The South Asia Collective Online Bulletin #6 Home Page latest development The Impact of COVID-19 South Asia's International Commitments

In this section, our researchers in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka review major news developments between 1st February, 2021, and 30th June, 2021, that have impacted or have the potential to impact the lives of South Asia's minorities. The continuing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is explored separately here.

In Afghanistan, the ethnic Shia-Hazara minority faced multiple, major terrorist attacks. In Bangladesh, after a controversial visit by the Indian prime minister, Hindus faced heightened violence and targeting from far-right Islamists. In India, amidst a devastating second wave of the pandemic, the country's religious minorities —Muslims and Christians, particularly—faced a resurgence of communally motivated hate crimes and other forms of violence. Alongside, Indian states governed directly by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) saw the rolling out of several state measures likely to further exacerbate the social and political exclusion of minorities. In Nepal, as in India, 'lower-caste' Dalits faced further social discrimination, even as families of the victims of previous violations await justice. In Pakistan, the abduction and forced conversion of minority girls continued, as did the abuse of the country's draconian blasphemy law. In Sri Lanka, even as it was pulled up yet again by the UN Human Rights Council and the European Parliament for failing to provide justice for wartime human rights abuses, the government continued with its attempts at ethnic profiling and anti-minority discrimination.

Click the links below for more detailed reporting of major minority-related developments in each country.

During the period under review, Afghanistan’s marginalised ethnic Shia-Hazara minority community faced heightened targeting in the form of multiple major terrorist attacks.

Attacks on Shia-Hazaras:

  • On 8th May, 2021, at least 90 people were killed and nearly 250 more were wounded in a car bomb that targeted the Sayed-al Shuhada girls’ school in Dasht e Brachi area of Kabul city, where residents are mostly members of the Shia-Hazara ethnic minority group. The attack reportedly included three separate bombings: after the first bombing, students rushed out, and two more bombs were set off.

    On social media, the Taliban denied responsibility and condemned the attack. The Hazara are a mostly Shiite group in a country rampant with Sunni militants, and they have been frequent targets of Islamic State loyalists. The Hazara, too, are growing increasingly outraged at the violence against them and at the government’s inability to protect them.

    The Council of Shia Scholars - Shora e Olama e Shia-Afghanistan - have criticised the Afghanistan government’s lack of protective measure towards the Shia and Hazara communities in the country.

  • On 9th June, 2021, masked gunmen shot dead 10 mine clearers working for the Halo Trust in Afghanistan's northern province of Baghlan, and wounded more than a dozen. The Islamic State group (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack.

    The CEO of the Halo Trust told the BBC that the attackers had gone ‘bed to bed’ shooting the workers ‘in cold blood’ - but that the local Taliban had helped the deminers. He also revealed that the attackers had specifically targeted members of the Shia-Hazara ethnic minority group.

    In a video clip police in Baghlan shared with reporters, a survivor of the attack also said the gunmen had asked if any of them were from the Hazara minority community before opening fire.

Investigation into war crimes:

  • The Afghan government – faced with competing pressures from the International Criminal Court (ICC), the United States, the Taliban and Afghan civil society – continued to evade demands for an investigation into alleged war crimes committed during the Afghan war. Over a year ago, the ICC had authorised its chief prosecutor to investigate war crimes and crimes against humanity in the country, but that investigation has been delayed due to deferral requests on the part of the Afghan government, on the grounds that domestic courts were dealing with the allegations.

During the period under attack, Bangladesh’s vulnerable Hindu community came under heightened attack, after a controversial visit by the Indian prime minister. Bangladesh’s indigenous community too faced targeting from non-state and state actors.

Hindus:

  • In March 2021, Bangladesh witnessed political turmoil regarding a state visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which later turned into religious chaos targeted at the country’s Hindu community.

    On 26th and 27th March, Hefazat-e-Islam Bangladesh, a far-right Islamist advocacy group, violently clashed with security forces, leaving around 20 people dead and over a hundred injured. During the clashes, Hefazat members had created mayhem in Brahmanbaria district, destroying several government offices and institutions.

    On 28th March, around 200 Hefazat activists in Brahmanbaria attacked the Sree Sree Anandamayee Kali temple, where Hindu devotees were observing the Dol Purnima festival. The attackers destroyed the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses, and looted other valuables. On the same day, a Hindu cremation ground and an adjacent temple were set on fire in Magura district, in the Astogram area. The next day, a Hindu temple in Tengrakhali village in Dhunot upazila came under attack. A temple in Mymensingh district’s Bhabokhali village was vandalised the same week.

  • Earlier, on 17th March, following a Facebook post critical of a Hefazat leader, thousands of Hefazat supporters – led by a Union Council Member – had attacked and vandalised over 75 Hindu houses in Sunamganj’s Naogaon village. Looting was also reported. The day before the attack, locals had , in an attempt to avoid violence, handed over the youth who had written the Facebook post.

Indigenous Peoples:

  • On 30th May, members of the indigenous ethnic Khasi minority community too came under attack, with miscreants destroying the community’s betel leaf cultivation. The attack, in South Shahbazpur union of Moulvibazar’s Baralekha upazila, is reported to have caused damages to the tune of 700-800,000 taka ($8,200-$9,400). Around 48 indigenous Khasis live in the area where the attack took place.

    There have been allegations that the attack was carried out with the support of tea garden authorities who want to grab the Khasis’ land. Earlier, the Rehana tea garden authority had cut down several trees from the Kakrachara village under Kulaura upazila.

  • Members of another indigenous ethnic minority, the Mro community, were reported to be facing eviction in the Chimbuk Hill areas of Bandarban district due to the construction of a tourist spot including a five-star hotel. Local Mros claim that the initiative would result in the eviction of around 10,000 jhum cultivators, in addition to destroying their cremation ground.

