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ICC Note:

The US State Department’s human rights report on India includes sharp criticism of its handling of violence against religious minorities, as perpetrators go largely unpunished.

AsiaNews (03/13/06) – Violence and discrimination against minorities, threats to freedom of worship, corruption and abuse of power are some of the “serious and numerous” problems which India , the world’s biggest democracy, must tackle. This was charged by the annual, global, human rights report by the US State Department, published on 9 March. Indian activists interviewed by AsiaNews confirmed the prevalence of violations, highlighted progress made in two years of the Congress government, and pointed to challenges ahead in the human rights sphere.

The US report recognized that the “Indian government generally respects the rights of its citizens. But numerous serious problems” remained there, including “excessive use of force” in combating militancy in Jammu and Kashmir and insurgency in northeastern states. Other problems noted were: the handling of violence against religious minorities, which still occur with perpetrators going largely unpunished; corruption of police and local administration; the caste system, which justified all manner of abuse against the lower and vulnerable social categories; and finally, judicial proceedings influenced by threats to victims and witnesses by extremists, as happened in the case of the 2002 clashes in Gujarat.

Fr Cedric Prakash, Jesuit director of Prashant – a human rights, peace and justice centre in Gujarat – welcomed the American denunciation of abuses against religious minorities. Gujarat, in the west of India , is a notorious stronghold of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Hindu nationalist party now in opposition. The priest recalled a campaign to convert tribal Christians in Gujarat to Hinduism during the festival of Shabri Kumbh Mela in Dangs district (11-13 February) and the “poison” spread by Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of Gujarat, and by local religious leaders. Prakash mentioned these events to show how threats and intimidations against minorities continue. The Jesuit also called attention to the Muslim community: “The final chapter of the carnage of 2002 has yet to be written. Whilst there has been some headway with convictions and arrests, the fact remains that Muslims in Gujarat are still a marginalized community who are desperately struggling for justice.”

Prakash called on the central government to “take heed” of the US report and called on all states of the federation, especially Gujarat , to guarantee total security for minorities.

According to John Dayal, Catholic human rights activist, the government of the Congress party, in power since 2004, has done much for minorities, including Muslims: “Initiatives include the strengthening the national commission for minorities, a new commission for minority education institutions, a committee to investigate the economic status of Muslims.” At the same time, however, Dayal, who is president of the All India Catholic Union, charged: “Problems persist at local level in places where the BJP and its allies are in power. Here, the life of minority members remains a misery.” He referred, other than to Gujarat , to Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa.

Dayal continued: “The government has done much for Christians”, but not enough. “The support of local governments for the activities of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – paramilitary movement of Nationalist Hindus) against Christians must be checked and prevented, and equal rights for outcaste Christians must be ensured.”

Positive comments were also forthcoming from the Indian Bishops’ Conference (CBCI). The director of CBCI communications, Fr Joseph Babu, said he hoped the US report would act as an impetus to identify and tackle the country’s problems and improve its administrative and social system.