Latent Justice: The Unfinished Gujarat Story

“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.

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From Pledges to Action: Human Rights Defenders play a vital role in advancing justice

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.

The right and responsibility to promote human rights – either individually or in association with others – is the cornerstone of all human rights work.

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India: Striving for Hindu rashtra at the expense of democracy

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.

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Remembering Kandhamal: a legacy of institutional failure

Orissa September 2009

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.

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The Elephant in the Room: Raising Human Rights in Bilateral Talks

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Palace of Westminster, London

Since October 2015, the UK has hosted a state visit for the President of China and the first official UK visits of the President of Egypt and the Prime Minister of India.

While it is the responsibility of any government to foster good bilateral relationships, this should include full and frank discussions about human rights. The Conservative party committed to this in its 2015 manifesto where it stated:

“Our long-term security and prosperity depend on a stable international system that upholds our values… We will stand up for the freedom of people of all religions – and non-religious people – to practise their beliefs in peace and safety, for example by supporting persecuted Christians in the Middle East… and we will continue to support universal human rights.”  2015 Conservative Party Manifesto

During these visits, CSW made calls for the Prime Minister and his Government to honour their manifesto commitment and to raise the religious freedom situation in all three countries as part of bilateral talks. The Government was disappointingly quiet on human rights during all three visits, prompting many to question whether trade was being prioritised above human rights.

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A ‘New’ India? From a Secular to a Hindu Nation.

Orissa September 2009

These women and their families are among several who share a single tent in a displacement camp housing 45 Catholic families. These families had been accommodated in five separate places since being displaced by the communal violence in August 2008. Kandhamal District, Orissa. Marcus Perkins/CSW 2009.

Rising religious intolerance is increasingly visible; be it from ghar wapis (Hindu home coming ceremonies) of religious minorities to the open incitement of hate against Muslims and Christians by senior government officials; from mob lynchings over beef consumption to attacks on places of worship; and from the distortion of historical facts in text books to the murder of renowned rationalists such as Narendra Dabholkar, Govind Pansare and M. M. Kalburgi, who questioned certain Hindu practices in their writings.

The debate about the religious intolerance sweeping India is mainstream and has drawn international news coverage as India’s distinguished scientists, rationalists, actors, academics, and historians have voiced their concerns. Some have even returned their national awards in protest, including scientists, who unlike artists are not routinely engaged in public cultural critique and protest.

A Historically Secular State

One year after the Universal Declaration on Human Rights was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, declaring in its preamble the universality of the innate nature of human dignity, the Constitution of India was written in 1949.

The founding fathers envisioned an India where freedom of conscience would be respected by all citizens and that every Indian would live freely and without fear according to their conscience, exercising the choice to adhere to a religion or not.

The Constitution in its 42nd amendment established India as a secular state. In India, religion was intended to be kept separate from the body politic, although today the reality on the ground is starkly different as communal and religious politics are being used to polarise society.

The influence of Hindutva nationalist ideology

At the centre of this polarisation is the Hindutva ideology, which was coined by V.D Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist leader who propagated an exclusionary political ideology and promoted religious nationalism of “majoritarianism”. The aim: to make India a Hindu ‘rasthra’ (nation).

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