During the period under review, even as India grappled with a devastating second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic (see section on Impact of COVID), its religious minorities – Muslims, Christians and Sikhs – faced a dangerous resurgence of communally motivated hate crimes, mob violence and other forms of targeting. Its caste and tribal minorities too faced violence, in addition to social and political exclusion. And despite facing increasing criticism on the international arena, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government continued unabated with its efforts to trample on freedoms and rights, particularly those concerning minorities.

Religious Minorities:

Muslims:

State Violence:

  • There were numerous instances of Muslims facing brute violence from state actors, mostly in BJP-ruled states:

    In UP, two Muslim men – a vegetable vendor and a meat seller – were reportedly beaten to death by policemen, in separate incidents in Unnao and Bulandshahr.

    A recent report revealed that UP accounts for almost half the complaints of police-led human rights violations filed with the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

    Deaths of Muslims due to alleged torture by police were also reported from Haryana’s Nuh (a 24-year-old man) and Panipat (a 55-year-old man) districts.

    Other instances of custodial torture of Muslims were reported from national capital Delhi, where a Muslim man who called a police helpline to report a fight in his neighbourhood was instead taken to a police station and brutally assaulted; and Karnataka’s Bhatkal district, where a Muslim family was tortured after a cow went missing.

    In Muslim-majority Kashmir, ruled directly by the national government, civilians continued to face the brunt of the consequences of the conflict, prompting five UN mandate holders to express concern over the ‘repressive measures and broader pattern of systematic infringements of fundamental rights’, highlighting several recent instances of enforced disappearance, extrajudicial killing, arbitrary detention and torture of Kashmiris by Indian armed forces.

    In West Bengal, during state legislative elections, five Muslim supporters of the Trinamool Congress (TMC) – the principal opponent of the BJP in the state - were shot dead outside poll booths by paramilitary forces that answer to the BJP-led national government, in two separate incidents that witnesses claim were unprovoked.

    India remains one of only a handful of nations yet to ratify the UN Convention Against Torture.

Laws and procedures targeting citizens:

  • India’s Muslims also continued to face other forms of targeting from the state.

    The government of UP, led by militant Hindu monk ‘Yogi’ Adityanath as chief minister, continued to be the worst offender.

    The newly passed anti-conversion ordinance to address the bogey of ‘love jihad’ – a debunked conspiracy theory that alleges a plot by Muslim men to seduce and convert Hindu women en masse to Islam – continued to be misused by police officials and Hindu nationalist hooligan groups working jointly to target consensual inter-faith couples, and to criminalise Muslim men. As of 29th June, a total of 128 people had been booked in the seven months since the ordinance came into effect. 76 arrests were also made. The UP ordinance had motivated BJP-led governments in several other states to enact similar laws. In Madhya Pradesh, in the first three months since the enactment of its own law, 25 arrests were recorded, of which 15 were Muslims and six were Christians.

    While the Indian constitution guarantees the right to freely profess, practice or propagate any religion, the UP government continued to treat religious conversions as a national security threat. Adityanath was recently reported to have directed the police to invoke the National Security Act (NSA) – a draconian law that provides for detention without bail or trial for up to a year – against anyone involved in conversion. In one such recent example, UP’s Anti-Terrorism Squad (ATS) arrested two Muslim preachers from New Delhi. The NSA is routinely abused in UP in cases not related to national security, particularly against Muslims. The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), India’s principal anti-terror law, is also regularly misused. Siddique Kappan, a Muslim journalist who was arrested and booked along with three others under the UAPA eight months ago while attempting to meet the family of an alleged Dalit rape and murder victim, was recently denied bail.

    The UP government also unveiled a draft legislation ostensibly targeted at population control. The legislation, in its present form, stipulates a two-child policy, denying those with more than two children access to government subsidies, government jobs, and the right to contest in local body elections. The draft law is inspired by similar measures recently rolled out in BJP-ruled Assam. The myth of uncontrolled population growth among Muslims has been repeatedly debunked but continues to be used by Hindu nationalists as a trope to ostracise Muslims.

    Also in UP, in Barabanki district, a 100-year-old mosque was demolished by authorities despite a court order prohibiting the action. Later, several local Muslims were reported to have faced threats, harassment and arrests from authorities for raising their voice against the demolition. Hindu nationalists in UP have recently stepped up their efforts to ‘reclaim‘ by destroying numerous mosques, which they claim are built atop the sites of ancient temples.

    In Adityanath’s home district of Gorakhpur, in eastern UP, eleven Muslim families were reportedly asked to vacate their homes close to the local temple, citing ‘security’ reasons, presumably the security threat they posed to the temple. Since 2014, Adityanath has also been the chief priest of the temple.

    Kashmir too continued to see systematic targeting of freedoms by state authorities using laws and procedures. The anti-terror UAPA has been much abused, including against minors. Among the dozens targeted was a 15-year-old boy who was arrested for allegedly raising ‘anti-national’ slogans at a funeral. According to government statistics, the number of UAPA cases in Jammu & Kashmir has increased from less than 60 cases annually till 2015 to 255 cases in 2019. Going beyond its territorial jurisdiction, the J&K Police has also registered cases against Kashmiris living abroad, several of whom have been arrested after being deported back to India.

    Some other recently reported instances of malicious prosecution and wrongful arbitrary detention of Kashmiris included a man who was released after two years after being detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) – a draconian ‘preventive detention’ law – for allegedly providing food to militants; a 9th-grade student who has released after over a year after being detained under the PSA; and a 25-year-old man who had been charged under the UAPA, the PSA and several other provisions and incarcerated for almost two years before eventually being released as an innocent.

