In the run up to President Barack Obama’s visit, Human Rights Watch – an influential human rights group – has stepped up its lobbying in both Washington and Delhi. It wants the US to raise issues of attacks on civil society groups and insecurity of religious minorities with India, and India to raise the Senate Committee Report on Torture with the US.
The activism comes in the backdrop of HR groups having played an important role in highlighting concerns that led to the US denying a visa to PM Narendra Modi in the past. But their position has now evolved. HRW’s South Asia Director, Meenakshi Ganguly, told HT, “We remain concerned about justice for Gujarat victims as well as other incidents of communal violence. India and US are two very important allies, with a range of common issues to discuss. The relationship is not only about Modi personally or Gujarat.” But there is a backdrop of ‘concerns’ and the group would like the PM to speak out against ‘divisive voices’.
HRW is concerned about the stifling of civil society space in India, including the most recent instance where a Greenpeace activist was not allowed to leave the country. It sees some of this as a legacy of the UPA. “As two democracies which believe in freedom and pluralism and dissent, we would like US to raise this with India.”
Intolerance where a supposedly offended mob is allowed to call the shots is another agenda. “We have heard disturbing divisive voices. This has made religious minorities insecure. Both Christians and Muslims are feeling vulnerable.”
But its lobbying is not targeted only at Delhi, and HRW strongly urges India to raise the issue of torture, now documented in an official Senate report, with US. ‘We know this can be used as a recruiting tool by groups like ISIS. The US administration should prosecute those responsible for torture. We also have reports of Indians joining these groups. Movement on prosecution, justice, will address some of these issues and build another narrative,” she says.
When asked if such matters are not entirely the prerogative of sovereign countries themselves, Ganguly responds and says, “While states are certainly responsible for ensuring HR protection, some issues now have an impact beyond borders. And when we know that Muslims are feeling besieged, often blamed for actions of extremists, it is time for a collective response that is not just focused on counter terrorism but justice as well.”
HRW also believes India and US should talk about the fate of Rohingyas and democratic reforms in Myanmar; political violence in Bangladesh: the situation of women in Afghanistan; the unsettled constitution question in Nepal; and ways to use the democratic opening in Sri Lanka to encourage the government there to initiate justice.