(Photo by SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images)

India: The new Gujarat government must pledge to prioritise human rights  

The incoming government in the state of Gujarat must prioritize and uphold human rights for all including religious minorities and human rights defenders who continue to face escalating repression and persecution, Amnesty International said today after the Bharatiya Janata Party won a majority in the state elections for the seventh consecutive time. They will govern the state for the next five years.

“Religious minorities in the state of Gujarat, particularly Muslims have been victimized through discriminatory laws and policies which violate international human rights treaties to which India is a state party. At the same time, human rights defenders who raise their voice to stand up for the rights of marginalized communities have been relentlessly hounded and punished. It’s time that the next government not only roll back these repressive laws and policies but also ensure those responsible for forced eviction and abuse of power are brought to justice. Victims must be provided with access to justice and effective remedies,” said Aakar Patel, Chair of the Board at Amnesty International India.

It’s time that the next government not only roll back (the) repressive laws and policies (but) also ensure those responsible for forced eviction and abuse of power are brought to justice.

Aakar Patel, Chair of the Board, Amnesty International India

Demolition of Muslim-owned property

In April 2022, the local authorities targeted, and demolished properties owned by Muslims in Khambat town of Gujarat after incidents of communal violence citing that they were built “illegally”, forcibly displacing them and causing terrible trauma and suffering. Amnesty International investigated the demolitions over a period of two months which included verifying the government notices and hearing the testimonies of those impacted, which suggest that the demolitions were carried out without following due process.

We have no hope from the police. They were present when our properties were demolished. (We) don’t want to take any action because (we) fear reprisal.

Ahmed Hafeez, Muslim owner of a demolished factory

“We have no hope from the police. They were present when our properties were demolished. (We) don’t want to take any action because (we) fear reprisal,” said Ahmed Hafeez* who is struggling to rebuild his life after the demolition of his stone-cutting factory. He told Amnesty International that the police officials hit him and the artisans working in his factory to prevent them from collecting their belongings before they bulldozed the factory.

Saad Ahmed*, owner of another factory which was demolished on 28 April told Amnesty International that about 19 factories were demolished, all of which belonged to Muslims. He said, “There are residential properties next to our factories that are owned by Hindus. They were left untouched”.

Kabir Khan*, another Muslim owner of a demolished factory which supported at least 80 people said, “I had taken all the requisite permissions from the local municipality and had been paying taxes and bills on time. On the evening of 26 April, after the factory was closed, the authorities pasted a notice on my factory’s wall which was backdated to 21 April. The notice required me to respond within seven days. However, the next morning, officials from Gujarat Electricity Board, district administration and local police barged into my factory and demolished it… My entire life’s hard work has been razed to the ground.”

Giving little notice or opportunity to business owners and families to remove their possessions and lack of any offer of alternative places to conduct business or compensation constitutes forced eviction.

Aakar Patel

“Giving little notice or opportunity to business owners and families to remove their possessions and lack of any offer of alternative places to conduct business or compensation constitutes forced eviction. It is imperative that the incoming government conducts a prompt, thorough, independent, impartial and effective investigation into the cases of forced evictions and ensures that all those suspected to be responsible are brought to justice,” said Aakar Patel.  

Barriers to the right to own property

In 2019, the state government amended the 1991 Disturbed Areas Act which was originally intended to prevent distress sale of property in communally sensitive areas of Gujarat. The Act was amended in 2019 giving wide powers to the executive heads of districts to notify a particular area as “disturbed” where any sale of property can only take place with their prior sanction. According to media reports, the discriminatory declaration of large areas as “disturbed” and the subsequent harassment of Muslims wanting to buy residential properties in these areas by Hindu groups has confined the minority Muslim community to separate, densely populated areas often lacking basic civic amenities and minimized their political representation.

The 2019 amendment violates the right to adequate housing enshrined in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights to which India is a state party which includes accessibility, affordability, habitability, location, and cultural identity as its key aspects.

Barriers to the right to freedom of religion

The 2003 Gujarat Freedom of Religion Act was amended in 2021 effectively criminalizing all inter-faith marriages in the guise of prohibiting forced conversion by “allurement” and “temptation”. It allowed any blood relative of the ‘victim’, many of whom are largely Hindu women who marry outside their religion, to complain against such a marriage and widened the net of harassment by targeting anyone who aided the marriage or provided advice. Further, in absolute violation of the principles of criminal justice, it reversed the burden of proof by placing it on the persons accused of causing a forced conversion instead of the prosecution. Even though the Gujarat High Court temporarily stayed parts of the legislation, that has not deterred the state from harassing many inter-faith couples and their families in the last one year, according to local media reports.

Religious discrimination through abuse of executive powers

Between December 2016 and October 2022, the Central Ministry of Home Affairs issued orders empowering the executive heads of nine districts in the state of Gujarat to grant citizenship to only non-Muslim migrants from neighbouring countries under the 1955 Citizenship Act. These notifications mirror the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that was passed in 2019 amidst widespread protests but is yet to be implemented at a national level due to lack of corresponding rules. However, the central government ruled by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) continues to discriminate against minorities on religious grounds in Gujarat which has also been governed by the BJP for the last 27 years, by abusing its executive powers.

These executive orders are completely oblivious to the nature and scale of persecution faced by minorities in the neighbouring region and run afoul of India’s obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which India is a state party.

The combined impact of all these laws, policies and practices appears to amount to a collective punishment, whereby the Muslim community as a whole is penalized in the state of Gujarat. 

Aakar Patel

“The combined impact of all these laws, policies and practices appears to amount to a collective punishment, whereby the Muslim community as a whole is penalized in the state of Gujarat. Such punitive actions are a serious violation of international human rights law and need to be reversed immediately,” said Aakar Patel.

Crackdown on Human Rights Defenders

On 26 June 2022, the Gujarat police arrested renowned human rights defender Teesta Setalvad and former Director General of Police RB Sreekumar in a direct reprisal for questioning the Gujarat government’s human rights record. Their detention came a day after the Supreme Court dismissed a petition filed by Teesta along with a 2002 Gujarat riot victim seeking investigation into the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was then the state’s Chief minister. In the past, Teesta Setalvad has been routinely harassed, with authorities using India’s overly broad and vague financial laws including the Foreign Regulation Contribution Act in what appears to be a reprisal for her work on providing legal aid to the 2002 riot victims.

On 25 September, the Gujarat Police detained award-winning human rights defender Sandeep Pandey and six others just before they were scheduled to commence a rally to show solidarity with gang-rape survivor Bilkis Bano whose 11 convicted rapists were released prematurely by the government. Five months pregnant at the time of the incident, Bilkis Bano’s seven family members were killed including her three-year-old daughter during the 2002 riots.

“The next government has a chance to break away from the past and start upholding the rights of religious minorities and human rights defenders and protecting them from years of abuse and demonization. The incoming new leadership must prioritize the human rights of everyone and take steps to reform legislations, policies, and practices to ensure that all the people of Gujarat can freely exercise their human rights,” said Aakar Patel.

The incoming new leadership must prioritize
the human rights of everyone.

Aakar Patel

*names changed due to reasons of privacy