    This is as moves continue apace, on the one hand to restrict freedoms of speech and expression, and on the other more closely to control public discourse. Authorities recently barred some 30 media organisations – presumably those critical of the government – from receiving state advertising, a major source of income for Indian media outlets. And they are using new measures to conduct background checks on public employees, ostensibly ‘in the interest of the security of the state’, including some resulting in summary dismissals. Reports have emerged of these mechanism being abused against anti-corruption whistle-blowers and those voicing concerns against rights violations. During the period under review, journalist Asif Sultan – a recipient of the American National Press Club’s Press Freedom Award – completed over a thousand days in prison.

    And Kashmiri fears over the long-term intent of Indian authorities for the region, seemed to be coming true. The recently enacted changes to land and residency laws in the state are creating the beginnings of what many see as authorities’ settler-colonial project. Reports are emerging of summary proceedings against local families, resulting in their eviction from lands they have resided on for generations, even as authorities continue to press for award of land title to defence establishments and non-indigenous subjects.

    In Lakshadweep, an archipelago of small islands governed directly as a Union Territory by the national government through an appointed administrator, draconian ‘reforms’ were unveiled despite the opposition of the local population. Over 96% of Lakshadweep’s 65,000 residents are Muslims. Among the announced ‘reforms’ are the closure of dairy farms and a ban on cow slaughter, a ban on non-vegetarian food from free midday meals at schools, and several town planning laws that could give the administrator the power to remove locals from areas earmarked for ‘development’. A local filmmaker who criticised the administrator was charged with sedition.

    In Karnataka, where a new anti-cow slaughter law was enacted in February 2021, 58 cases were registered against alleged offenders in 60 days. The new law allows police to make arrests without a warrant, and also provides immunity to vigilantes if they act in ‘good faith’. Similar laws have historically been abused to disproportionately target Muslims across the country.

    BJP bastion Gujarat continued to see the Disturbed Areas Act, a law introduced in the 1980s, being used to drive Muslims away from mixed-population areas. The law empowers district-level officials to notify areas as ‘disturbed’, ostensibly to prevent the distressed sale of property between religious groups in areas affected by communal violence and polarisation. In October 2020, the law was amended, empowering local authorities further to regulate such transfer. In January 2021, the state High Court temporarily barred the notification of more localities as ‘disturbed’.

    The federal home ministry empowered local authorities in 13 districts across five states to process and approve applications for citizenship from members of six minority communities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act – the ‘fundamentally discriminatory’ law that was enacted in December 2019 but is yet to come into effect – the home ministry order notably excludes Muslims from the list of accepted minority communities.

    Rohingya Muslim refugees across India too faced an organised state crackdown, with close to 300 being detained in just the month of March 2021. Of these, at least 71 were reportedly detained from near the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in New Delhi. In recent years, India has deported multiple batches of persecuted Rohingya back to Myanmar, violating non-refoulement, a fundamental principle of international law.

Attacks and incitement by non-state actors:

  • There was also a resurgence of anti-Muslim hate crimes and mob violence by non-state actors. Many of the perpetrators were linked to the BJP and its fellow members in the Hindu nationalist Sangh Parivar network led by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). During the period under review, Documentation of the Oppressed (DOTO), a hate crime database, recorded 36 instances of communally motivated targeting of Muslims. Of these, BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh (UP) state accounted for 50% (18) of the incidents. Nine instances of lynching of Muslims were reported, resulting in 11 deaths, compared to four such deaths in the preceding five months. Four of the nine reported lynching incidents were in UP.

    In Mewat district in BJP-ruled Haryana, a young Muslim fitness instructor was lynched to death by militant Hindu gangs linked to the BJP. Later, local Hindus led by BJP leaders organised several mass gatherings in support of the accused. A local leader who justified the murder while addressing one such gathering – reportedly attended by over 50,000 people – was appointed as an official spokesperson for the BJP’s state unit. As BJP spokesperson, he continued to make incendiary anti-Muslim hate speeches, in one instance accusing a Muslim Bollywood actor of ‘love jihad’, and in another proclaiming that Hindus could ‘pick them (Muslims) off one by one’ and ‘cut their throats’. As of the time of writing, he had faced no action, from the party or from the police.

    In the period under review, death by lynching of Muslims were also reported from Delhi (a 20-year-old man), Jammu & Kashmir’s Rajouri district (a 24-year-old buffalo trader), Jharkhand’s Ranchi district (a 27-year-old driver), Madhya Pradesh’s Shajapur district (a 60-year-old cook), Uttar Pradesh’s Mathura district (a 55-year-old cattle transporter), and Tripura’s Khowai district (three men, aged 18, 28 and 30).

    Places where other major instances of violent anti-Muslim hate crimes were reported, included Uttar Pradesh’s Bhojpur, Moradabad and Meerut districts, Karnataka’s Mangaluru district, Madhya Pradesh’s Jabalpur district, and Jammu & Kashmir’s (J&K) Jammu district.

    Communal violence between Hindus and Muslims was also reported from Telangana’s Bhainsa town. Local police revealed that most of the arrested were members of the Hindu Vahini, a radical Hindu outfit.

    In capital Delhi, the site of targeted violence in February 2020 that left 53 dead, tens of religious sites vandalised, and thousands displaced, and where law enforcement is under the purview the national government, the perpetrators of serious crimes remained free. Kapil Mishra, a senior BJP leader who had made a provocative speech that sparked off the violence, was recently reported to have raised a Hindu volunteer network that is ‘working in an organised fashion to create and spread communal hatred’ online. Mishra’s network has recently begun a hate campaign targeting Delhi’s Muslim street vendors. Yati Narsinghanand, a militant Hindu priest who had openly called for the genocide of Muslims in the lead-up to the violence, was in the news again for abusing Islam’s prophet Mohammad at a press conference in Delhi, and for publicly supporting a man who had violently assaulted a young Muslim boy for venturing inside the premises of a temple in search of drinking water.

