Asma Jahangir on freedom of religion and belief in India

asmaj3.jpgAsma Jahangir is the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief of the United Nations Human Rights Council. She recently visited India, and made a statement on 20th March 2008. Some excerpts from the statement; the full text is available at The Hindu.

[…]Indeed, due to the religious diversity of India, this country visit has been an enriching experience for the mandate I hold since 2004. I will be submitting a detailed report with conclusions and recommendations to the United Nations Human Rights Council, therefore this press statement will only cover some preliminary impressions that I have formed during the past 2« weeks. In this press statement it would be impossible to make a general assessment of the current state of freedom of religion or belief in the whole of India. In fact, this was not the first visit of the mandate, as my predecessor undertook a mission to India in 1996 (see UN Doc. E/CN.4/1997/91/Add.1). Consequently, my forthcoming report will also be a follow-up on developments during the past twelve years, in order to analyze what has changed and why.

[…]Many of my interlocutors have pointed to the positive impact of Indian secularism as embodied in the Constitution. By and large, Indians do value secular principles and I was told time and again that the term “secularism” does not necessarily mean the same as in other countries. Historically, there have been believers of a whole range of religions and beliefs living in India. The central Government has developed a comprehensive policy pertaining to minorities, including religious ones. In this context, I would like to compliment various recent reports on religious minorities, for example drafted by the Committees headed by Justice Rajender Sachar in 2006 and by Justice Renganath Misra in 2007. Such Committees mandated by the Government are a good example of mechanisms put in place to analyse the situation and put forward recommendations for the Government to take action upon.

The National Commission for Minorities, too, has taken up several challenges. Their members took prompt action and issued independent reports on incidents of communal violence with concrete recommendations. However, the performance of various Human Rights Commissions depends very much on the selection of its members and the importance various Governments attach to their mandates. It is vital that members of such commissions have acute sensitivity to human rights issues and must reflect the diversity – particularly in terms of gender – as women are one of the worst sufferers of religious intolerance. At the same time, I noticed that women’s groups across religious lines were the most active and effective human rights advocates in situations of communal tensions.

All individuals I met recognised that a comprehensive legal framework to protect their rights exists, yet many of them – especially from religious minorities – remained dissatisfied with its implementation. By and large, the Indians respect the diversity of religions and beliefs. At the same time, organised groups based on religious ideologies have unleashed the fear of mob violence in many parts of the country. Law enforcement is often reluctant to take any action against individuals or groups that perpetuate violence in the name of religion or belief. This institutionalised impunity for those who exploit religion and impose their religious intolerance on others has made peaceful citizens, particularly the minorities, vulnerable and fearful.

I have received numerous reports of attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship as well as discrimination of disempowered sections of the Hindu community.

[…]Less than three months ago, there was widespread violence in the Kandhamal district of Orissa, targeting primarily Christians in Dalit and tribal communities. I received credible reports that members of the Christian community alerted the authorities in advance of the planned attacks of 24-27 December 2007. The police, too, had warned Christian leaders about anticipated violence. The National Commission for Minorities stated in a recent report: “Destruction on such a large scale in places which are difficult to access could not have taken place without advance preparation and planning.” Even today, the tensions are prevalent and the anti-conversion legislation is being used to vilify Christians in general.

Concerning the 2002 Gujarat massacre, I have read numerous reports, both of official bodies and civil society organisations and I met a large number of eyewitnesses and people who visited Gujarat during the trouble. The State Government reported that, prior to the Godhra incident, Gujarat had witnessed 443 major communal incidents between 1970 and 2002. As such, the warning was there. However, the massacre that took place after the tragic deaths at Godhra in 2002 is all the more horrifying since by all accounts at least a thousand people were systematically killed. Even worse, there are credible reports that inaction by the authorities was evident and most interlocutors alleged complicity by the State Government. In my discussions with victims I could see their continuing fear which is exacerbated by the distress that justice continues to evade most victims and survivors. Even today there is increasing ghettoization and isolation of Muslims in certain areas. The assertion of the State Government that development by itself will heal the wounds does not seem to be realistic. It is crucial to recognise that development without a policy of inclusiveness of all communities will only add to aggravate resentments.

Furthermore, I am disturbed that at various meetings with members of the civil society during my visit in Gujarat, plain-clothed Government agents took names of all my NGO interlocutors and also made their presence felt afterwards. On several occasions, I had to insist that police officers leave the room during my NGO meetings. The terms of reference of fact-finding missions by Special Rapporteurs (see UN Doc. E/CN.4/1998/45, Appendix V) are very clear in this regard. These terms of reference guarantee confidential and unsupervised contact with witnesses and other private persons as well as assurance by the Government that no persons, official or private individuals who have been in contact with the Special Rapporteur in relation to the mandate will for this reason suffer threats, harassment or punishment or be subjected to judicial proceedings.

