India at risk of renewed communal violence, UN human rights expert warns

India at risk of renewed communal violence, UN human rights expert warns

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India faces a real risk of deadly communal violence erupting again unless much more is done to deter religious hatred and prevent the political exploitation of existing tensions, a United Nations human rights expert said today at the end of a visit to the world's second-most populous country.

“It is a challenge both for the Government and for non-State actors to diffuse tensions and address the root causes ahead of time,” Asma Jahangir, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, told a press conference in Delhi after an 18-day visit.

While India has a secular legal framework, many citizens – especially from religious minorities – remain dissatisfied with the implementation of laws that are supposed to protect and uphold their rights, she said.

“By and large, Indians respect the diversity of religions and beliefs. At the same time, organized groups based on religious ideologies have unleashed the fear of mob violence in many parts of the country.

“Law enforcement is often reluctant to take any action against individuals or groups that perpetuate violence in the name of religion or belief. This institutionalized impunity for those who exploit religion and impose their religious intolerance on others has made peaceful citizens, particularly the minorities, vulnerable and fearful.”

Ms. Jahangir said that during her visit she had received numerous reports of attacks or acts of discrimination towards both religious minorities and disempowered sections of the Hindu community.

In Uttar Pradesh state, for example, intermarriage between believers of different religions or castes had led to rapes and other acts of violence, with many of the perpetrators dealt with sympathetically by law enforcement agents.

Christians living in the Kandhamal district of Orissa were also the subject of widespread, targeted attacks at the end of last year, despite having alerted the local authorities in advance that the attacks were being planned.

In Gujarat state, where more than 1,000 people were killed in violence between Hindus and Muslims in 2002, Ms. Jahangir said her many meetings with local interlocutors produced “credible reports that inactions by the authorities was evident” at the time of the killings.

“In my discussions with victims I could see their continuing fear, which is exacerbated by the distress that justice continues to evade most victims and survivors. Even today there is increasing ghettoization and isolation of Muslims in certain areas.

“The assertion of the state Government that development by itself will heal the wounds does not seem to be realistic. It is crucial to recognize that development without a policy of inclusiveness of all communities will only add to aggravate resentments.”

The Special Rapporteur said she was particularly disturbed that during various meetings with civil society members in Gujarat, plain-clothed Government agents took the names of her interlocutors and made their presence felt later.

She stressed that the terms of reference for fact-finding missions by Special Rapporteurs state clearly that they should be guaranteed confidential and unsupervised contact with witnesses and other private persons, and that anyone who is in contact with the Special Rapporteur should not experience threats, harassment or punishment.

In addition, Ms. Jahangir voiced concern at the extended time frame of investigations into notorious cases of communal violence that occurred in 1984, 1992 and 2002.

“I was astonished to learn that just before I arrived in India, the Liberhan Commission – probing the circumstances leading to the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid [mosque] in Ayodhya – got the 44th extension to conclude its inquiry.

“My predecessor, Abdelfattah Amor, unfortunately was prophetic when he expressed his fears that something in the nature of the 1992 Ayodhya incident would recur in the event of political exploitation of a situation. In my opinion, there is today, a real risk that similar communal violence might happen again unless incitement to religious hatred and political exploitation of communal tensions are effectively prevented.”

Nevertheless, Ms. Jahangir said “the vast majority of Indians respects secular traditions and keenly follows the teachings of the nation's founding fathers. I have noticed encouraging signs in the fight against religious intolerance and I am impressed by the outstanding degree of human rights activism in India. There are innumerable examples where individuals have come to each other's rescue, crossing all religious boundaries.”

The Special Rapporteur, who works in an individual, unpaid capacity and reports to the UN Human Rights Council, visited Amritsar, Delhi, Jammu, Srinagar, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram, Bhubaneswar and Lucknow during her visit to India.