Asma Jahangir’s report should nudge us to live as mature neighbours
By Jawed Naqvi
Monday, 09 Feb, 2009 | 09:04 AM PST |
PAKISTAN’S human rights star Asma Jahangir visited India to compile a fairly damning report on the state of religious freedoms and beliefs in the country. That she was invited by the Indian government to travel to the various hot spots and meet officials concerned and victims of bigotry across the country, including the sensitive state of Jammu and Kashmir, speaks for New Delhi’s maturity in giving her free access. It must have taken something for it to accept a Pakistani as the UN’s rapporteur on religious freedoms and beliefs in India. Moreover, it shows Ms Jahangir’s standing as a fighter for rights not just for Pakistanis but also for victims anywhere.
Ms Jahangir was given unhindered access to carry out her duties when she visited India in March last year for more than two weeks. She had a few problems in Gujarat though. Policemen and plainclothes sleuths tailed her, which violated the terms and conditions of the visit, and put her interlocutors at grave risk. She has said so in the report. On the other hand, she was slandered by others for meeting Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi during her trip. Newspapers in Pakistan described it as a sell-out when Mr Modi cleverly used an official meeting with her to project his communal politics as sanctified by the UN envoy. Noting could be more bereft of truth.
During her mission she spoke with representatives of various religious or belief communities, including Baha’is, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, Humanists, Jains, Muslims, Sikhs and Zoroastrians. I strongly feel that she should have met Qadiani representatives, since they are frequently subjected to physical attacks and calumny by India’s Muslim extremists, a situation not too different from Pakistan.
Of special interest to Ms Jahangir’s survey was the fact that an number of Indian states had adopted specific laws, which seek to govern religious conversion and renunciation. Five states ruled by the Hindu revivalist Bharatiya Janata Party have passed and implemented the so-called Freedom of Religion Acts (Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh).
For the big picture, the report, made public last week, focuses on five keys issues: the situation of religious or belief minorities, justice for victims and survivors of communal violence, freedom of religion or belief in Jammu and Kashmir and the negative impact of laws on religious conversion in several states; and implications of religion-based personal laws.
Before and during her mission, Ms Jahangir received numerous reports of attacks on religious minorities and their places of worship as well as of discrimination against what she has called the disempowered sections of the Hindu community. For those who think recent examples of street fascism in the southern state of Karnataka is a new phenomenon, the UN report should dispel this fantasy. “Organised groups claiming adherence to religious ideologies have unleashed an all-pervasive fear of mob violence,” Ms Jahangir noted way back in March. “Furthermore, concerns have been raised with regard to the social, economic and educational status of minority communities.”
The report noted widespread violence in the Kandhamal district of Orissa in December 2007, which primarily targeted Christians in Dalit and tribal communities. The report says Ms Jahangir received credible accounts that members of the Christian community alerted the authorities and politicians in advance of the planned attacks of Dec 24-27, 2007. The police, too, had warned Christian leaders about anticipated violence. And yet the situation in Orissa deteriorated again after Aug 23, 2008, when a local leader of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), and four other VHP members were killed. “By the end of September 2008, more than 40 people had allegedly been killed in Orissa, over 4,000 Christian homes destroyed and around 50 churches demolished. Around 20,000 people were living in relief camps and more than 40,000 people hiding in forests and others places. The Special Rapporteur was profoundly alarmed by the humanitarian situation in relief camps where access to food, safe drinking water, medical care, proper sanitary arrangements and adequate clothing were reportedly lacking.”
For a Pakistani rights activist it should always be a difficult call to comment on the plight of Indian Muslims, particularly if one was invited for the survey by the Indian government. Mr Jahangir seemed to be unperturbed by the challenge.
The report says how members of the Muslim community shared their concerns about the ongoing repercussions of communal violence, for example after the Gujarat massacre in 2002. Many of the Muslim interlocutors informed her mission that a number of them have been arrested on ill-founded suspicion of terrorism. “Some of them even encountered problems in finding a lawyer who would be prepared to defend a terrorist suspect.”
For example, the report notes that the Lucknow Bar Association had passed a resolution that none of its members should represent the accused of a terrorist act carried out in the state, but the Lucknow Bar Association subsequently reflected on its position. Moreover, many Muslims were disturbed that terrorism was associated with their religion despite various public statements from Muslim leadership denouncing terrorism.
“There have been complaints about a continuing bias among security forces against Muslims in Jammu and Kashmir who also seem to face difficulties with regard to the issuance of passports and security clearances for employment purposes.” That the Indian government has chosen not to respond to the report can be seen as a healthy precedent, as also the sign of a mature, self-confident country not averse to self-criticism.
Another of her observations had the potential to be misunderstood by Pakistani officials. Since that has not happened, we may conclude that an overall maturity is prevailing on both sides. It is curious that the two countries are unable to deal with their current standoff with wider military implications with the same degree of equanimity and common sense.
Ms Jahangir is not afraid to give the flip side of the picture of Indian Muslims. “A large number of her interlocutors, including Muslims, also expressed their concerns about continued radicalisation and cross-border terrorism. They lamented that the radicalisation of certain Muslims had an adverse impact on the entire community because communal relations hardened after every act of terrorism carried out by a militant group of Muslims.” Some Muslim interlocutors regretted that after such events they were expected to “prove their loyalty to the State of India”, which constituted an indignity towards them as Indian citizens.
“A large number of official and non-official interlocutors from all communities expressed anguish at the continued operation of militant groups of Muslims carrying out acts of terrorism,” the UN report says. A number of people interviewed by the Special Rapporteur were deeply concerned that effective measures were not being taken by the central government against such militant groups whom they accused of maintaining links with foreign elements. Others were concerned that militancy itself as well as the counter-terrorism measures adopted by the Indian government would undermine the enjoyment of human rights.
There’s no place left to discuss some of her astute recommendations to the Indian government. I believe the report is available on UN websites.
I envy Ms Asma Jahangir’s easy access with the Indian government and her ability to make important criticisms without putting her Indian visa at risk. I envy her because as a correspondent with an international news group in Delhi years ago, it was frustrating to see my fellow foreign journalists being given visas to cover events like elections in Pakistan, while I was not even considered because Indian journalists were, and still are, not trusted by the Pakistani government. Even today, India and Pakistan allow only two journalists from each country to be officially accredited in their capitals. From all accounts their life is hell, because for every little movement out of Islamabad or New Delhi they need permissions while their other foreign colleagues face no difficulty in reporting from any location in the country.
Yes, recently Pakistan did allow some Indian journalists to be in the international observers’ contingent to watch last year’s general elections. That should be the normal fare. This is how mature, self-assured neighbours should behave, not by being ready to lunge at each other’s throats at any given occasion.
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