[…]I was deeply touched to hear of the exodus of the Kashmiri Pandits in 1990s following a campaign of threats and violence. They remain dislocated to this day despite the fact the de-escalation of violence in Jammu and Kashmir has had a positive impact on religious tolerance. There have been public statements inviting the Hindu Pandits to return to Kashmir. Places of worship are now more accessible and the tensions are reducing. At the same time, many interlocutors have confirmed a continuing bias amongst security forces against Muslims who also face problems with regard to issuing of passports and security clearances for employment purposes. There are also reports of discrimination against them outside of Jammu and Kashmir, such as the refusal of hotel bookings.

At all places where I met with members of the Muslim community in India, I was informed that a number of them have been arrested on ill-founded suspicions of terrorism. They are disturbed that terrorism is associated with their religion despite various public statements from Muslim leadership denouncing terrorism. There was though recognition of the Government’s efforts in ensuring that Indian Muslims’ rights are protected when arrested abroad.

[…]The vast majority of Indians respects secular traditions and keenly follows the teachings of the nation’s founding fathers. I have noticed encouraging signs in the fight against religious intolerance and I am impressed by the outstanding degree of human rights activism in India. There are innumerable examples where individuals have come to each other’s rescue, crossing all religious boundaries. Indeed, in Gujarat, a large number of victims recognised the positive role played by some national media and other courageous individuals who effectively saved lives. It is a crucial – albeit difficult – task for the State and civil society to challenge the forces of intolerance.

I have written about issues of fundamentalisms before and some of the difficulties we face, fighting these fundamentalisms, particularly as feminists; one of those reflections was provocatively called The Fundamentalisms of the Progressive. I’ve been thinking about these issues quite a bit again recently – not that they ever ‘go away’ – but because I helped coordinate a fascinating workshop on fundamentalisms with young women from across the world, late last year, and because a few friends here in the US have been discussing our possible roles as Indians from afar (I’m not fond of the term NRIs, mostly because it has this – however mistaken – image of smug elsewhereness which I hope to hell we don’t have; we certainly don’t feel like Non Responsible Indians). This statement from Asma Jahangir only adds to the general tumult of thought. Watch this space for more sedition and unrest over the next while. Please feel free to chime in with ideas; dissent and debate welcome, hatred unacceptable.

Image from

The fear of fundamentalisms

Open Democracy has set up a blog for women’s voices to be represented at the G8 summit, called ‘Open Summit: Women talk to the G8‘. They invited contributions (and are continuing to do so, for those who want to share); this was mine, cross-posted here.

Image courtesy Screen Sifar.


My day (and sometimes night) job is working with police officers in India on issues of violence against women and children; I coordinate a UNICEF partnership with the Karnataka State Police. One of the most critical aspects of this work is, as Anindita so succinctly described elsewhere on this blog, analysing the impact of our socially entrenched gender-based norms. The lack of value for our girl children – and if they’re lucky, for the women they grow up to be – has meant that we have lost, in our female population, the size of a small to middling European country.

But this post is not about genderocide. It is about that and more. It is about asking our governments – particularly the all powerful G8 – that in this context of ‘terrorism’, of an almost universal culture of production and consumption around ‘fear’ and ‘mistrust’, they analyse honestly and courageously their own contributions to a growing set of fundamentalisms: economic, religious, cultural, social and sexual. Women (and children) are often hit hardest by these fundamentalisms.

Identities are complex; we acknowledge that readily but seem willing to sacrifice that complexity for simplified categorisations and easy classification. More than ever, our language of ‘us’ and ‘them’ divides us over and over again, in the conversations we have, the advertisements we watch, the TV series we devour. And our politicians, our priests, our ulemas, our leaders – those who claim to represent us in all our complexity – speak the language of divisions, of fissures, best of all.

A young Muslim friend of mine lives in Gujarat, India. She explores, every day, what it means to be a woman, a Muslim, a young person, an artist, in the maelstrom of fundamentalism that is the Gujarat of today. She struggles with what it means to be a citizen: either of this country or of the globalised world. What does citizenship mean if you live constantly in the shadow of fear? Not just the fear of physical abuse, but worse still, the violence attached to labels? For her, wearing the hijaab is both an act of courage and an unintended performance: she is just never quite sure of her audience or its response.

There is complexity in hate-mongering too. In India, as possibly elsewhere, it seems as though the language of ‘empowerment’ for women has been claimed and reconstructed to mean ‘power’ rather than ‘dignity’ or ‘equality’ or ‘pluralism’. Not all our women politicians are feminist, and not all our fundamentalists are male.

These are not only issues of government. But they are issues for governments; our states are contributing, in no small measure, to these voices of fundamentalisms, of alienation. And worse still: sometimes it is they who create the vocabulary.