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Testimony of John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch

United States Congressional Briefing “Religious Freedom in India,” September 22, 2021

Thank you for inviting me to testify today.

Among India’s most pressing human rights concerns today is the worsening situation with respect to religious freedom.

The facts are clear: attacks against religious minorities in India, especially Muslims, have increased especially since the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power in 2014. BJP leaders and affiliated groups have long stigmatized minority communities as a threat to national security and to the Hindu way of life, in particular making divisive, hate-filled remarks against Muslims around state and national elections, targeting the Hindu vote. The BJP government has adopted laws and policies that systematically discriminate against Muslims and stigmatize critics of the government.

This divisive political discourse has served to normalize violence against minorities, especially Muslims, in India. Prejudices embedded in the government have infiltrated independent institutions, such as the police, empowering nationalist groups to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities with impunity.

More recently, authorities have responded to mass protests by vilifying a religious minority. When protests broke out two years ago against the discriminatory 2019 Citizenship (Amendment) Act, the authorities attempted to discredit protesters, particularly Muslims, by accusing them of conspiring against national interests. Similarly, after hundreds of thousands of farmers of various faiths protested against the government’s new farm laws in November 2020, senior BJP leaders, their supporters on social media, and pro-government media, began blaming the Sikhs, another religious minority. They accused Sikhs of having a “Khalistani” agenda, a reference to a Sikh separatist insurgency in Punjab in the 1980s and 90s.

In February 2021, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke in parliament, describing people participating in various peaceful protests as “parasites,” and calling international criticism of increasing authoritarianism in India a “foreign destructive ideology.”


Laws and Policies to Discriminate Against Religious Minorities

The government passed a citizenship law in December 2019 that discriminates against Muslims, making religion the basis for citizenship for the first time. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or CAA, fast-tracks asylum claims of non-Muslim irregular immigrants from the neighboring Muslim-majority countries of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. Coupled with the government’s push for a nationwide citizenship verification process through a National Population Register and a proposed National Register of Citizens, aimed at identifying “illegal migrants,” it has heightened fears that millions of Indian Muslims could be stripped of their citizenship rights and disenfranchised. Before the government passed the law, Home Minister Amit Shah said at an election rally in Delhi: “Illegal immigrants are like termites and they are eating the food that should go to our poor and they are taking our jobs.” He promised that “if we come to power in 2019, we will find each and every one and send them away.”

In August 2019, the government revoked the constitutional autonomy granted to the only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir, and imposed numerous restrictions violating people’s basic rights. Kashmiri journalists have come under increasing pressure, and the authorities have arbitrarily arrested critics. 

Since October 2018, Indian authorities have threatened to deport Rohingya Muslim refugees to Myanmar despite the risks to their lives and security, and have already repatriated over a dozen. States use laws against cow slaughter to prosecute Muslim cattle traders even as BJP-affiliated groups attack Muslims and Dalits on rumors that they killed or traded cows for beef.

Most recently, four BJP-ruled states -- Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat --have passed an anti-conversion law, which in practice is used against Muslim men who marry Hindu women. The law is aimed at curbing interfaith relationships. The phrase “love jihad” is used by BJP politicians to promote a baseless theory that Muslim men lure Hindu women into marriages to convert them to Islam.

The law has caused considerable fear among interfaith couples already at risk of censure from families and Hindu nationalist groups. Violent BJP supporters and members harass and attack interfaith couples and file cases against them. Several states – Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Arunachal Pradesh, and Uttarakhand – already have anti-conversion laws that have been used against minority communities, especially Christians, including from Dalit and Adivasi communities.

These actions violate domestic law and India’s obligations under international human rights law that prohibit discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion, and require the governments to provide residents with equal protection of the law. The Indian government is also obligated to protect religious and other minority populations, and to fully and fairly prosecute those responsible for discrimination and violence against them.


Bias Against Muslims in the Justice System

In February 2020 in Delhi, communal clashes and Hindu mob attacks on Muslims resulted in 53 deaths, most of them Muslim. Witness accounts and video evidence show police involvement in the violence. However, the authorities are yet to investigate allegations of police complicity. At the same time, Delhi police told a court in July 2020 that it has no “actionable evidence” against BJP leaders—despite the existence of videos featuring some of them advocating violence, complaints by witnesses, and transcripts of WhatsApp conversations the police have submitted in court showing Hindu rioters took inspiration from BJP leaders. Earlier, in February 2020, the Delhi High Court, while hearing petitions about the riots, had questioned the Delhi police decision to not file cases against BJP leaders for advocating violence, saying it sent the wrong message and perpetuated impunity.  

In contrast, the Delhi police have filed politically motivated charges, including terrorism and sedition, against 18 activists, students, opposition politicians, and residents – 16 of them Muslim, several of them involved in organizing peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The police case relies extensively on disclosure statements that are suspiciously similar, WhatsApp chats and social media messages about organizing and announcing peaceful protests, as evidence of complicity in a larger conspiracy to defame the Indian government. The authorities have filed charges under the draconian counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, related to unlawful activity, terrorist funding, and planning and committing acts of terrorism.