  • Over 80 young Muslim women – including prominent journalists, researchers and activists, among others who have voiced their opinions on social media – found their photographs and personal details being put up for sale on an online app. The app, which is believed to be the work of right-wing Hindu nationalist trolls, had described the women as ‘deals’ up for claiming, and also invoked a derogatory slang term for Muslim women.

    Earlier, Hindu nationalists had similarly sexualised and abused several Pakistani and Indian Muslim women, livestreaming and ‘rating’ their photographs on YouTube. The owner of the YouTube channel remains a free man, and continues to be active on several social media platforms.

Christians:

  • India’s Christians too faced targeting from state and non-state actors.

    United Christian Forum (UCF), a network of advocacy groups that run a hate crime helpline number, documented 152 episodes of violence against Christians during the first half of 2021. According to UCF, only 23 (15%) of these incidents ended in a First Information Report (FIR) being filed by the police. A total of 863 women, 135 Dalits and 176 tribals were injured in these incidents. Chhattisgarh (22) and Jharkhand (22) states, which have tribal Christian populations, accounted for the highest number of violent incidents, followed by Karnataka (19) and UP (18). Only a handful of anti-Christian hate crimes get reported in the English news media, such as recent incidents from Tamil Nadu’s Salem district and Odisha’s Sikapai village.

    In Telangana, a Dalit Christian woman accused of theft was tortured and beaten to death inside a police station.

    BJP-ruled Gujarat, one of the nine Indian states that have enacted anti-conversion laws, enacted an amendment criminalising ‘forcible conversions by marriage’. Similar legislations in other states, most recently in Uttar Pradesh, have historically provided institutional backing for the persecution of Christians and Muslims. At least three more states, all ruled by the BJP, are reported to be in the process of drafting similar laws.

Caste minorities:

  • India’s historically oppressed ‘lower’ castes continued to face violence and other forms of social exclusion, with the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ) documenting 82 cases of anti-Dalit atrocities during the period under review. These included 11 murders and 5 instances of rape. This is almost certainly a gross undercount – the National Campaign for Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) estimates that 13 Dalits are murdered every week, and 3 Dalit women raped every day. Only a few get registered as formal police cases or receive media attention.
  • Instances of targeting of Dalits by state actors were reported from Karnataka, where a Dalit man alleged that he was tortured in police custody and forced to drink urine, and a village in Tamil Nadu, where three elderly Dalit men were allegedly forced to prostrate before members of the village council as punishment for not seeking ‘upper’ castes’ permission before organising a musical function.

Tribal Minorities:

  • In Chhattisgarh state, three tribal Adivasis protesting against the inauguration of a police camp were shot dead in Sukma district. A fourth person, a pregnant woman, died later due to injuries suffered during a stampede that followed the police firing. Adivasi-led protests against state atrocities and mining projects in Chhattisgarh, which is governed by the opposition Indian National Congress (INC), have since intensified.
  • Also in Chhattisgarh, in a move jointly condemned by six UN mandate holders, prominent human rights defender Hidme Markam was arrested and charged under the UAPA. Markam is known for her advocacy against the illegal detention of Adivasis and against large-scale mining projects.

Generalised attacks on freedoms:

  • Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Christian Jesuit priest and a prominent tribal rights activist, passed away while in custody. Swamy, an advanced Parkinson’s patient who also contracted COVID-19 while in custody, had had his bail pleas repeatedly denied even as his health deteriorated further. He died in a hospital, awaiting medical bail. Earlier, Swamy’s requests for a sipper and a straw – necessitated by his ailment, which left him unable to perform basic tasks – had been denied for weeks by jail authorities.

    Swamy was one of the 16 activists and intellectuals arrested charged under the UAPA in the Bhima-Koregaon case, which is acknowledged by international observers as yet another witch hunt by the Indian government against its critics. All but one of the others continued to remain in prison, with at least six contracting COVID-19. The medical bail granted to 81-year-old Varavara Rao is set to expire soon.

    The UN high commissioner for human rights, the UN special rapporteur on human rights defenders, the chief of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and the European Union (EU) special representative for human rights all issued statements condemning Swamy’s death, and the prolonged incarceration of other human rights defenders in India.

    Digital forensics reports have found that key evidence against at least some of the accused in the case was planted using malware over a period of four years. Other investigations have revealed that specialised spyware software sold only to governments has been used to remotely control the devices of the activists charged in the case.

  • Other human rights defenders who faced targeting during the period under review included Disha Ravi, a 21-year-old climate activist who was arrested and charged with sedition for her part in raising awareness online globally about the government’s controversial new farm laws; and Shiv Kumar and Nodeep Kaur, two Dalit labour rights activists who were arrested after they had protested on the ground against the same laws. Upon release, Kumar and Kaur both accused the police of torturing them. Kaur has also alleged sexual assault by policemen.

    Separately, the National Investigation Agency, India’s premier anti-terror agency, raided the homes and offices of dozens of human rights activists in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana for their alleged links to left-wing extremists. At least 64 people were charged with sedition and under the UAPA.

    Akhil Gogoi, an anti-CAA activist who was arrested in December 2019 and booked under the UAPA before being recently released, alleged that he was tortured in custody by NIA interrogators, who also allegedly offered him instant bail if he agreed to join the BJP and support the RSS.

