Despite many years of sustained growth and development interventions in South Asia, development indicators for the region remain dismal. The region, accounting for a fifth of the world’s population, is one of its poorest parts . It is also where civil and political rights are severely restricted, with frequent reports of human rights violations across the region.
Media reports, civil society programme reports, research studies and the odd official report, however limited, point to South Asia’s minorities – religious, ethnic, linguistic and gender – being among the poorest and most vulnerable sections in the region; they are also victims of most conflicts and violence and atrocities by state and non-state actors. South Asia’s minorities thus suffer doubly:
- South Asia is characterized by its large population, growing poverty, weak gov- ernance structures and feeble democratic institutions, increasing militarization and sectarianism…. Governments in South Asia have pursued national security through destructive military apparatuses, rather than (seeking) security for citizens by actualizing their creative potential…. Most important, the nations of South Asia are still in search of a social contract that can satisfy their people, regardless of gender, faith, ethnicity or religion (Nepali, 2009:4)
- Along with some of the oldest civilizations in the world, South Asia includes some of its poorest countries. Civil war, ethnic tension, religious persecution and terrorism are but some of the ailments of this region, as are the abuse of government power, censorship, and human rights violations. Disappearances, torture, police abuse… these are common practices in the nations of South Asia (the World Bank, 2009:93).
It is evident that the condition of minority communities in South Asia is grim. Panikkar (2005:1) summarizes the situation as:
- The increasing infringement of the rights of minorities in the countries of South Asia … has been a matter of considerable concern. …In fact, the history of minorities in South Asia is a history of increasing discrimination and deprivation.
Questions about the rights of minorities (as citizens deserving equal treatment and as minority groups deserving special rights for the protection of their identity) and the safeguards necessary to ensure them, are central here.
Let us look at some recent evidence on the conditions of South Asia’s minorities. In the absence of any authoritative and standardized reports on the situation of minorities in the region we have to rely on the evidence that is available. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (US Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2015) reports on foreign governments with serious abuses of religious freedom. Its 2015 report included five of the eight countries in South Asia as demonstrating serious concerns, either perpetrating or tolerating abuse of religious freedom. Pakistan was categorized as Tier 1 (most serious) recommended country of particular concern (CPC), one of the 17 countries that according to the report meet this level. India and Afghanistan were both Tier 2, two of the eight so identified by the report. Bangladesh and Sri Lanka were among the other six countries studied by the 2015 report, signifying concerns with regard to religious freedom there.
The Minority Rights Group publishes its annual Peoples Under Threat Index – a global ranking of countries most at risk of genocide and mass killings based on a set of indicators that are a combination of risks suffered by minority groups and the safeguards available to check mass violence (Minority Rights Group, 2016a). Its 2016 report lists two South Asian countries – Afghanistan and Pakistan – as having serious threat, and Sri Lanka as posing a middle level threat (Minority Rights Group, 2016b). Notably, safeguards against ‘threats’ that include voice and accountability, political stability and rule of law, were weak or non-existent all across the region. The Minorities at Risk project also reports on conditions of minorities under severe threat. A long list of ethnic and religious groups from South Asia find mention in the project’s reports, all at risk of violence and violations of basic rights of minority groups.
Negative outcomes for minority groups in South Asia represent failures of national instruments for minority rights (constitutional guarantees of equality and non-discrimination among others) as well as of poor enforcement of international treaties and agreements, instruments that most South Asian nations are signatories to. Rule of law is flouted with regularity – there is only selective application of laws – and citizenship rights are not yet available fully equally to all, as minorities are often denied these, fully or partially. The issue at hand is ‘democracy deficit’ which calls for a new approach to delivering minority rights.
Beyond the weaknesses of minority rights’ protection and promotion regimes, common to states in South Asia, is another unique feature of minority rights in the region – its regional dimension. Many ethnic groups and communities are divided across national borders, themselves often artificial and arbitrary and mostly recently created, dividing long-established communities. Then there have also been significant intra-regional migrations historically. Some migration streams are on-going. These regional dynamics contribute to creating majorities and minorities, also contributing to a feature of the region where a majority community in one country could be a minority in another. This under-grids the issue of ‘reciprocity’ where the treatment of a minority in one country is contingent on how minorities are treated in another, or subject to bilateral relations between two countries. All these have implications for the condition of South Asia’s minorities and the rights available to them.
