The Hindu nationalist policies espoused by India's governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its affiliate organizations undermined the country's historical commitment to secular democracy. Violence against Christian, Muslim, and Dalit, or "untouchable," populations was one result. Areas of separatist violence such as Kashmir and northeast India were marked by grave human rights abuses on the part of Indian security forces and armed rebel groups. Violence against women continued, from infanticide to dowry-related deaths to attacks on women whose male relatives were sought by the police. A major campaign on Dalit rights gathered strength, but some human rights defenders were targets of a state-sponsored backlash against their activism.Human Rights Developments
Abuses by all parties to the conflict were a critical factor behind the fighting in Kashmir. Emboldened by the successful hijacking of an Indian Airlines plane in December 1999 that secured the release of three jailed associates, pro-independence guerrillas or "militants" in the region stepped up their attacks on civilians, as well as on camps and barracks of government forces. The Indian army, operating under the Jammu and Kashmir Disturbed Areas Act and the Armed Forces (Jammu and Kashmir) Special Powers Act, continued to conduct cordon-and-search operations in Muslim neighborhoods and villages, detaining young men, assaulting other family members, and summarily executing suspected militants. Many Kashmiri civilians were killed or injured as a result of being caught in a crossfire between soldiers and militants, or in skirmishes and shelling between Indian and Pakistani troops across their countries' common border, known as the Line of Control.
In January, the Indian army, after its own investigation, announced that fifty-six of its personnel in Kashmir would be punished for committing human rights violations. The punishments ranged from discharge to denial of promotion. National and state human rights commissions, however, were barred from investigating army and paramilitary personnel.
On March 20, just before U.S. President Clinton's visit to South Asia, thirty-six Sikh men were shot dead in Chithisinghpora, Anantnag district, by unidentified gunmen reportedly dressed in army uniforms. In the weeks that followed, Sikh residents took to the streets demanding protection, while hundreds of Muslim villagers staged protests against Indian security forces. They alleged that in the aftermath of the Sikh massacre, blamed by the army on militants, many Muslim civilians had been "disappeared" or killed.
In early April, at least seven people were killed when police opened fire on Muslim protestors demanding the exhumation of the bodies of five men killed by members of the Indian army's Special Operations Group in Anantnag district. The protestors claimed that the men hadbeen detained in the aftermath of the Chithisinghpora massacre and killed in a "staged" encounter. On April 6, the charred and disfigured bodies were exhumed. DNA tests were performed to confirm their identities, but as of this writing, the government had not released the results.
On June 26, the Jammu-Kashmir state assembly approved a controversial autonomy plan that was subsequently rejected by the Indian federal cabinet. On July 24, the Hizb-ul-Mujahideen, Kashmir's largest armed guerilla group, declared a unilateral ceasefire and announced its willingness to enter into negotiations with Indian authorities. On July 29, India suspended its offensive against the group, but hopes of a peaceful resolution to the conflict were dashed by a series of massacres on August 1 and 2 that left ninety Hindu pilgrims dead in Pahalgam, in the Kashmir valley. The massacres were believed to have been carried out by militant factions opposed to the ceasefire, but reports suggested that some of the victims were killed by fire from Indian security forces. On August 8, Hizb-ul-Mujahideen called off the ceasefire, citing the Indian government's refusal to include Pakistan in three-way peace talks. Indian Home Minister L.K. Advani on August 22 rejected calls for an immediate judicial inquiry into the Pahalgam massacre.
Militants were believed responsible for several attacks against Hindus, who form a minority in the state. On August 19, a group of men carrying assault rifles entered two houses in the village of Ind, Udhampur district, and opened fire on the occupants, killing four. Two nights earlier, another group of gunmen had raided several Hindu homes in the village of Kot Dara, killing six. Some of those killed in the Kot Dara attack were reported to have been members of the local Village Defense Committee (VDC), established by the state government in the hill districts ostensibly to protect all of the region's inhabitants. The VDCs recruited their members almost exclusively from local Hindu communities, however, and were seen by militants as adjuncts of the Indian security forces.