  • The offices of NewsClick, an online news outlet that had extensively covered the farm protests, were raided multiple times by financial authorities, ostensibly in connection with a money laundering investigation.
  • The Indian government unveiled sweeping new regulations for social media ‘intermediaries’, digital news media outlets and streaming services, in a move digital rights activists warn is likely to encourage censorship and strengthen the state’s extensive surveillance apparatus. The UN special rapporteur on the right to free speech and expression has flagged several of the new regulations as being in violation of international human rights law.

    Separately, the Indian government also unveiled plans to raise ‘cyber crime volunteers’ to flag ‘unlawful’ content on the internet.

    Against this backdrop, social media giant Twitter and the government clashed on multiple occasions, with the government maintaining that Twitter’s delay in fully complying with the new regulations has resulted in it no longer enjoying liability protection in India.

    Days after Twitter flagged a tweet by a top BJP spokesperson as containing ‘manipulated media’, its offices in Delhi and Gurugram were visited by officers from a branch of Delhi Police that is tasked with investigating terrorism and organised crime. Twitter’s India chief was reportedly questioned later.

    In April, Twitter and other social media platforms were ordered to remove several posts critical of the government’s handling of the pandemic.

    In another case, relating to the propagation of an allegedly false news story about a communally motivated assault on an elderly Muslim man, several senior journalists were charged with inciting communal sentiments. Twitter India officials were summoned in connection with the same case.

    In June, cases were registered against Twitter India officials for depicting a map of the country without the disputed territory of Kashmir, and for allowing child pornography on the platform.

    Separately, Facebook-owned WhatsApp sued the Indian government over a contentious ‘traceability’ clause in the new regulations, which it maintains would nullify the end-to-end encryption feature it guarantees its users.

  • In yet another sign of the subversion of India’s domestic accountability mechanisms, a former judge who had publicly praised prime minister Narendra Modi as a ‘versatile genius’ was appointed the new chief of the National Human Rights Commission
  • Joining the chorus of international organisations that have been decrying rising authoritarianism and democratic backsliding in the country, Freedom House, the democracy research institute, downgraded India from ‘free’ to ‘partly free’. V-Dem Institute classified India as an ‘electoral autocracy‘. Reporters Without Borders, the press freedom watchdog, added PM Modi to its list of ‘predators of press freedom’. Other international organisations that condemned the Indian government and its systematic targeting of minorities included Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

    Additionally, the British Parliament debated freedom and human rights concerns in India, concerns that were also flagged by the US State Department in its annual human rights report.

Nepal went into a complete lockdown again on April 29, 2021, owing to an escalation of cases of COVID-19. The escalation largely spilled over from the pandemic in India due to open cross-border movement and was fanned by the delayed and inadequate response of the government in containing it. Making matters worse, the country has been able to vaccinate only about 5.6 per cent of its population with at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine due to a shortage of vaccines, and overall complications in purchasing them. (see section on Impact of COVID-19)

During this crisis, the government has been busy in political bickering, while many minorities such as Dalits, and sexual and gender minorities remain targeted and discriminated against. Dalits continue to be denied justice from atrocities against them, and LGBTIQA+ individuals and women continue to be victims of violence by individuals, groups, and the state.

Dalits:

  • May 2021 marked a year since a 21-year-old Dalit boy and his friends were killed in Jajarkot by a large gathering of mostly ‘upper-caste’ villagers, including local elected officials, all because the boy planned to marry an ‘upper-caste’ girl of the village. A year later now, the case is still under trial with 11 of the 34 accused out on bail. The families of the victims have received monetary compensation from the government, but there is still uncertainty as to when, if ever, the perpetrators will be brought to justice.
  • Even though the legislation on Caste-Based Discrimination and Untouchability enacted in 2011 criminalises discrimination and untouchability with provisions for imprisonment for up to three years, its implementation remains weak. Reports of ‘upper-caste’ individuals sprinkling ‘pure’ water where Dalits have walked, and refusing them access to water sprouts and temples are still common in 2021. Advocates argue that the punitive action under law against discrimination are not adequate enough to discourage such acts. For instance, according to the latest data available, in the year 2018-19, only 63 cases related to caste-based discrimination and untouchability were lodged nationwide. Of these, from the 45 lodged at the district courts, the accused were convicted in only 21 cases, of 17 in High Court, only three were convicted, and the Supreme Court overturned the only case that reached it that year.
  • In March 2021, around 400 people from the Badi community, a Dalit group, staged a sit-in in front of the Provincial Chief Minister’s Office in Karnali Province, demanding land for housing and cultivation. This was in response to the severely overdue commitment of the Nepal government from 2009 to provide land and income-generating skills to Badis, which has yet to see fruition more than a decade later. The National Dalit Network Nepal expressed solidarity with the sit-in, urging concerned authorities to address their demands. The Badi community ended their sit-in after three weeks after the provincial government of Karnali pledged to address their demands with a five-point agreement that committed to provide land as well as grants for income-generating skills.
  • In June 2021, in a case that has rattled the capital city, the Kathmandu police detained a landlord of Newar ethnic group for refusing to let out rooms after the caste of the would-be tenant was revealed as Dalit. The latter subsequently filed a case against the landlord. Despite an audio recording of a phone call becoming public, in which the landlord admits that the tenant’s caste was a factor in the refusal, the case has divided people who either (i) believe it to be the right of the landlord to let rooms to anyone based on their discretion, or (ii) believe that the landlord has discriminated against the would-be tenant based on her caste. After three days of detention, the landlord was released. Disturbingly, some individuals also took to social media to condemn the would-be tenant as causing communal disturbance or as framing a simple incident unnecessarily into a narrative of caste-based discrimination, while a few ‘upper castes’ went as far as to claim that they are the ones who are discriminated against due to the system of reservations for marginalised communities.

