Over the past month CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region. Today, International Human Rights Day, we present a guest blog post by Michel Forst, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders.
“Human rights defenders are those community and religious leaders, journalists, activists, lawyers, trade unionists and others who take on the plight of the most marginalised in their society. These defenders of human rights represent people in the face of oppression, violence and harassment, doing what they can to hold perpetrators to account, and uphold the human rights enshrined in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), among many other resolutions that states across the world are committed to upholding. Many of these defenders face the same intense persecution as those they seek to defend, with many facing threats and risks of violence, torture and even death on a daily basis.
That is why, this year, I joined calls to award the Nobel peace prize to the global community of human rights defenders – especially as we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 10 December.
As the Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights Defenders, I believe that this declaration must be given foremost importance amongst the international community moving forward, with regards to the protection and sanctity of all human rights worldwide. Indeed, this year the recipients of the Nobel peace prize were human rights defenders Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, further proof that the work of HRDs worldwide helps to bring about lasting change, peace and reconciliation.
In the run-up to Human Rights Day on 10 December and the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders on 9 December, CSW has been speaking with HRDs across South Asia to find out what it means to be a FoRB defender in the region.
Nehemiah Christie is a human rights defender working in India:
“My experience as a human rights and FoRB defender in South India has worsened ever since the Modi government came to power. With the BJP relying on the backing of Hindu fundamentalist groups, the threat to minorities has increased, especially with regard to Christians in India. In Tamil Nadu, where I and many others work on the front line defending people’s right to freedom of religion and belief (FoRB), we have faced extreme hostility.
HRDs here have been shot, raped, and threatened by both state and non-state actors. Threats are often perpetuated by police and other authorities trying to silence our voices by labelling us as anti-national elements working against the interests of India. Read More
In 2008, the Christians of Kandhamal District in Odisha state in India experienced the most severe outbreak of anti-Christian violence in the country’s history. The attacks claimed over 100 lives, forced 56,000 people to flee their homes and saw the destruction of 5,600 homes and 300 churches. Father Ajaya Kumar Singh, a survivor of the tragedy in Kandhamal, sought to equip himself with the ability to advocate for fellow survivors following the attacks, and has campaigned tirelessly for compensation and justice.
On the 10th anniversary since the outbreak of the attacks, Father Ajaya spoke to CSW about the current situation in Kandhamal, and about what can be done by both the government of India and the international community to help bring justice, and to ensure that an event like the one which took place in Kandhamal never happens again.
Recent years have seen a worrying, increase in attacks against religious minorities in India. Even as the country marks the 68th anniversary of the constitution, which guarantees the freedom to profess, practice and propagate religion, there is evidence that there has been a dramatic rise in tensions between religious groups, due in large part to the validation of Hindu nationalism propagated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, guided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), its ideological wing.
Recent video footage obtained by CSW of a physical attack against two Christians portrays the stark reality for many religious minorities in India today.
VIDEO: Two church leaders from Full Gospel Pentecostal Church in Kadamalaikuntu, Tamil Nadu are seen here being threatened, ridiculed and forcefully detained by six men on motorbikes as they attempted to leave a village after distributing Christian tracts. They also had sacred ash forcefully applied on them.
Kandhamal district is among the poorest and most marginalised in Odhisa (formerly Orissa) state, India. On 25 August 2008, it was the epi-centre of communal attacks against the Christian community in India. Local monitoring groups have estimated that over 90 people were killed with at least 54,000 displaced and over 300 churches destroyed by groups belonging to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that espouses the Hindutva ideology.
Ten years on, attacks on religious minorities and on freedom of expression by groups belonging to the RSS continue. The lack of official condemnation towards acts of intimidation and violence has further empowered these groups. As with recent attacks against religious minorities in India, the carnage that unfolded in Kandhamal was not a one-off isolated incident devoid of a historical narrative.
