The foundation of the strategic partnership between India and the Western democracies against China is weakening as a result of mounting charges from the West about human rights violations in India.  

In the eyes of the West, India is fast ceasing to be a functioning democracy, making it increasingly hard to project it as a credible ideological alternative to China.

The US, UN and the West-based human rights organizations have been raising, with increasing concern, rights issues with India particularly since the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led coalition assumed power in 2014.

But these have been of no avail. In fact, under the current regime, New Delhi’s responses have not only been dismissive but disdainful. 

Clearly, this is not a recipe for constructing a solid India-West partnership in which the West’s aim is to project India as a functioning democracy in opposition to authoritarian China.

Some commentators dismiss this theory saying that the West is basically interested in propping up India as a military bulwark against China and that human rights are not really a serious consideration. But this is not correct given the fact that Western governments are ultimately answerable to the pro-democracy lobbies in their countries. It is the liberal press in the West which forced their governments, reluctant as they were for diplomatic reasons, to take up rights issues with India.  

Currently, India is under pressure from two quarters simultaneously, namely, from the Canadian government over the killing of a Sikh separatist Canadian in Canada, and the other from US and UN organizations charged with protecting religious freedom globally.


UN Special Rapporteur’s Charge

Even as the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of assassinating Canadian Sikh Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada, Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, publicly charged that human rights violations in India were “massive, systematic dangerous and deteriorating.”

In his opening remarks at a hearing on policy options for advancing religious freedom in India organised by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in Washington DC on September 20, De Varennes said: “India risks becoming one of the world’s main generators of instability, atrocities and violence, because of the massive scale and gravity of the violations and abuses targeting mainly religious and other minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and others.”

“It is not just individual or local, it is systematic and a reflection of religious nationalism. In the past decade there has been an alarming erosion of fundamental rights, particularly for religious and other minorities from the review of communications from 2011 to now.”

He further said that by 2022, almost all of the communications with the Indian government involved “grave allegations of denial of fundamental rights, particularly targeting religious minorities.”

From 12 May 2020 to 23 May 2023, there had been 46 communications and an estimated 20 press releases on violations.

The UN Special Rapporteur invoked the violence in Manipur several times in his speech, referring to the viral video of an incident on May 4, which showed a mob and two Kuki Christian women disrobed and marching on the road. They had also been beaten and raped.

He underlined the fact that there was “inaction from the authorities until this video caught the international attention.”

Manipur, he said, was “symptomatic of large-scale scapegoating and dehumanising of Muslims and religious ‘others’ that could lead to a slide towards horrific atrocities”.

He referred to a study which “noted a 786% increase in hate crimes against minorities between 2014 and 2018” in India.

There was also a mention of the discriminatory citizenship determination process in Assam and potentially other regions of the country “which could lead to millions being denied citizenship, especially Muslims.”

The revocation in August 2019 of Art 370 of the Indian constitution that had given “special status or autonomy of Jammu and Kashmir,” also figured in de Varennes’s speech.

With the Indian parliamentary elections scheduled for early 2024, “there are concerns that the targeting of minorities, and human rights defenders will worsen,” the UN Rapporteur added. 

He complained that the “Indian authorities have not taken any tangible steps to hold perpetrators of abuses against minorities to account.”

“The Indian authorities have not engaged constructively with criticism, boasting of democratic values and the rule of law. Some senior leaders have either remained silent or have indeed contributed, through their own rhetoric, to the hostile environment against religious minorities.”

The killing of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada allegedly by Indian agents, also came up at the hearing. Without going into the veracity of the charges, de Varennes said that “an important message to India was that a certain type of conduct is not acceptable.”

There was a discussion at the forum on the need for “international pressure” especially “government-to-government pressure” from the US and its allies to force the Modi government to “change certain policies.”

In a particularly stinging comparison, the UN Special Rapporteur said that Tajikistan “pales when we look at massive atrocities in India on the basis of religion.”

USCIRF’s Indictment   

In its 2022 Annual Report, USCIRF recommended that the US Department of State designate India as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC), for “engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations.”

At the Washington conclave on Wednesday, the USCIRF chairman, Abraham Cooper, alleged that Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Dalits and Adivasis are experiencing “increased levels of attacks and acts of intimidation” in India.

“The national government has continued to suppress minority voices and those advocating on their behalf through surveillance, harassment, demolition of property and detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. These trends and their implication for the US foreign policy should not be ignored,” Cooper said.

The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan US government advisory body created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). But its recommendations are not binding on the US government.

India’s Response

On May 2 this year, India rejected as “biased” and “motivated” a report by the USCIRF that alleged “severe violations” of religious freedom in the country.

“The USCIRF continues to regurgitate biased and motivated comments about India, this time in its 2023 annual report. We reject such misrepresentation of facts, which only serves to discredit USCIRF itself,” the Ministry of External Affairs had said.

“We would urge USCIRF to desist from such efforts and develop a better understanding of India, its plurality, its democratic ethos and its constitutional mechanisms,” it added.

Possible Consequences

The dissonance between India and the Western democracies is clear. The chances of harmony will recede in the months to come with the ruling BJP likely to assert its nationalistic credentials ever so loudly in the run-up to the State Assembly and parliamentary elections.

And the much-touted Indo-Pacific strategic alliance could be in tatters in the absence of an ideological commonality.

In addition, the killing of Nijjar would bring into play a new disruptive factor, namely, competitive nationalism. Anti-Canada and anti-West nationalism in India is likely to spawn anti-Indian nationalism in Canada first and then in the rest of the Western bloc.

Given the fact that its conflict with China shows no sign of abating, with the denial of visas to Indian sportsmen from Arunachal Pradesh being the most recent incident, India may find itself ploughing a lonely furrow in international affairs before long.