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US slams India on human rights practices in its annual report

By, Washington
Mar 22, 2023 04:31 AM IST

In an annual report on human rights practices in India, the United States State Department has highlighted challenges to freedom of expression, cases of arbitrary arrests and detentions, extrajudicial killings, the confiscation and destruction of property without due process, discrimination against minority groups and infringement on the freedom of association, among other issues, in 2022.

In an annual report on human rights practices in India, the United States State Department has highlighted challenges to freedom of expression, cases of arbitrary arrests and detentions, extrajudicial killings, the confiscation and destruction of property without due process, discrimination against minority groups and infringement on the freedom of association, among other issues, in 2022.

US slams India on human rights practices In its annual report(REUTERS)
US slams India on human rights practices In its annual report(REUTERS)

At a State Department briefing in Washington DC on Monday, while releasing the report, when asked about India’s record, Erin M Barclay, acting assistant secretary of the bureau of democracy, human rights and labour, said that the US and India regularly consult “at the highest levels on democracy and human rights”.

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“We have and we will continue to strongly urge India to uphold its human rights obligations and commitments. Not surprisingly, we also regularly meet with civil society both in the US and in India to hear their perspectives and learn from their experiences, and we encourage the Government of India to consult with them as well.”

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To place the report in context, this is an annual exercise led by a bureau within the State Department and is mandated by the US Congress. It inspects the record of all countries, in varying degrees. And the criticism of India predates the current government taking office, even if the nature of allegations have evolved since the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government assumed power in 2014.

But despite this persistent criticism, which New Delhi has consistently rejected, it hasn’t defined Washington’s overall approach towards India. Top American officials have spoken of the democratic values that bind the countries, the significance of the strategic relationship, and acknowledged that conversations on democracy are a “two-way street” given the US’s recent internal record. The two countries have also had sustained high-level engagement — with President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Narendra Modi expected to meet four times in the course of the next five months — and launched new and ambitious initiatives based on a recognition of each other being “trusted partners”.

But the report, and the level of detail, does indicate that not only does Washington keep a close watch on almost every incident that it views as falling within the human rights remit, concerns about India’s human rights record resonate and find an audience among official segments within the administration.

In a section on arbitrary arrest or detention, the report flagged the use of the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), claiming that civil society organisations have “expressed concern that the central government sometimes used UAPA to detain human rights activists and journalists”.

It specifically referred to the cases of Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez whose “pretrial detention has been extended at least five times by the NIA Special Court in New Delhi”; the arrest of Umar Khalid “for making a speech during protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019”; and the denial of bail to the majority of the 16 activists “incarcerated on conspiracy charges related to the Elgaar Parishad Bhima Koregaon protests”.

In a section on denial of fair trial, the State Department cited reports that the “government evicted persons from their places of residence, seized their property, or bulldozed homes without due process or adequate restitution”. In particular, it quoted human rights activists claiming that the government used this to allegedly target vocal critics from the Muslim community and destroy their homes and livelihoods, citing the cases of the Prayagraj Development Authority demolishing the home of Muslim activist Javed Mohammad and North Delhi Municipal Corporation demolishing homes in Jahangirpuri district.

On freedom of expression, the report said, “The government generally respected freedom of expression, but there were instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling.” It also flagged reports from civil society organisations alleging that both state and Union government intimidated media “through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and in some areas blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement”.

More specifically, it referred to cases of arrests of journalists in Kashmir; Mumbai Police arresting Ketki Chitale “for allegedly reposting a derogatory poem about..Sharad Pawar”; Delhi Police arresting Mohammed Zubair “whose tweet highlighting a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokesperson’s alleged remarks insulting Prophet Mohammed went viral”; and immigration authorities preventing Pulitzer-award winning photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo from travelling. It also flagged government restrictions “on access to the internet, disruptions of access to the internet, and censorship of online content”.

The State Department also cited reports that the government had violated the right to privacy by accessing, collecting and using “private communication arbitrarily or unlawfully or without appropriate legal authority”.

On freedom of association, while acknowledging that the government had “generally respected this right”, the State Department report said that “the government’s increased monitoring and regulation of some NGOs that received foreign funding drew criticism from civil society”. It cited minister of state for home Nityanand Rai as informing Parliament that the government had cancelled the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) registration certificates of 1811 associations between 2019 and 2021 and 783 applications were denied. It also flagged Income Tax surveys on Oxfam India, the Centre for Policy Research, CARE India and the Independent and Public-Spirited Media Foundation last year.

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On refugees, the State Department report acknowledged that the government had “generally cooperated” with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and stated that as of August 2022, India had provided protection and assistance to 92,120 refugees from Sri Lanka, 73,404 Tibetans, 30,000 to 40,000 Burmese refugees, and 47,000 refugees of other nationalities registered by UNHCR. But it also flagged the case of Rohingyas, some of whom “reported increased obstacles to regularizing their status through long-term visas and residence permits” and cited reports to allege that they had faced abuse and mistreatment.

On discrimination and violence, the report referred to the passage of laws related to forced religious conversion for the purpose of marriage and cited civil society groups as criticising the laws “as violating constitutional protections on freedom of religion”. “Police reported several arrests of mostly Muslim men for violation of an anticonversion law passed in Uttar Pradesh in February.” The report also listed out instances of killings, both of Hindus and Muslims, during episodes of communal violence. The State Department also flagged persistent discrimination against women, Dalits, tribals and members of the LGBTQI+ community.

There was no immediate reaction from Indian officials to the report.

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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