The regional dynamics of minorities in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh (given their common experience of the Partition in 1947 and the creation of Bangladesh in 1972) and how it affects respective minorities – Muslims in India, Hindus and Sikhs in Pakistan and Hindus and ‘Urdu speakers’ in Bangladesh – is well-known. A similar dynamic exists between India and Sri Lanka too impacting largely the Tamil minority in Sri Lanka; betweenIndia and Nepal, affecting Madhesis in Nepal and Nepalis in India; between Nepal and Bhutan, affecting Bhutan’s largest minority, Ngalungs; and finally between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Pashtun minority in Pakistan being the main one affected. Clearly minority rights in South Asia is also a trans-border issue.
And yet, there is no South Asia regional instrument for minority rights’ protection, though regional and sub-regional instruments are common elsewhere. The absence of an effective forum for peaceful dialogue on minority rights results in accusations and counter accusations between countries and lack of traction on redress leading to endemic violations of minority rights. There is also little systematic tracking and reporting at country and regional levels, of the state of minorities and the violation of their rights in the region.
There are also very few studies on minority rights – academic or scholarly – that either compare or at least use a regional lens. And civil society space for advocacy, region-wide, is limited. Together, this means that the opportunities for spurring public debate in the region on the subject are lost and there is little push on states to improve rights’ precepts and practices. Today the justifications for using a regional lens to look at minorities, even comparing and contrasting their conditions, is compelling.
Given the regional dynamic of minority rights violations in South Asia it is our contention that a regional, multilateral approach to constructing and entrenching minority rights’ safeguards might be better suited to protect minorities, than national or international approaches that are clearly failing. A regional lens shifts the nature of the debate from the ethnic/religious character of a group (and its implications for the group’s demands on the nation-state) to one of democratic rights and citizenship, equality and non-discrimination – something that all South Asian states claim to provide. And a regional agenda on minority rights (with its positive implications for addressing cross-border ‘reciprocity’) is also potentially less threatening for South Asian states than the human rights agenda which is seen by states in the region as a foreign western imposition.
There are other arguments too for a regional approach. Minority rights today are understood to be no longer the sole preserve of the nation-state. Regional and international instruments and mechanisms for minority rights along with human rights are now legitimate platforms for discussions and problem solving. In the context of South Asia’s minorities, with their strong regional dimensions, resorting to such a supra-national approach is all the more urgent. In any case, this is not the first time that national borders have been transcended in the region in finding solutions to minorities’ plight.
There is also much learning to be imbibed using a regional approach. The world over, regional mechanisms have been the principal pathways building on UN mechanisms for establishing and monitoring minority rights’ standards and practices – a good example being Europe. South Asia lacks such a mechanism.
The principal official platform in the region is the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), established in 1985 when seven South Asian nations signed the SAARC Charter. Afghanistan joined a little later. Commentators note that in its early years SAARC avoided any reference to ‘contentious’ issues – protection of human rights is not even mentioned in the SAARC Charter (Khan and Rahman, 1999:93).
The Minority Rights Group (2016c) notes:
- SAARC has not adopted any human rights convention or charter. It has not agreed to create any regional institution or mechanism to monitor adherence to, and implementation of, the various UN human rights conventions already signed by its member countries. Although member states have introduced ‘human rights’ into their official discourse in relation to the Charter, it has been limited to the right to development.
Overall, SAARC has established a number of conventions though none of them specifically mentions minorities or minority rights. Of the six conventions, two are directly related to suppression of terrorism, one is on narcotic drugs and another is on criminal matters. In 2002, two human rights instruments were included: promotion of child welfare and preventing and combating trafficking in women and children for prostitution. In 2004, the SAARC Social Charter was signed with 21 objectives. They mostly relate to cultural, social and economic issues; there are none on political or human rights although some have a bearing on minority rights. Notably, and reflective of SAARC’s effectiveness, there is little traction on implementation of even the current regional agreements (Khan and Rahman, 1999:93-94).
