Speaking in New Delhi on April 25, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen referred to India as a “vibrant democracy,” sharing common values and interests with the European Union. But these cliches, repeated by rote by European leaders seeking closer trade and political ties with India, do not reflect the reality of growing abuses and discriminatory policies under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rule.
As European governments prepare to receive Modi beginning May 2, senior officials from Germany, France, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden should reconsider Europe’s “quiet diplomacy” on human rights violations in India. This approach has had no evident impact and has also led to growing sentiment that Europe is willing to overlook the plight of affected communities in India because it needs India as an ally against China and Russia.
As von der Leyen delivered her flattering speech in Delhi, residents in the mainly Muslim neighborhood of Jahangirpuri, about 25 kilometers from the conference site, were still reeling from unlawful demolitions of their shops by the city’s civic body run by Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
On April 20, the authorities deployed bulldozers to summarily demolish property mostly owned by Muslims in response to communal clashes four days earlier. The clashes were sparked by a religious procession of armed Hindu men shouting anti-Muslim slogans in front of the local mosque. Although the authorities tried to justify the demolitions by claiming the structures were illegal, the destruction appeared intended as a collective punishment for Muslims who allegedly threw stones at the Hindu procession.
Such illegal demolitions of primarily Muslim property have been a recurring sight in India in April as religious tensions mounted in BJP-run states. “Houses that were involved in stone pelting will be turned into rubble,” the BJP home minister in Madhya Pradesh state had warned after communal clashes there.
The bulldozers are just the latest symbol of the erosion of rule of law in India and escalating violence against minority populations. Prime Minister Modi’s government continues to adopt laws and policies that systematically discriminate against minorities. BJP leaders routinely make divisive remarks, and several have condoned or even incited violence against Muslims. The prejudices embedded in the government have infiltrated independent institutions, such as the police and the courts, and provoked Hindu mobs to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities, which they do with impunity.
Over 100 former Indian civil servants, including senior diplomats, recently wrote to Prime Minister Modi, saying: “What is alarming now is the subordination of the fundamental principles of our Constitution and of the rule of law to the forces of majoritarianism, in which the state appears to be fully complicit.”
The Indian authorities have also cracked down heavily on civil society, prosecuting human rights activists, journalists, academics, students, peaceful protesters, and other critics in politically motivated cases using counterterrorism and sedition laws. The Modi government has shut down foreign funding for thousands of civic groups, particularly those that work on human rights or the rights of vulnerable communities.
The Indian government is also using technology to curtail human rights as part of its broadening crackdown on freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Indian authorities have been implicated in using the Israeli-produced spyware Pegasus to target activists, journalists and political opponents.
Over the last few years, United Nations-appointed independent human rights experts have repeatedly raised concerns over India’s regression in human rights. But India’s Western partners, including the EU and its member states, have failed to echo those concerns, ignoring requests by human rights groups and the European Parliament.
A rare exception came in April, when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken publicly made reference to “concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials.” On April 25, the congressionally mandated US Commission on International Religious Freedom stated that “religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened” in the last year and for the third year in a row. The commission recommended that the State Department designate India a “country of particular concern” for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
When European leaders meet Modi to discuss greater ties in trade and technology, and seek India’s partnership in a rule-based global order and condemnation of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, they should not forget the lives destroyed by the bulldozers or those of the journalists, activists and critics unjustly held behind bars or repeatedly threatened by BJP supporters.
They should call on the Indian government to live up to its obligations and commitments and protect the human rights and dignity of all its people, not just some of them. Repeating empty slogans and forsaking scrutiny of government abuses will not help that happen.