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In recent months, claims that India is becoming more openly and violently intolerant towards religious minorities have hit the headlines. A spate of incidents surrounding the persecution of minorities by the Hindu majority has sparked a debate within the country about discrimination and lack of religious freedom. One could note that religious minorities have long suffered human rights abuses in India, that there is a lack of substantial data to support these new claims, and that the recent incidents may have been more widely reported because more people than ever in the country now have almost instantaneous access to information. Nevertheless, the issue of intolerance continues to dominate public discourse and there seems to be a tangible atmosphere of fear, mistrust and unease between the majority and minority communities.
Religious intolerance has been documented and condemned by human rights defenders and other observers around the world for a number of years. Human Rights Watch describes religion-based discrimination in India as ‘rampant’. The 2014 International Religious Freedom Report, published by the US Department of State, stated that India witnessed ‘religiously motivated killings, arrests, riots and coerced religious conversions and the police in some cases failed to respond effectively to communal violence’. Campaigners that advocate for the rights of minorities within the country have also been regularly targeted.
Following the emergence of Narendra Modi as a Hindu Nationalist Prime Minister, there has indeed been a continuation of this persecution against Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and other minorities within the country. However, what seemed to really trigger national discourse around the issue was the now infamous incident, on 28th September 2015, of a Muslim man who was killed by Hindu nationalists because he was rumoured to have eaten beef. Several other related incidents also occurred around this time, including the murder of a scholar who spoke out against idol worship. Government officials from the leading party, Bharatiya Janata (BJP), then caused outrage by not speaking out against, or even seeming to condone, these acts of violence. A senior minister also prompted a storm of criticism from liberals and minorities after suggesting that Muslims are second class citizens and should leave the country if they do not abide by Hindu customs. Since then, the debate has escalated in the public sphere, with prominent members of civil society speaking out against the government’s negative actions regarding freedom of religion and freedom of speech. More than 50 writers, film-makers, intellectuals, artists and scientists have returned prestigious national awards in protest of the ‘climate of intolerance’. The government has dismissed these protests, labelling them as purely politically motivated; this refusal to engage in constructive dialogue in turn is fuelling the argument that intolerance is on the increase and that the ruling party are to blame for this situation.
Of perhaps more concern to the government is the fact that business leaders have also added their voices to the debate, pointing out that widespread fear and mistrust harms economic development. Additionally, Moody Analytics released a report warning that doing nothing to stop, or seeming to condone the rising intolerance, will mean that the government risk losing domestic and global credibility. On 9th November, the BJP were trounced in the elections in Bihar state, which were seen as a mini-referendum on the government’s performance. Some commentators attributed this defeat in part to the dissatisfaction felt by many about the government’s treatment of the intolerance debate, as well as their campaign in Bihar; the BJP used polarising tactics that seemed aimed at dividing voters along religious and caste lines and the election commission banned several posters that they said could incite hatred. This result means that a weakened Modi may struggle to push economic reforms through parliament.
The risk that the government’s economic and development agenda will be side-lined or damaged by the intolerance issue could encourage Modi to take action to placate the public on this issue. He would do well to implement a number of the reforms regarding freedom of speech and religious expression recommended by various commissions, although action of this kind still remains unlikely. Failing this, at the very least, the Prime Minister could reassure the public by making more strong statements about the commitment to tolerance and acceptance by his government and by condemning any further religiously motivated incidents. However, the future action on and impact of this issue remains to be seen, as events unfold daily and the intolerance debate takes new turns.
Disclaimer: This blog is a space for discussion and personal reflection. Any opinions expressed within the blog are those of the author and are not necessarily held by HART. Individual authors are responsible for the accuracy of statements made within the blog.