Religious conversion was criminalised in India’s Jharkhand State on 11 September with the introduction of the so-called ‘Freedom of Religion’ law, making Jharkhand the seventh State to introduce such legislations after Odhisa (1967), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Chhattisgarh (1968), Arunachal Pradesh (1978), Gujarat (2003) and Himachal Pradesh (2006).
Section 3 of the Jharkhand Freedom of Religion Act 2017 declares “no person shall convert or attempt to convert, either directly or otherwise, any person from one religion/ religious faith to another by the use of force or by allurement or by any fraudulent means, nor shall any person abet any such conversion.” The punishment includes a prison term of up to three years and/or a fine up to fifty thousand rupees (equivalent to about £580).
“The Gujarat Carnage 2002, is certainly one of the bloodiest chapters of post-independent India. The painful reality is, that those responsible for it, are now at the helm of power in India” – Father Cedric Prakash (Human Rights Activist)
Confronting past crimes is unsettling, particularly when the perpetrators continue to enjoy political immunity. Fifteen years ago on 28 February 2002, violence in Gujarat, India covered the news headlines as an estimated 2,000 Muslims were massacred over several months across 16 districts in the country.
Moving from official commitments to tangible changes people’s lives remains a key challenge in the realisation of human rights. I am reminded of the wonderful quote from African-American civil rights campaigner, Philip Randolph, who said, “Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.”
“Freedom is never granted; it is won. Justice is never given; it is exacted.” – Philip Randolph
This quote draws attention to the importance of promoting human rights while reminding us that very rarely do human rights “just happen”; they are regularly contested, challenged and often only progressed through the active work of individual human rights defenders (HRDs) and NGOs who promote and defend human rights through activities such as advocacy, campaigning, demonstrations, and human rights journalism – whether paid or unpaid and regardless of geographical location.
Recognise that restrictions on public freedoms, extreme inequalities and the mainstreaming of hate around the world are “shearing off the protections that maintain respect”, the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein pleaded with Member States at the 32nd session of the Human Rights Council (HRC).
This sentiment is usually associated with states experiencing severe human rights violations, but the remark is equally relevant to states where human rights violations take place but appear less visible and fail to make news headlines.
The world’s largest democracy
The words ‘largest democracy’ are synonymous with India as a nation state with an electorate of 1.25 billion people and growing. The choice of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to lead the country may have come as a result of Modi’s election promises of a market orthodoxy for economic revival and open trade.
As such, any proposition that religious freedom in India is deteriorating is deflected by the ‘democracy’ rhetoric despite research showing that understanding freedom of religion or belief is good for business; it comes as no surprise that this defence is readily used by those who have trade and business interests in India, thus casting a cloak of invisibility about the violence against minorities based on religious grounds.
Minasi (75) and his wife Sartabati (68) have seen their church in Mukundipur village attacked on five occasions, in 1966, 1975, 1998, 2007 and 2008. They said they did not think they could cope with another attack. Gajapati District, Orissa. Marcus Perkins/CSW 2009.
25 August 2016 is the eighth anniversary of India’s worst instance of communal violence against Christians. Many of the victim-survivors in Kandhamal, Odisha State, continue to wait for justice.
It is estimated that over 90 people were killed, 600 villages ransacked and 5,600 houses looted and burned in the 2008 attack. Approximately 54,000 people were left homeless, while 295 churches and places of worship were destroyed. Furthermore, an estimated 13 schools, colleges and philanthropic institutions for the sick were looted and burned. Approximately 2,000 Christians were forced to renounce their faith during the violence and 10,000 children were robbed of their education.
At every stage, the response of government, law enforcement and the criminal justice system to this tragedy has been woefully inadequate, undermining justice for the victim-survivors.
Two initial government reports into the incident were heavily criticised by civil society activists as riddled with inaccuracies. They were later overturned by the findings of the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), which reported that the violence was communal and that the Christians were attacked purely on the basis of their religion.