LGBTIQA+:

  • The LGBTIQA+ community of Nepal has been expressing dissatisfaction with the decision by the Central Bureau of Statistics to add the option of ‘Other’ beyond the two genders (male and female) as a means to include the LGBTIQA+ population in the 2021 census. Activists state that this means the diverse LGBTIQA+ population will be grouped in just one category, taking away their right to self-determine their gender identity and sexual orientation.
  • On 31st March, 2021, the International Transgender Day of Visibility, a newspaper noted the events related to the transgender population of Nepal in 2020-21. It argued that the living realities of how transgender people are treated in the country is dismal—from not getting their right to get citizenship as per one’s choosing of gender identity to the constant harassment and abuses that one has to face on a daily basis.

Women:

  • In June, a 65-year-old woman of Rautahat district, in Southern Nepal, was beaten by a group of locals on the charge of being involved in witchcraft. The woman was seriously injured in the attack and is currently undergoing treatment.

Indigenous groups:

  • The government and the Tharuhat/ Tharuwan Joint Struggle Committee signed a six-point agreement on June 1. The agreements include the withdrawal of all cases against Tharu leaders who were involved in the 2015 Tikapur incident in which nine people were killed. The government also agreed to provide relief to the families of those killed during the Tharuhat movement, look after them, and bear expenses of the treatment of injured. An important agreement was also to provide education up to primary level in the mother tongue in Tharu-speaking areas and reserve quotas for Tharus at all levels of the state machinery.

Citizenship ordinance:

  • On 23rd May, the President Bidhya Devi Bhandari issued an ordinance to amend the Nepali Citizenship Act that would allow children of citizens by birth and children of Nepali mothers whose father cannot be traced to obtain Nepali citizenship. This news was welcomed since even though there were clear provisions in the 2015 constitution, the children of Nepali citizens who received citizenship by birth had not been getting citizenship because the Citizenship Act had not been amended as per these provisions. This meant that such individuals had been prevented from simple acts like getting admission to college, opening up bank accounts, obtaining a driver’s licence, etc. However, on June 10, the Supreme Court issued an interim order to not implement the ordinance, claiming that if the federal parliament fails to pass the ordinance, there will be legal complications over the citizenship certificate distributed as per the ordinance. This means that the lives of the individuals continue to remain in limbo.

During the period under review, Pakistan continued to report instances of minority girls being abducted and forcibly converted. Its draconian blasphemy law continued to be abused to settle personal scores against members of minority communities. And countrywide protests led by far-right Islamist parties resulted in several deaths and hundreds of injuries.

Religious Minorities:

  • In February 2021, the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony turned down a private bill concerning the protection of minority rights, claiming that Pakistan’s minorities already had total religious freedom. The bill, titled the Protection of Religious Minorities Bill, was introduced by Javed Abbasi, a senator with the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). At a committee hearing, Senator Maulana Abdul Ghafoor Haideri of the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), the Deputy Chairman of the Senate, remarked that Pakistan’s extant laws already provide unparalleled religious freedom to minorities, and that the suggestions in the bill were already contained in those laws.

    This indicates the ever-present legislative bias against civil society organizations working to alleviate the discrimination faced by the wide range of vulnerable communities within Pakistan.

Hindus:

  • In March 2021, a 13-year-old Hindu girl was allegedly kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and then married off to her abductor in the Kashmore district of Pakistan's Sindh province.

    After the family filed a First Information Report (FIR) with the police, the teen was produced in court, where she reportedly claimed that she is above the age of 18 and that she had married against her parents’ wishes. She also asked the court for protection. Notwithstanding her claims, the police have filed a case under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, which deems marriages between adults and minors illegal and punishable by up to three years.

    This makes the gaping lack of legal criminalisation of forced conversions obvious, since the only way to challenge this abduction, and to counter the typical psychological coercion by the kidnappers was through a law against child marriages.

    The forced abduction and conversion of Pakistan’s girls is a phenomenon that continues to plague the country, with some reports estimating that around 1,000 such incidents take place every year.

  • In May 2021, a Hindu Dalit cobbler who had been abducted and assaulted was rescued by policemen in Sindh’s Ghotki district. A video appeal from the man, made public by the abductors, had gone viral on social media. In the video, he had pleaded for payment of five million rupees as ransom.

Christians:

  • In April 2021, in yet another example of Pakistan’s blasphemy law being abused for personal reasons, two Christian nurses in Faisalabad city in Punjab were accused of blasphemy by their head nurse. The accused were reportedly asked by the head nurse to clean her cupboard, when one of them inadvertently removed an adhesive sticker containing an Islamic devotional phrase. Later, when the head nurse made the accusation of blasphemy, one of the accused was also violently attacked by a hospital staff member. A commission of enquiry set up by the health inspector found both the accused to be guilty, and the case was then handed over to the police.

    In another instance of Pakistan’s Christian nurses being targeted, a video that was widely circulated on social media showed a group of Muslim nurses barging into a church inside a hospital in Lahore and threatening the Christian nurses assembled there with blasphemy cases unless they converted to Islam. The Muslim nurses also reportedly demanded that the hospital administration sack all non-Muslim employees. The dispute, which lasted for almost two weeks, was eventually settled after a 15-member mediation team was appointed.

Rising influence of far-right majoritarian parties

  • Pakistan witnessed major, countrywide protests after security forces detained Saad Hussain Rizvi, the chief of the now-proscribed Tehreek-i-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a far-right Islamist party. Rizvi’s detention, on 12th April, was a ‘pre-emptive measure’ ahead of a deadline he had set for the Pakistan government to expel the French ambassador.

