India is a natural strategic partner of the U.S. Both countries share wide areas of mutual interests, ranging from counter-terrorism and resolving the Kashmir conflict, to bilateral trade and climate change.
Yet, despite these shared interests, the U.S. is too often silent on one of India’s greatest moral and political failures: a commitment to protect human rights. India has a poor human rights record, and has done little to redress widespread and systematic violations, especially in resource rich states and regions populated with religious and ethnic minorities.
Whether its mass graves in Kashmir, mass cremations in Punjab, razing villages in Chhattisgarh, or rampant torture, India has refused to confront and redress atrocities perpetrated by its security forces. In many cases, these crimes have been well documented by India’s own institutions and credible human rights organizations.
Just four years ago, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission uncovered nearly 3,000 bodies in numerous unmarked mass graves. The commission determined that many of the bodies belonged to local Kashmiri Muslims disappeared by India’s security forces. Human rights groups claim the actual number of those disappeared and unlawfully killed is thousands greater.
These mass graves mirror the pattern of mass cremations uncovered in Punjab, where security forces secretly cremated thousands of bodies to hide evidence of their crimes committed during the counter-insurgency operations in the 1980’s and 90’s. India’s Supreme Court later called these events “a flagrant violation of human rights on a mass scale”. As co-director and co-founder of Ensaaf (Justice), I conducted my own research and found that security forces also dumped bodies in waterways.
The sheer number of disappearances and extrajudicial executions in India is eclipsed only by the incidence of torture nationwide. According to an E.U. funded project by People’s Watch, which examined 9 of India’s 30 states, India’s security forces torture 1.8 million people every year.
Despite these high-level inquiries, a policy of impunity has prevailed. The architects of these crimes have been promoted, pardoned, or protected by law. And the few prosecutions or cases that have proceeded against perpetrators take decades to work their way through the courts and often stall or end in acquittal.
This impunity has led to widespread disenfranchisement across India. Perhaps unsurprisingly, nearly half of India’s states, including states such as Assam, Manipur, Nagaland, Kashmir, and Chhattisgarh, regularly experience anything from “civil unrest” to outright insurgency. The common denominator in these regions is human rights atrocities committed by the military, paramilitary, or police against minority communities, as well as abuses committed by non-state actors.
Whether it’s Muslims in Kashmir or Gujarat, Sikhs in Punjab, Christians in Tripura or Nagaland, or tribal or Dalit communities in Chhattisgarh, the aspiration of a tolerant, egalitarian India is undoubtedly petering away.
Many defend India’s poor human rights record by citing its youth. India is a young democracy, the thinking goes, and needs time to realize its human rights obligations. Others argue that economic rights are paramount in the world’s second most populous country, and it simply can't afford to dwell on its past.
These arguments are disingenuous. Unquestionably, India needs to drastically reduce poverty, malnutrition, and unemployment. Yet resolving these entrenched problems and redressing human rights abuses aren’t mutually exclusive.
Indeed, India recently invested over $1 billion in its space program, and is now the only country to successfully place a satellite on its first attempt into Mars’ orbit, a major technological achievement.
Where is the equal commitment to resolving the thousands of enforced disappearances afflicting many of India’s peripheral states? Even Bangladesh, a neighboring country that is significantly poorer and has suffered through genocide, found the political will and resources to investigate and prosecute its historic crimes. As India hurries to expand its global role and influence, it should show the same zeal and urgency for redressing its long-standing fundamental human rights violations.
India’s human rights abuses and impunity are problems that can be solved. The international community could offer vital assistance to India’s judiciary and investigating agencies to develop their capacity to redress gross human rights violations and fully implement the promise of its constitution and other laws designed to protect human rights. Any additional international resources and engagement should be linked to India achieving certain human rights benchmarks, similar to the requirements of the U.S.-Mexico Merida Initiative, where funding for security is conditioned on institutionalizing reforms to sustain the rule of law and respect for human rights.
Irrespective of the approach, current U.S. policy is indefensible. Ignoring India’s human rights abuses emboldens impunity and diminishes the prospects of truth, justice, and reparations for India’s victims.
As the sole democratic power in the region, India has an obligation to lead in all areas, not just those it finds expedient. It should start with enforcing human rights.
Dhami is a human right attorney based in New York City.