On 30–31 March, the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, visited Brussels. His meetings with the presidents of the two most powerful European Union institutions, the European Commission and the European Council, had a clear objective: intensify cooperation in various areas and pave the way for an EU-India trade and investment agreement. Enhanced cooperation and tighter economic relations between Europe and the second largest economy on the Asian continent undoubtedly make sense for both.
But what about the growing human rights concerns in India, where open discrimination against large parts of its citizenry and even religious persecution are on the rise since the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) won the elections in 2014?
The EU is more than a common market. It is founded on a commitment to core values and fundamental human rights. The recognition of the equal dignity of each person, the guarantee of religious freedom, and the protection against arbitrary discrimination are the soil in which free and just societies can flourish.
The EU is committed to promote and safeguard these fundamental rights within Europe itself, but also in its dealings with countries outside. Thanks to a highly developed political and diplomatic system, the EU has the capacity to put its money where its mouth is. Founded with the vocation to bring peace and prosperity, the EU has a global responsibility to promote human rights. It should be fulfilling this responsibility beyond mere lip service.
India, by contrast, has a millennia old social system in which large parts of its people are considered second-class citizens. Over 200 million Indian citizens do not have equal access to higher education, health care, the justice system, or government jobs.
This Scheduled Caste, also known as the Untouchables, are discriminated against on a daily basis. And a new phenomenon is increasingly alarming human rights organizations. Under Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, religious persecution against minorities (predominantly Christians and Muslims) is escalating. The so-called ‘freedom of religion’ Acts, also known as anti-conversion laws, make it a criminal offense to change one’s religion from Hinduism to another faith or to no faith at all.
Despite the country’s deeply diverse religious demographic and a robust civil society, India finds itself in the throes of religious fundamentalism and violence against religious minorities. The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Restrictions Report has found that India scores in the High category for government restrictions and in the Very High category for social hostilities—the highest category on the Pew scale. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2015 Annual Report placed India on its Tier 2 list of countries, meaning that violations of religious freedom that the government engages in or tolerates are serious and systematic.
This violence is driven by the Hindutva ideology that sees India as a Hindu nation in which religious minorities are second-class citizens. The ideology is espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which the BJP is affiliated. To the increasing alarm of India’s religious minorities, top-level central and state government officials within the BJP have made controversial statements promoting Hindutva policies.
Incidents of ideologically motivated violence are mounting. These include the lynching of a Muslim man by an angry mob on 28 September 2015. The attack, which occurred in the village of Bisada, just 30 miles from India’s capital, New Delhi, was instigated by local Hindu men linked to the BJP. On the strength of a baseless rumour that a cow (considered sacred by Hindus) had been killed in the area and that a local Muslim family was eating beef, a furious mob descended on the family’s home killing 52-year-old Mohammed Ikhlaq and severely injuring his son. Commenting on the incident, BJP Chief Minister of Haryana, Manohar Lal Khattar, stated that ‘Muslims can continue to live in this country, but they will have to give up eating beef. The cow is an article of faith here.’
The Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Human Resource Development have discussed preparing new syllabus for schools and developing strategies to ensure that art, cinema and even science and technological institutes are ‘culturally cleansed’. Their stated purpose is ‘defending Indian culture from encroachment by western culture’ (The Wire, 17 September 2015)
The recent report 365 Days: Democracy and Secularism Under The Modi Regime, published by ANHAD, a Delhi based non-profit organisation, noted that ‘at least 43 deaths in over 600 cases of violence, 194 targeting Christians and the rest Muslims, have taken place in between 26 May 2014 and 13 May 2015, marking almost one year of the National Development Alliance government of Mr Narendra Modi.’
Members of the Christian minority have been targeted in over 114 violent incidents across the country in the period of January-September 2015. The Christian community suffered physical attacks, killings, desecration of churches, and intimidation. In many cases, the local police refused to file an incident report. Christians are now routinely forbidden to worship and gather in their churches.
On 30 August 2014, ten Christians were detained by police in a town just outside New Delhi on the allegation that they were forcibly converting people. Despite finding the allegations to be false, as all conversions were by the free will of the individuals, the police held the Christians for nearly twenty-four hours. The Christians who had been physically assaulted by the Hindu mob were also slapped and verbally abused by the police, who told them that India was a Hindu nation and that they should refrain from attempting to convert people. No police complaint was lodged against the members of the mob even though the attack took place near the police station.
The National Commission for Minorities, in a resolution posted on its website, said:
The Commission would appreciate a public statement from the Government to reassure all minorities that their constitutional rights of safety, security and equality before the law cannot be compromised at any cost. The Government needs to send a clear signal that it is committed to the protection and security of all citizens and that no attempt at creating an atmosphere of fear and mistrust will be tolerated.
The central government has failed to address the issue adequately.
Back to Brussels. Prime Minister Modi, Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and Mr Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, agreed to an EU-India Agenda for Action-2020. Both sides ‘reaffirm commitment to the EU-India Human Rights Dialogue as a key tool to promote shared human rights values and forge mutual understanding within the Strategic Partnership’ and to ‘[d]iscuss Human Rights issues including cooperation in multilateral fora in the EU-India political dialogue’.
Furthermore, cooperation in ‘peace keeping’ and ‘peace building’ has been agreed. The Joint Statement on the EU-India Summit speaks of a strategic partnership ‘based on shared values and principles’, in which ‘both sides underscored the importance they attach to human rights cooperation’. Aside from the focus on economic collaboration, to effectively respond to violent extremism, terrorism and the radicalization of youth, India agreed to commit to an improvement of the political situation in the Ukraine, Africa, the Maledives, the Middle East, and Afghanistan.
And yet, the joint statement does not require India to effectively deal with violent extremism in its own backyard. There is no word on the blatant human rights violations against religious minorities. No word on the ongoing social exclusion and exploitation of the Scheduled Caste. Nine Members of the Foreign Affairs and Trade committees of the European Parliament, among them the vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Prof Ryszard Legutko, wrote a letter to Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk asking for these concerns to be addressed with Prime Minister Modi.