    After the beheading of a French school teacher who had displayed obscene cartoons of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) to his students, the French president’s defence of the right to display such cartoons had infuriated many Muslims across the world, and had resulted in countrywide protests in Pakistan, calling for the boycott of French products and the expulsion of France’s envoy to the country. Pakistan’s prime minister Imran Khan too had condemned the French president’s remarks, and accused him of attacking Islam.

    On 13th and 14th April, at least one police official was killed and around 40 others injured in violent clashes in Lahore, during which security forces were reported to have used tear gas shells and rubber bullets. Hundreds more were reported injured in Rawalpindi.

    On 16th April, access to social media platforms was temporarily blocked, in a move that several civil society actors said was unconstitutional and dangerous, given the lack of mainstream reporting of the violence used against and against the TLP.

    On 18th April, a spokesman for Lahore police alleged that TLP workers ‘brutally tortured’ a senior police official and took him hostage along with four others. The TLP alleged that at least three of its men were killed and several others injured.

    As the Pakistan government began negotiations with the TLP on 19th April, PM Khan made a problematic public address, remarking that the only difference between the TLP and the government were their chosen methods.

    The TLP-led protests were finally called off on 20th April, and a National Assembly session was convened with the government presenting a resolution on the expulsion of the French ambassador.

During the period under review, after sustained peaceful protests from civil society, the Sri Lankan government reversed its earlier decision to mandatorily cremate all COVID-19 victims, including Muslims whose faith prohibits the practice. Later, members of the Tamil and Muslim communities came together for a mass protest rally to jointly demand redress from government measures and actions that disproportionately target minorities. Regardless, the Sri Lankan government continued with its attempts at ethnic profiling and anti-minority discrimination. Meanwhile, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) passed a resolution expressing concern over the ‘deteriorating’ human rights situation and giving the UN human rights commissioner the mandate to investigate wartime human rights abuses in the country. The European Parliament too adopted a parliament voicing concern over the Sri Lankan government’s failure to enact human rights reform.

Religious and ethnic minorities:

  • The Sri Lankan government reversed the government gazette that had made cremations mandatory for victims of COVID-19, a practice that impacted the Muslim community, whose faith prohibits cremations.

    Civil society resistance to the practice through peaceful protests and campaigns were detailed in our previous bulletins.

    In early December 2020, State Minister of Health Dr. Sudarshani Fernandopulle raised in Parliament that COVID could not spread from groundwater. This was an important landmark as those who advocated for cremations did so, among other reasons, saying the corpses would impact the groundwater table. Shortly after, President Mahinda Rajapaksa made a statement in Parliament that cremations would be halted and burials allowed in the future. 24 hours later, health authorities claimed they had not heard of any such claims and that cremations would continue.

    On the 25th of February, a Gazette was issued, reversing the one that made cremations mandatory. The language changed from ‘cremation’ to ‘cremation or burial’.

    Burials began at Oddamavadi, between Welikanda and Batticaloa in Eastern Sri Lanka, on March 7th. It was coordinated by the local administration offices. Current protocol allows family members of COVID-19 victims to travel to the burial ground along with the body.

  • Timed to coincide with Independence Day celebrations in Sri Lanka’s capital, the P2P rally took place from 3rd to 7th of February. The name P2P comes from the route of the march – from Pottuvil in the Eastern Province to Polikandy in the Northern Province, indicating the boundaries of the proposed ‘Tamil homeland’ espoused by Tamil nationalist parties. The rally was intended to draw attention to several key demands that were central to rights for the Tamil, Malaiyaha Tamil and Muslim communities.

    Right at the outset, police were found taking out injunction orders to stop journalists and other individuals from attending the rally. During the rally too, protestors faced several forms of intimidation from law enforcement and security forces. Vehicle routes were obstructed and members of the security forces were seen photographing participants along the route of the march. Speaking a few days after the rally, Minister of Public Security Sarath Weerasekara – a retired military admiral – noted that those who had participated would be arrested and have their property confiscated, and that this would be made possible by the surveillance that had been carried out by photographing the event.

    After the rally, seven participants – among whom were two Members of Parliament – were issued summons and called in for questioning from the Police. Regional journalists also noted that arrests were made of people who had attended the rally. Harassment of those who participated in the rally continues.

    Many participants and commentators noted that the rally that saw Tamils and Muslims come together in this resistance was a turning point for the relationship between both communities. Academics who are also engaged in these political spaces did have some critique on the extent of how intersectional the protest was, and the need for a more sustainable solidarity.

  • Regulations to rehabilitate those arrested in connection with extremist activities were issued by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa through the Ministry of Defence, under the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA). In the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks, these regulations are another avenue the Government is using to, as it terms the work, ‘crack down on extremism’ and focusing specifically on Islamist extremism.

    The Gazette mentions that those arrested will be sent to ‘reintegration centres for the purpose of rehabilitation’ with the approval of the Commissioner General of Rehabilitation. Calls for the repeal of the PTA go back decades, because of its broad nature of offenses and its misuse by the state to curb dissent and freedom of expression.

    Commentators have noted that the Gazette replicates regulations set forward in 2011 for the rehabilitation of alleged former combatants of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE); an ‘arrest first and ask questions later’ policy that enables arbitrary arrest & detention. Powers are vested with the Minister of Defense, including on whether or not to extend rehab. Given the broad nature of the offense of ‘deradicalisation’, the experiences with the PTA and the combatants’ experiences in rehabilitation, lawyers state that the regulations are ‘another weapon of the government’s anti-people arsenal for ethnic profiling and discriminating minorities on the basis of political opinion, race, ethnicity, language and religion.’

