Increasing incidents of human rights violations have tarnished the image of the country. Reuters
Every passing year brings fresh evidence of decline in India’s human rights standards. In the Human Freedom Index of 2020 India was at the 111th place among 162 countries. In the 2019 index India’s rank was 94.
The HF index, published annually by American think tank Cato Institute and Fraser Institute of Canada since 2008, takes into account 76 indicators of personal, civil, and economic freedoms in ranking countries.
While releasing the 2020 report the institutes observed that there has been a notable decline in personal freedom worldwide since 2008.
Of the 12 major categories that were measured for the report, all but five saw some deterioration, with freedom of religion, identity and relationship freedoms, and the rule of law showing the largest decline.
That freedoms are shrinking elsewhere, too, is not an acceptable extenuating circumstance.
In the World Press Freedom Index 2020, the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontiers (Reporters Without Borders) placed India at the 142nd place among 180 countries. The WPF Index is based on evaluation of the level of freedom available to the media in each country. It has been published annually since2002.
In the first WPF Index India’s rank was 80. It fell steadily under both the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government (2004-14) and the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government which succeeded it.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights regularly mentions rights violations in India, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, in its annual reports. In the latest report, it called for a credible investigation in the matter. The government has not acted upon the suggestion.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch, in a report released last February, spoke of systematic discrimination against the Muslim minority and stigmatisation of government’s critics by the BJP.
Since state governments also have powers to restrict personal freedoms and media freedom, and some of them are under various other parties, it will be wrong to lay the blame for the falling human rights standards entirely on the Centre and the party holding the reins there.
The fact is that, while in power, be it at the Centre or in the states, political parties of all hues are lax in upholding the rights the Constitution guarantees to all citizens.
Various repressive laws of colonial vintage are still in force in the country, having been brought back to deal with security threats posed by violent elements. Since these are parliamentary enactments, the Centre’s role assumes primacy. Ironically, parties which were at the receiving end of such laws while in the opposition have been quite willing to use – not to say misuse – these laws against their opponents once they gain power.
The repressive laws now on the statute book date back to the period of Congress-led governments.
Soon after Modi assumed office, the government amended the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), to make it tougher. Rights activists consider UAPA a black law as it vests magisterial powers in police officers and shifts the onus of proof from the prosecution to the accused.
Various other laws enacted by the Modi regime too have met with strong opposition from those adversely affected by them as well as domestic and foreign civil society groups on grounds of violation of rights.The administration routinely rejects foreign criticism claiming the matter was an internal affair.
Human rights have always been a low priority item in Modi’s agenda. While Chief Minister of Gujarat, he had come under attack for failing to act quickly to control the 2002 communal riots.
The Protection of Human Rights Act of 1993 provided for the setting up of human rights commissions at the national and state levels. Gujarat was one of several states which did not implement it promptly.
As Modi dragged his feet, the Governor constituted a state commission without a recommendation from the government. Modi went to court to foil the move. After he became the Prime Minister, the Centre began a scrutiny of the working of human rights groups. This led to choking of flow of funds, especially those from foreign sources.
In 2018, policemen from Maharashtra picked up prominent rights activists from several states on charges of conspiring to create violence. The courts refused them bail. Arsenal Consulting, a US-based digital forensic analyst firm, has said that the electronic evidence the Indian investigators are relying on in this case was planted in the computer of a young activist using a malware. While challenges have grown, human rights defence remains a weak area.
Unable to sustain its activities in the country, Amnesty International pulled out last year. Greenpeace, which has a creditable record in environmental protection, is continuing to work, albeit on a reduced scale, with funds raised locally.
Many domestic rights organisations are dormant due to lack of funds or the chilling effect of governmental action.