Global watchdog executive director says Indian P.M. has gotten away with his oppression due to relatively little criticism from Western nations
The West’s refusal to call out human rights abuses by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has only emboldened him in his anti-Muslim agenda, according to the head of a global human rights organization.
In an exclusive interview with Newsweek, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the desire of leading countries in the West to use India as a counterweight to China’s power and influence, as well as the unprincipled approach to human rights pursued by U.S. President Donald Trump, had only emboldened the Indian leader’s decision to undermine the human rights of Muslim citizens.
Modi has been accused of stripping millions of Muslims in India of citizenship and also of undermining human rights in India-held Kashmir, India’s only Muslim majority region. Last year, he revoked the region’s special status, imposed a year-long curfew, restricted the movement of people and shut down internet services for the longest period of time in any democracy.
Roth’s organization investigates human rights abuses across the world on the frontline, pushing for criminal prosecutions where necessary. It shared the Nobel Peace Prize as a founding member of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and played a leading role in the 2008 treaty banning cluster munitions.
Roth told Newsweek: “The big issue with India is Prime Minister Modi’s systematic discrimination against Muslims and his tolerance of violence against Muslims.” Modi, who leads the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) party, was banned from both the U.K and the U.S. for his role in the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots, in which more than 1,000 people were killed in communal violence, most of them Muslims. At the time, Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat and stood accused of “allowing” the anti-Muslim riots to go ahead. In 2012 a court in Gujarat said it found no evidence of Modi’s connection to the riots.
Since coming to power, Modi has faced growing criticism from opposition parties and human rights organizations over his treatment of minorities, with the United Nations labeling a citizenship law that Modi’s government passed as “fundamentally discriminatory.” The citizenship law offers amnesty to non-Muslim undocumented migrants from India’s neighboring countries; by excluding Muslims, Modi was accused of undermining India’s secular constitution.
The bill was also closely linked to a National Register of Citizens, where people have to provide documents proving their lineage and that they are not residing in India illegally. Given the high levels of illiteracy and poor record-keeping, human rights groups say the move is designed to render millions of Muslims stateless.
Roth said: “Modi has largely got away with his anti-Muslim agenda and his oppression of protests against it, that is the relative lack of criticism from the West has only emboldened him on this abusive path.”
Modi has also received criticism for the human rights situation in Kashmir after he revoked the region’s autonomous status by repealing Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which gave the region its own constitution, flag and freedom to make some laws.
Roth said: “His withdrawal of [India-held] Kashmir’s special constitutional status and the subsequent crackdown on dissent, shutting down the internet, all are part of this broader anti-Muslim element of BJP policy, which Modi either participates in actively or simply tolerates, including the so-called cow-vigilantes, who are basically vigilantes who attack Muslims.”
Hindus consider cows to be a sacred symbol of life that must be protected. Human Rights Watch described the use of communal rhetoric by members of the ruling BJP as encouraging attacks on minorities who consume beef or engage in the cattle trade. Human rights organizations have also accused Indian armed forces of serious human rights violations in India-held Kashmir, with civil society groups in the country saying rape, torture and forced disappearances are routine in the country.
But why are Western governments reluctant to call out human rights violations in India? Roth said: “It’s [Kashmir] one piece of a larger anti-Muslim agenda which the West has largely ignored. India is a major power, a major country. There is increasing tension with China and some just soften the criticism of India because they see it as an ally in competition with China.
“Trump is utterly uninterested in calling out any human rights violation by anybody other than a handful of perceived adversaries: China, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua and Cuba and that’s about it, which is a completely unprincipled approach to human rights, which does not attract any adherence and greatly weakens the force of U.S. intervention.”
Roth’s comments were part of a wide-ranging interview on human rights, in which he also warned that China posed the greatest threat to the human rights system, and also highlighted threats to human rights in Europe, the plight of Uighurs and the Rohingya, and spoke of the dangers of facial recognition technology in undermining privacy.
“Promoting, protecting, and advancing human rights and fundamental freedoms is a top priority for the United States,” said a State Department spokesperson. “We support human rights defenders in a wide variety of environments, and support programs and policies to help countries solidify their role as or develop into democratic and human rights-respecting partners. Countering the malign actions of authoritarian states, including their attempts to undermine democratic governance and redefine human rights through tools such as disinformation, is a key part of the Department’s work and a focus of our partnerships with like-minded governments and international organizations.”
This article was originally published by Newsweek