    Research has shown and lawyers have noted that the crackdown after 2019 has seen many Muslims being arrested on baseless suspicions, with many awaiting charge or trial, similarly to how the PTA was used to target Tamils during and after the war. A Fundamental Rights petition has been filed in the Supreme Court citing the arbitrary nature of the regulations. Recent reports noted that Muslim scholars would be a part of the de-radicalisation process and a ‘roadmap’ had been developed with consultation.

  • Hejaaz Hizbullah, a prominent Muslim human rights lawyer and poet who had been arrested in April 2020 for alleged involvement in the Easter Sunday bombings, was charged in March 2021, including on the vague charge of ‘inciting communal disharmony’ under the PTA. He remains in detention one year after his arrest. The details of charges against him are still unclear. No evidence of his involvement in the bombings has been provided by the police, and the Attorney General has stated that the entire charge against him is based on the words of a single child who he allegedly ‘radicalised’ – the child’s confession too is under scrutiny.

    Ahnaf Jazeem, a 26-year-old Sri Lankan poet and teacher, has been detained by the Sri Lankan authorities since 16 May 2020. also under the PTA. He was arrested without charges or any credible evidence being presented to a court. In the year since, he has been denied fair trial, due process, and restricted access to legal counsel, all the while being detained in squalid conditions that have caused him injuries and illnesses. There are allegations that the authorities have attempted to coerce him to make false confessions while under interrogation. The content of ‘Navarasam’, the book of poems published in 2017 for which Jazeem was arrested, is far from sympathising with radical Islamist ideas, as he unambiguously condemns religious extremism, specifically the ‘ISIS’ cruelty’ in the collection that touches upon themes ranging from war and peace, to women’s attires and patience. Tamil scholars have said they found no extremist views in his verses.

    Jazeem’s lawyers filed a Fundamental Rights petition in the Supreme Court in April.

  • On 18th May, Tamils in Sri Lanka and in the diaspora mark the Mullivaikkal remembrance day, mourning the deaths of those killed in the last stages of the war. This commemoration has regularly come under obstruction from the state – either through outright bans, or military intimidation and surveillance.

    This year, there was a ban placed on 27 individuals from attending or organising memorials on that day, including 2 Members of Parliament. Shortly after, courts allowed the Mullivaikkal commemorations to take place under strict health guidelines.

    At night on 18th May, news broke that the three Police divisions surrounding and including Mullivaikkal where the commemoration takes place were placed under isolation. Given the state’s crackdown on commemoration and protest by Tamils in the North and East, many assumed that this was done to obstruct the memorials the next day. Regional journalists reported that an outbreak of COVID in an apparel factory in Puthukudiyiruppu was the reason for the isolation order.

    Tributes took place at private homes with some MPs carrying out small-scale public commemorations at locations in the area. However, reports emerged of police issuing restraining orders against individuals who were commemorating the dead within their homes, on the grounds that they were mourning the LTTE. Close to the Jaffna university, there were reports of the police interrogating and harassing students who visited the Mullivakkal memorial within the premises, and asking journalists photographing the area to delete their images.

Indigenous Minorities:

  • In a move that impacted the minority indigenous Veddha community, about 6,000 acres of forest land in the lower Uva Province, including the catchment area of Rambakan Oya, was supposedly allocated by the Director General of Mahaweli Authority (tasked with irrigation development) for maize cultivation by several companies. Land acquisition companies and private entrepreneurs are preparing lands for cultivation in the Rambakan Oya Reserve and Nuwaragala Reserve areas. This would require the deforestation of about 3,000 acres of land, including within the natural reserve. The Environment Ministry has said that it would look into the deforestation. Though marked by the Mahaweli Authority as allegedly ‘underutilised’ land, the Rambakan Oya area is the generational home of Sri Lanka’s minority indigenous Veddha community. Continued deforestation leads to the acquisition of farmlands of these communities, among other residents of the area.

    In February this year, the Veddha chief Uruwarige Wannila Aththo filed a petition seeking an interim order staying the validity of approvals granted for the proposed deforestation and development. In May, the case was fixed for support and will be heard in June this year.

International Condemnations:

  • In February, the Sri Lankan government had urged the United Nations Human Rights Council to reject the forthcoming resolution in its April Geneva sessions. The resolution voiced ‘serious concern’ over the “deteriorating” rights situation in the country. Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena asked the council if the resolution was politically motivated, and stated that the country had been subject to an intense propaganda campaign.

    In April however, the resolution passed and was adopted by the Council, giving the Human Rights Commissioner a mandate to carry out investigations into wartime human rights abuses in Sri Lanka.

    The Foreign Minister and Sri Lanka’s UN Envoy have rejected the text of the resolution. Gunewardena said the resolution lacked authority as the nations that had voted in favour were outnumbered by those that had voted against it or had abstained.

  • The European Union (EU) Parliament too adopted a resolution calling on the EU Commission to consider a temporary withdrawal of Sri Lanka’s GSP+ status and benefits. The resolution cited the Government’s persistent failure to enact human rights reform and repeal the PTA as reasons for the resolution. The Government has responded to this claiming that the withdrawal has no relation to matters of labour, and that the resolution amounts to ‘holding the elected government to ransom

Cover image credits: Mariam Zuhaib/AP (Kabul) | A.M. Ahad/AP (Dhaka) | Danish Siddiqui/Reuters (New Delhi)
The contents of this Online Bulletin are the sole responsibility of The South Asia Collective and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union or Norad.
Subscribe to our mailing list

The South Asia Collective
thesouthasiacollective.org | sac@thesouthasiacollective.org