In addition to the case against activists, of the 1,153 people against whom rioting charges have been filed in court, 571 are Hindu and 582 Muslim. However, activists say that the police have focused more on investigating allegations against Muslims and arresting them. Muslim victims of abuses and witnesses said that the police initially turned them away, refusing to file their complaints, and that even when police filed the cases based on their accounts, they omitted names of BJP leaders or police officials allegedly complicit in the attacks. The police have also implicated Muslim victims in these cases. In some cases, Muslim families who had succeeded in identifying BJP leaders and police officials when they filed complaints said they faced increasing pressure to withdraw the complaints. Lawyers representing riot victims also allege that the police have them under scrutiny.

In a series of recent cases, courts in Delhi while granting bail, called the police out for “vague evidence and general allegations,” a “shoddy probe,” “absolutely evasive” and “lackadaisical” attitude. In case of three activists, courts also noted that the police “casually” added charges under the counterterrorism law. The police added these charges only after the courts had released them on bail under ordinary criminal law provisions, in a blatant attempt to keep them in custody pending trial.


Jammu and Kashmir

The government continues to clamp down on journalists and human rights activists in Jammu and Kashmir, including bringing politically motivated charges of terrorism under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and using counterterrorism operations to harass and intimidate them. In June 2021, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression and the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention wrote to the Indian government expressing concerns over “alleged arbitrary detention and intimidation of journalists covering the situation in Jammu and Kashmir.”

The National Crime Records Bureau data also shows a rising number of UAPA cases in Jammu and Kashmir: from fewer than 60 cases annually until 2015, to 255 cases in 2019. The authorities have used the UAPA against human rights activists, journalists, peaceful protesters, and even those using VPN or proxy servers to access social media sites in 2020 amid the state’s longest internet shutdown.


Empowering Vigilantes

The government’s discriminatory policies and practices have empowered its violent supporters to commit unlawful acts with impunity. Communal rhetoric by BJP leaders along with policies around cow protection announced by BJP-led state governments triggered attacks against Muslim herders and cattle traders. Cows are considered holy by many Hindus, and repeated false claims that cows were being slaughtered for beef has led a mushrooming of militant cow protection groups, many claiming affiliation with the BJP. Police have often stalled prosecutions of the attackers, while several BJP politicians have publicly justified the attacks. In a number of cases, police have filed complaints against victims’ family members and associates under laws banning cow slaughter, leaving witnesses and families afraid to pursue justice.

Working-class Muslims are often beaten up, threatened and harassed with impunity. In August, a Hindu mob beat up a Muslim rickshaw driver in Kanpur, a city in Uttar Pradesh, as his little daughter begged the men to stop hitting him. In another incident last month, a Hindu mob beat up a Muslim bangle-seller in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh for trading in a Hindu neighborhood. But the next day, the police arrested the victim after the 13-year-old daughter of one of his alleged attackers accused him of molesting her. The charges appeared an afterthought, fabricated to ensure his attackers, captured on video, got away.

For several weeks following the outbreak of Covid-19 in March 2020, the BJP government singled out a mass religious congregation in Delhi, organized by the international Islamic missionary movement Tablighi Jamaat, to explain a spike in cases. This led to a surge in Islamophobia. Some BJP leaders called the meeting a “Talibani crime” and “Corona Terrorism,” and pro-government television channels and social media accused those who attended the gathering and Indian Muslims in general of being responsible for the outbreak. Fake videos contending that Muslims were deliberately spreading the virus went viral on social media and WhatsApp, leading to weeks of abuses against Muslims, boycotts of their businesses and of individuals, and numerous physical attacks on Muslims, including volunteers distributing relief supplies.

In many of these cases, attacks continue because senior BJP leadership, including the prime minister, fail to speak up forcefully and timely, to stop them. In some cases, when the prime minister has spoken out against communal violence, for instance to end the stigmatization of Muslims around the pandemic, the attacks abated.


Crackdown on Civil Society for Raising these Issues

The Indian authorities are increasingly targeting human rights activists, journalists, peaceful protesters, academics, and other critics who work to protect the rights of vulnerable communities. They use sedition, counterterrorism and national security laws, and also foreign funding regulations and allegations of financial irregularities to target them.

The Indian government has arrested 15 prominent human rights activists, academics and poets working on the rights of India’s most marginalized communities under the UAPA accusing them of inciting violence that occurred during a Dalit meeting in Bhima Koregaon in Maharashtra state in January 2018.

In the case of Delhi violence, the Delhi police have accused protest organizers and activists of sedition, murder, attempted murder, promotion of religious enmity, and damage to public property, among other alleged offenses. All those charged have been critical of the BJP government and the citizenship law.



The US Congress should raise concerns over the increasing attacks on religious minorities and call upon the Indian government to fully prosecute those responsible, including government supporters and party leaders. Members of the US Congress should also speak out privately and publicly against hate speech by government officials and urge Indian authorities to investigate and appropriately prosecute incitement to violence, including by BJP leaders.

The US Congress should urge India to implement long-pending police reforms without delay to ensure the police are free from political influence and are able to take effective action during communal violence and carry out fair investigations to prosecute perpetrators.

Members of Congress should urge the Indian government to discard plans for a nationwide National Register of Citizens and to ensure that amendment to citizenship laws does not discriminate on grounds prohibited under international law. They should also call on the Indian government to repeal or amend other laws that discriminate against minorities or unfairly target nongovernmental organizations.

Members of Congress should call on the Indian government to immediately drop the charges and release human rights defenders, journalists, and others arbitrarily detained on politically motivated charges.

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