What of civil society efforts towards strengthening rights’ frameworks in the region? The first serious effort by civil society bodies from the region in this direction came with the organizing of the South Asian Forum for Human Rights (SAFHR) in Kathmandu in 1998. The conclave that had participants from all SAARC countries, urged states to:
- create an office of a special rapporteur for monitoring minority rights
- adopt a South Asian Charter for Human Rights
- establish a South Asian Human Rights Commission
- establish a forum for monitoring and preparing a people’s report on the status of the condition of minorities
These have remained mere wish lists. Little headway has been made by civil society groups to successfully lobby member states and SAARC to adopt these issues for official engagement and to implement the recommendations. Another notable attempt in this direction was the drafting of a Statement of Principles on Minority and Group Rights in South Asia by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES). In 2008, this was developed into the South Asian Charter on Minority and Group Rights. The charter, instead of formulating new norms for the protection of minority and group rights, built on existing instruments such as the SAARC Social Charter, ICCPR, ICESCR, CERD and CEDAW and adapted them to the specific con-text of South Asia. Yet again, in the absence of a set of binding instruments and implementation mechanisms, the charter has remained unfulfilled (Khan and Rahman, 1999: 95). Recently, there has been some movement in civil society circles to form a ‘People’s SAARC’ as a forum for regional civil society to engage SAARC and state parties, including on the issue of minority rights through its Working Group on Minority Rights. But the challenge of getting state parties to take notice is not new. In sum, no civil society effort has been able to make much traction with respective state parties or even SAARC towards taking on board minority rights as an issue for multilateral regional engagement, let alone crafting a regional instrument for minority rights. Getting states to agree to a set of good practices and grievance redressal procedures protecting minority and human rights has remained a pipe dream.
As a way around this problem and to build a people’s movement to advocate and push for a regional mechanism on minority rights, a group of civil society organizations made up of minority rights activists and researchers from across the region came together in 2015 on a platform – the South Asia State of Minorities Report Collective – to systematically document the condition of minorities in the region and use the report, planned to be produced periodically, as an advocacy tool for change. This trans-regional platform made up of research bodies and human rights and activist group working in the spirit of volunteerism seeks to push the agenda on minority rights in the region, to document and track performance, hold state parties to account and build local and regional advocacy and related capacity on the subject. The South Asia State of Minorities Report is the collective’s principal tool for advocacy. It is hoped that the periodic reports on the outcomes for minorities and the quality of state provisioning for them (that is locally led, well researched and grounded in facts using international benchmarks and sustained to build a body of evidence), will spur public debate on the subject in the region and create the conditions for state parties and SAARC to agree to give serious consideration to issues of minorities and how to deliver for them.
Minority Rights Group (2016a), Peoples under Threat, Data. Retrieved from http://peoplesunderthreat.org/data/.
Minority Rights Group (2016b), Peoples Under Threat, 2016. Retrieved from http://peoplesunderthreat.org/wp-content uploads/2013/10 Peoples-under-Threat-2016-briefing1.pdf.
Minority Rights Group (2016c), Human Rights and SAARC. Retrieved from https://www.minorityrightscourse.org/mod/page/view.php?id=1774.
Khan, Borhanudin and Muhammad Rahman (1999), Protection of Minorities: A South Asian Discourse. Dhaka: EurasiaNet.
Nepali, Rohit K. (2009), Democracy in South Asia. Sweden: International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA).
Panikkar, K.A. (2005), ‘Minorities in South Asia’, Keynote address delivered to the workshop on the Condition of Minorities in South Asia held in Delhi on 16-19 September. Retrieved from URL: http://www.sacw.net/DC/CommunalismCollection/ArticlesArchive/ knp15102005.html.
The World Bank (2009), Addressing inequality in South Asia. Washington DC: The World Bank.
US Commission on International Religious Freedom (2015), Annual Report, 2015. Washington DC: US Commission on International Religious Freedom.