EU turns a blind eye to growing human rights concerns in India

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

A Hindu woman takes ritual bath in the river Ganga on April 23, 2011 in the holy city of Varanasi, India [Shutterstock]

A Hindu woman takes ritual bath in the river Ganga. Varanasi, 2011. [Shutterstock]

Founded with the vocation to bring peace and prosperity, the EU has a global responsibility to promote human rights. It should be fulfilling this responsibility beyond mere lip service, writes Sophia Kuby.

Sophia Kuby is Director of European Union advocacy for ADF International in Belgium, promoting religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family. 

On 30–31 March, the Prime Minister of India, Mr Narendra Modi, visited Brussels. His meetings with the presidents of the two most powerful European Union institutions, the European Commission and the European Council, had a clear objective: intensify cooperation in various areas and pave the way for an EU-India trade and investment agreement.

Enhanced cooperation and tighter economic relations between Europe and the second largest economy on the Asian continent undoubtedly make sense for both.

But what about the growing human rights concerns in India, where open discrimination against large parts of its citizenry and even religious persecution are on the rise since the Bharatiya Janata Party (the BJP) won the elections in 2014?

The EU is more than a common market. It is founded on a commitment to core values and fundamental human rights. The recognition of the equal dignity of each person, the guarantee of religious freedom, and the protection against arbitrary discrimination are the soil in which free and just societies can flourish.

Thanks to a highly developed political and diplomatic system, the EU has the capacity to put its money where its mouth is. Founded with the vocation to bring peace and prosperity, the EU has a global responsibility to promote human rights. It should be fulfilling this responsibility beyond mere lip service.

In India, a phenomenon is increasingly alarming human rights organizations. Under Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, religious persecution against minorities is escalating. The so-called ‘freedom of religion’ Acts, also known as anti-conversion laws, make it a criminal offense to change one’s religion from Hinduism to another faith or to no faith at all.

The Pew Research Center’s 2015 Religious Restrictions Report has found that India scores in the High category for government restrictions and in the Very High category for social hostilities— the highest category on the Pew scale. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom in its 2015 Annual Report placed India on its Tier 2 list of countries, meaning that violations of religious freedom that the government engages in or tolerates are serious and systematic.

This violence is driven by the Hindutva ideology that sees India as a Hindu nation in which religious minorities are second-class citizens. The ideology is espoused by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, to which the BJP is affiliated. To the increasing alarm of India’s religious minorities, top-level central and state government officials within the BJP have made controversial statements promoting Hindutva policies.

The Ministry of Culture and the Ministry of Human Resource Development have discussed preparing a new syllabus for schools and developing strategies to ensure that art, cinema and even science and technological institutes are ‘culturally cleansed’. Their stated purpose is ‘defending Indian culture from encroachment by western culture’ (The Wire, 17 September 2015).

Incidents of ideologically motivated violence are mounting.  The recent report “365 Days: Democracy and Secularism Under The Modi Regime”, published by ANHAD, a Delhi based non-profit organisation, noted that ‘at least 43 deaths in over 600 cases of violence, 194 targeting Christians and the rest Muslims, have taken place in between 26 May 2014 and 13 May 2015, marking almost one year of the National Development Alliance government of Mr Narendra Modi.’

Members of the Christian minority have been targeted in over 114 violent incidents across the country in the period of January-September 2015. The Christian community suffered physical attacks, killings, desecration of churches, and intimidation. In many cases, the local police refused to file an incident report. Christians are now routinely forbidden to worship and gather in their churches. The central government has failed to address the issue adequately.

Back to Brussels. Prime Minister Modi, Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, and Mr Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, agreed to an EU-India Agenda for Action-2020. Both sides ‘reaffirm commitment to the EU-India Human Rights Dialogue as a key tool to promote shared human rights values and forge mutual understanding within the Strategic Partnership’ and to ‘discuss Human Rights issues including cooperation in multilateral fora in the EU-India political dialogue’.

Furthermore, cooperation in ‘peace keeping’ and ‘peace building’ has been agreed. The Joint Statement on the EU-India Summit speaks of a strategic partnership ‘based on shared values and principles’, in which ‘both sides underscored the importance they attach to human rights cooperation’. Aside from the focus on economic collaboration, to effectively respond to violent extremism, terrorism and the radicalization of youth, India agreed to commit to an improvement of the political situation in the Ukraine, Africa, the Maledives, the Middle East, and Afghanistan.

And yet, the joint statement does not require India to effectively deal with violent extremism in its own backyard. There is no word on the blatant human rights violations against religious minorities. No word on the ongoing social exclusion and exploitation of the Scheduled Caste. Nine Members of the Foreign Affairs and Trade committees of the European Parliament, among them the vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Prof Ryszard Legutko, wrote a letter to Mr Juncker and Mr Tusk asking for these concerns to be addressed with Prime Minister Modi:

A willingness to turn a blind eye to these violations of fundamental rights in the name of a trade agreement is to become complicit in these actions. The European Union is built on a set of values among which the rule of law and human rights has a central place. The EU cannot condone these restrictions for the sake of advancing economic collaboration. Both—economic collaboration in the form of a trade agreement, and compliance with international human rights obligations—need to be advanced. For these reasons, we ask you to address these concerns with the Prime Minister of the Republic of India on the occasion of his visit.

Unfortunately, the EU leaders chose not to challenge Prime Minister Modi on this ground. They indeed chose to turn a blind eye, gambling Europe’s civilizing responsibility for dubious entente.

Subscribe to our newsletters