP government; one of the Congress-led government's first actions was to appoint a committee of historians to remove the "distortions and communally-biased portions" of the textbooks introduced in 2002 promoting the Sangh Parivar's Hindutva views. Another positive step was the rapid repeal of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which many had charged was unfairly targeting Muslims. In addition, several reports have indicated that the central government in 2005 will be proposing a law to halt and criminalize inter-religious violence, a bill that will reportedly include compensation for victims and swifter investigations to identify perpetrators of attacks on places of worship and individuals on account of their religion.

Despite the improved situation, concerns about religious freedom in India remain. Attacks on Christian churches and individuals, largely perpetrated by members of Hindu extremist groups, continue to occur, and perpetrators are rarely held to account by the state legal apparatus. In December 2004, two church leaders were attacked in the state of Rajasthan, allegedly by members of a Sangh Parivar-affiliated organization; in January 2005, militants reportedly set fire to a newly opened Catholic school in the northeastern state of Asam; and in March 2005, also in Rajasthan, a Christian worship service was interrupted by Hindu extremists and eight church workers were beaten. In some instances, police provided protection from the attackers; in other cases, the police reportedly failed to intervene. Members of the Jehovah's Witnesses also continue to be assaulted. In addition, several Indian states, including Orissa, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh (formerly part of Madhya Pradesh), still have laws against "forced" or "induced" religious conversions, which require government officials to assess the legality of conversions and provide for fines and imprisonment for anyone who uses force, fraud, or "inducement" to convert another. However, reports of persons having been arrested under these laws are extremely rare. Significantly, the government of Tamil Nadu rescinded its law against forced conversions after the May 2004 elections.

Throughout the past year, Commission staff conducted personal interviews with members of non-governmental organizations representing various religious communities in India, as well as human rights organizations, academics, and other India experts. In March 2005, the Commission issued a statement encouraging the Department of State to prevent the planned visit to the United States of Gujarat State Minister Narendra Modi, citing evidence presented by India's NHRC and numerous domestic and international human rights investigators of the complicity of Gujarat state officials, led by State Minister Modi, in the February 2002 mob attacks on Muslims.

With regard to India, the Commission recommends that the U.S. government should:

  • urge the Indian government to continue its policies aimed at returning the country to its tradition of religious tolerance, including by:
    • continuing to pursue the perpetrators of the massacres in Gujarat and hold them to account;
    • taking steps to prevent and punish communal violence, including through legislative measures such as the proposed law to criminalize inter-religious violence; and
    • continuing the effort to remove religiously intolerant language from school textbooks;
  • persistently press the Indian government to pursue perpetrators of violent acts that target members of minority religious groups, acts that, though decreased in number, still continue; and
  • take into account, in the course of working toward improvements in U.S.-Indian economic and trade relations, the efforts of the Indian government to protect religious freedom, prevent and punish violence against religious minorities, and promote the rule of law.

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