Caste violence continued to divide the impoverished state of Bihar. There, the Ranvir Sena, a banned private militia of upper-caste landlords that had been operating with impunity since 1994, waged war on various Maoist guerrilla factions, such as the People's War Group (PWG). These guerrilla groups advocated higher wages and more equitable land distribution for lower-caste laborers. The cycle of retaliatory attacks claimed many civilian lives.
On April 25, upper-caste Rajputs shot and killed four Dalits and seriously injured three in Rohtas district, Bihar. Rajputs subsequently burned down the entire Dalit hamlet, leaving all twenty-five families homeless. The attack was reportedly in retaliation for the killing of two Rajputs a few days earlier by members of the outlawed PWG. On June 16, in Miapur village in Bihar's Aurangabad district, the Ranvir Sena slaughtered thirty-four lower-caste men, women, and children. Survivors reported that police left the scene when the attacking mob entered the village. The massacre was reportedly to avenge the killings by Maoist guerrillas of twelve upper-caste Bhumihars the week before, and thirty-four Bhumihars in March 1999. Some Ranvir Sena members were arrested in the weeks that followed, but there was no precedent for successful prosecutions in such cases.
Police blamed the July 13 killings of four upper-caste Hindus in Garwah district on the PWG. On September 13 the Maoist Communist Centre, another armed group, slit nine people's throats in Ranchi district. The victims included Muslims and tribespeople.
Bihar was not the only state affected by caste violence. On March 12, seven members of a Dalit family were burned alive in their homes by an upper-caste mob in Kolar district, Karnataka state. The attack was preceded by the stabbing of an upper-caste man in a nearby village. Although police were aware of escalating tensions in the area, they failed to take preventive action.
Attacks against Christians, which have increased significantly since the BJP came to power in March 1998, continued. By mid-year over thirty-five anti-Christian attacks had been reported throughout the country, with the states of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh-both BJP-led-particularly hard hit.
Activists belonging to militant Hindu extremist groups such as the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, VHP) were often blamed for the violence. Both groups are members of the sangh parivar, an umbrella Hindu organization that boasts the ruling BJP as its political wing. These Hindu groups blamed the violence on popular anger over Christian efforts to convert Hindus. While government officials at the state and central level condemned the attacks, they did little to prosecute those responsible.
On January 31 a year-long manhunt came to an end with the arrest in Orissa of Bajrang Dal activist Dara Singh. Singh was wanted in connection with several murders, including those of Australian missionary Graham Stuart Staines and his two sons in 1999. Christian relief at the arrest was tempered, however, by a state government order, believed to be aimed at limiting the activities of Christian missionaries, requiring a police inquiry before anyone adopted a new faith.
The state governments of Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh lifted a ban against civil servants joining the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps, RSS), a sangh parivar member. In Gujarat, Delhi, and Orissa, district administrations conducted surveys to assess the activities and whereabouts of minority community members and leaders. Meanwhile, the BJP and its allies continued to implement their agenda for the "Hinduization" of education, mandating Hindu prayers in certain state-sponsored schools and revising history books to include what amounted to propaganda against Islamic and Christian communities.
On April 11, three Christian missionary schools were ransacked and six people beaten in related attacks by the Bajrang Dal in Mathura, in BJP-led Uttar Pradesh. The group sought to justify its actions by calling the schools "machines for conversion." On April 21, a group of Christians was attacked near the city of Agra. These attacks followed the beating to death of two tribal Christians in Hazaribagh, and an attack on two nuns and a priest in Mathura.
On June 7, a Catholic priest was battered to death while sleeping outside his school in Uttar Pradesh. Government officials were quick to rule out any religious motive, attributing it to burglary. Within days the sole witness to the attack, Vijay Ekka, died in police custody. Ekka had told parishioners who visited him in detention that he was being tortured by the police and that he feared for his life. Two policemen were arrested and a magisterial probe was ordered after a Christian organization filed a complaint.
