NEW DELHI, Feb 4: A UN report has slammed the pervasive climate of fear and intolerance perpetuated by religious mobs in many parts of India, and asked the government to provide effective protection to the minorities of whom Christians and Muslims in particular were vulnerable, often helpless and increasingly ghettoised.

“Even though a comprehensive legal framework to protect freedom of religion or belief does exist, many of (the) interlocutors, especially from religious minorities, remain dissatisfied with its implementation,” a report on India by Ms Asma Jahangir, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion and belief, said. A copy of the UN document was made available to Dawn on Wednesday.

“Organised groups claiming roots in religious ideologies have unleashed an all-pervasive fear of mob violence in many parts of the country,” Ms Jahangir said. “Law enforcement machinery is often reluctant to take any action against individuals or groups that perpetrate 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.”

She encouraged specific legislation to prevent communal violence but cautioned that it should take into account the concerns of religious minorities so as not to reinforce “impunity of communalised police forces at the state level”.

Religious conversion

The laws and bills on religious conversion in several Indian states should be reconsidered since they raise serious human rights concerns, the report said. It focussed on religious discrimination applied in the way affirmative action was offered to the lowest castes.

“The eligibility for affirmative action benefits should be restored to those members of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes who have converted to another religion,” the report recommended. Christian and Muslim Dalits are denied benefits of affirmative action given to Hindu Dalits.

Ms Jahangir travelled in March last year to Amritsar, Delhi, Jammu, Srinagar, Ahmedabad, Mumbai, Thiruvananthapuram, Bhubaneswar and Lucknow where she met representatives of various religious or belief communities, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Humanists, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs and Zoroastrians.

“The Special Rapporteur was impressed by the vigour with which many members of civil society organisations and artists, particularly by those affiliated with the film industry, are challenging discrimination based on religion or belief and are proposing concrete means how to overcome religious intolerance,” the report said.

Ms Jahangir condemned the killing of Christians and the widespread destruction of their churches in Orissa. “By the end of September 2008, more than 40 people had allegedly been killed in Orissa, over 4,000 Christian homes destroyed and around 50 churches demolished. Around 20,000 people were living in relief camps and more than 40,000 people hiding in forests and others places.

The Special Rapporteur was profoundly alarmed by the humanitarian situation in relief camps where access to food, safe drinking water, medical care, proper sanitary arrangements and adequate clothing were reportedly lacking.

Many Muslims were disturbed that terrorism was associated with their religion despite various public statements from Muslim leadership denouncing terrorism.

“There have been complaints about a continuing bias among security forces against Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir who also seem to face difficulties with regard to the issuance of passports and security clearances for employment purposes,” the report pointed out.

Cross-border terror

However, a large number of her interlocutors, including Muslims, expressed concerns about continued radicalisation and cross-border terrorism. They lamented that the radicalisation of certain Muslims had an adverse impact on the entire community because communal relations hardened after every act of terrorism carried out by a militant group of Muslims. She expressed serious concern at the extended timeframe of investigations in cases involving communal riots, violence and massacres such as those which occurred after “Operation Blue Star” in 1984, after the destruction of Babri Masjid in 1992 and after the Godhra train burning incident in 2002. “All of these incidents continue to haunt the people affected by them and the system of impunity emboldens forces of intolerance.”

Of the Gujarat violence in 2002, she said, there were credible reports that inaction by the authorities was evident. Most of the Special Rapporteur’s interlocutors, including politicians, alleged complicity by the state government.

While discussing the events with victims, the Special Rapporteur could see their continuing fear which was exacerbated by the distress that justice continues to evade most victims and survivors. A large number of criminal cases relating to the communal violence in 2002 remain un-investigated or have been closed by the Gujarat police and the plight of those internally displaced from their home continues.

“In addition, there is increasing ghettoisation and isolation of Muslims in certain areas of Gujarat, for example in one part of Ahmedabad which is colloquially called ‘little Pakistan’. The assertion of the state government that development by itself will heal the wounds does not seem to be realistic.”

According to the norm, the report was given to the Indian government, which has not commented on its findings.

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