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Submission to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom

"Religious Freedom in India" Submission by Sarah Yager, Washington director, Human Rights Watch

The commission’s focus on religious freedom in India is welcome and timely.

Over the last decade there has been an undeniable increase in the number and frequency of attacks against religious minorities in India, especially Muslims and Christians.

This increase appears to stem largely from the 2014 election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). As the commission has previously documented, BJP leaders and affiliated groups across India have a long track record of stigmatizing religious minority communities, making divisive, hate-filled remarks against Muslims around state and national elections, and insinuating that non-Hindu Indians are a threat to national security and to the “Hindu way of life.”

Divisive political discourse by the BJP has increased since 2014 and served to further normalize violence against minorities, especially Muslims. BJP leaders have also embedded prejudices into government agencies and formerly independent institutions, such as the police, institutionalizing impunity and further empowering supporters of the BJP to threaten, harass, and attack religious minorities. The BJP government has adopted several laws and policies that systematically discriminate against Muslims and stigmatize critics of the government.

Violence between Hindu BJP supporters and Muslim and Christian communities has become common in recent years in India, especially in BJP-ruled states. Violence has often been provoked, for instance, during Hindu religious processions led by BJP-affiliated groups in which some brandish swords and weapons and chant anti-Muslim slogans. Police action responding to resulting violence is almost always biased, with Hindu government supporters largely protected from arrest and prosecution, while religious minorities are unlawfully targeted with impunity.

The recent communal violence in Haryana in July and August highlights these concerns. Events like these fit into a pattern, in which authorities respond to communal violence mainly to protect Hindu communities while retaliating against Muslims, by illegally demolishing hundreds of Muslim properties and arbitrarily detaining Muslim boys and men, among other abuses.

Authorities are also misusing laws in at least 10 states in India forbidding forced religious conversion. Police often misuse the laws to target Christians, particularly from Dalit or Adivasi communities, and against interfaith couples, harassing or arresting Muslim men in relationships with Hindu women.

Authorities have also increasingly engaged in summary collective punishments against Muslims. In several BJP-run states, including Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, authorities have demolished hundreds of Muslim homes and properties without legal authorization, and in one case, publicly flogged Muslim men accused of disrupting a Hindu festival.

And as we have previously told the commission, Human Rights Watch has documented widespread abuses by BJP-linked “Cow Protection” groups, vigilante mobs that often attack Muslims. 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.

We have also documented major problems with the government’s passage of a citizenship law in 2019 that discriminates against Muslims and push for a nationwide citizenship verification process through a National Population Register and a proposed National Register of Citizens.

We have also repeatedly flagged human rights consequences of the government’s 2019 revocation of the constitutional autonomy of India’s only Muslim-majority state, Jammu and Kashmir. Today, four years later, authorities there are still restricting free expression, peaceful assembly, and other basic rights, and regularly shut down the internet. Several journalists and human rights defenders have been arrested on spurious terrorism charges and authorities regularly harass critics, including through use of counterterrorism raids.

The commission is also aware of the ethnic violence since May in India’s northeast Manipur state between the majority Meitei community (mostly Hindu) and the Kuki tribal groups (mostly Christian). Prime Minister Modi responded to the violence after nearly three months, only after a video emerged on July 20 showing a Meitei mob on May 4 stripping and parading two Kuki women. But there has been little evidence of meaningful actions by Modi or the BJP leadership to stem or address the violence.

The actions and omissions I have outlined here—and in further detail in our submitted appendix—are violations of India’s obligations under international human rights law, in particular, provisions prohibiting discrimination based on race, ethnicity, or religion, and requiring equal protection under law. They also violate corresponding provisions of Indian domestic 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.

The government of India is failing to uphold these obligations.


The US government and members of Congress should—first and foremost:

  • Publicly speak out about the Indian government’s abusive and discriminatory policies and practices against religious minorities and publicly raise concerns over the increasing attacks on religious minorities and incitement and hate speech by government officials.

Private diplomatic communications are insufficient and will not impact the actions of the Indian government. Prime Minister Modi and the BJP leadership have spent years cultivating India’s international image and geopolitical standing. Targeted and fact-based public criticism by US officials is essential for compelling Indian leaders to rein in the toxic rhetoric against religious and other minorities and undercut the sense of impunity that underlies the government’s worsening human rights violations. Public statements demonstrate that the US government is scrutinizing the Modi government’s actions and that failures to address worsening abuses will affect US-India relations.

More specifically, US officials should:

  • Urge the India government to implement long-pending police reforms and ensure police are free from political influence and are able to take effective action during communal violence and carry out fair investigations to prosecute perpetrators.
  • Urge the Indian government to meaningfully prosecute party leaders and supporters responsible for inciting and carrying out attacks on religious minorities.
  • Call on Indian authorities to:
    • End politically motivated investigations and harassment of civil society groups under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and other laws used to intimidate or censor civil society.
    • Stop targeting civil society groups by censoring online free speech content and requesting or ordering social media takedowns.
    • Restore internet access in Manipur state, including for mobile phones. Promptly and impartially investigate killings by ethnic groups and security forces in Manipur and work with community leaders to restore security.
    • End routine internet shutdowns, which are undermining the government’s Digital India initiative.
    • Drop charges and release human rights defenders and peaceful critics of the government, including those being prosecuted in the Bhima Koregaon case; in cases related to the Citizenship Amendment Law; and in Jammu and Kashmir.


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