In May, the National Commission for Minorities (NCM), a government agency, issued a report stating that attacks against Christians were either accidental or the unrelated actions of petty criminals. Outraged Christian activists said the report showed that the government condoned attacks on Christians. Earlier reports by the NCM, issued before it was overhauled by the central government in January, had recommended prosecutions for such attacks and accused the government of willful neglect at all levels.
In June, a series of blasts damaged Christian churches in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, and Goa. A month later, crude bombs were set off in two more churches in Karnataka. In August, police charged members of a Muslim sect, allegedly based in Pakistan, with masterminding the attacks. Human rights activists maintained that the arrests were meant to deflect attention from Hindu hardliners' campaign of anti-Christian violence.
On July 14, the Maharashtra state government announced its intention to prosecute Bal Thackeray, leader of the right-wing Hindu organization Shiv Sena, for his role in inciting Bombay's 1992-1993 riots in which over 700 people, the vast majority of them Muslims, were killed. The decision to prosecute came two years after a government-appointed judicial commission had named Thackeray as one of those responsible for the violence. On July 25, amid rioting by Shiv Sena supporters, Thackeray was arrested only to be released a few hours later after a judge ordered the case closed on the grounds that the statute of limitations relating to the incitement charges had expired.
Violence in the northeastern states, particularly Assam, continued throughout the year, claiming many civilian casualties. Members of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA), a militant group seeking Assam's independence from India, repeatedly clashed with the police and with surrendered ULFA members working with the government, known as "SULFA." The Bodo Liberation Tigers (BLT) fighting for a separate homeland for the Bodo tribal people extended their ceasefire by one year beginning September 15.
In April, the Law Commission of India recommended the introduction of the Prevention of Terrorism Bill into parliament. If enacted, the bill would reinstate a modified version of the notorious Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), repealed in 1995. TADA had facilitated tens of thousands of unjustified arrests, torture, and other violations against political opponents, social activists, and human rights defenders. Human rights organizations protested against the bill arguing that, if enacted, it would have similar effects.
In a positive move, the law commission also called for sweeping changes to the country's rape laws following an increase in the incidence of sexual violence. Women's rights activists welcomed this recommendation. Female infanticide persisted as the female to male ratio continued to drop-a reflection of the lower status of women and girls, who were more likely to be deprived of food, education, or health services, or to be seen as an economic liability under the dowry system.
Women whose relatives were sought by the police continued to be detained. In February, in Tamil Nadu, twelve women were illegally detained and tortured and repeatedly sexually assaulted in custody because of their ties to a suspected robber who had himself died in police custody. The National Human Rights Commission, a government-appointed body, also took particular note of alarming numbers of deaths in police custody.
Police brutality against Muslim students of the Jamia Millia Islamia, an institution of higher education in Delhi, made national headlines. On April 9, while searching for two criminal suspects, hundreds of police broke into one of the institution's dormitories and physically assaulted Muslim students, destroyed their property, and vandalized the campus mosque.
Two days earlier, members of the State Reserve Police beat and arrested up to forty-six demonstrators following a protest against the proposed Maroli-Umbergaon Port Project in Gujarat. While all were released on bail within forty-eight hours, six of the protesters were beaten in custody by police. One, Col. (retired) Pratap Save, suffered a brain hemorrhage, went into a coma, and died from his injuries on April 20.
In June, the Indian navy alerted Sri Lankan authorities to the presence of forty-seven Sri Lankan refugees who had become stranded on an island between the two countries while fleeing to India. A Sri Lankan naval vessel then picked them up and took them back to Sri Lanka. In August, Indian authorities in Mizoram state forcibly repatriated over one hundred ethnic minority Chin refugees who had fled from Burma.
China and Tibet
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Human RIghts Watch