The Honorable Barack Obama,
President of the United States
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500
Dear Mr. President:
On behalf of Amnesty International USA, I urge you to candidly address human rights concerns in India during your upcoming meeting with the Prime Minister of India Manmohan Singh and to press him to make substantive improvements. Prime Minister Singh will be the first leader to receive a state visit at the White House after you became the President. While you are honoring him with this state visit, Amnesty International urges you not to forget the plight of women, men and children who are facing numerous human rights abuses in India and to make public statements emphasizing that human rights are central to US-India relations.
Your meeting with Prime Minister Singh in the White House represents an opportunity for you to directly communicate your concerns about human rights in India. While you discuss economic cooperation and civilian nuclear partnership with the Indian Prime Minister, it is vital that you also raise human rights concerns affecting millions of Indian citizens. Amnesty International strongly urges you to include human rights concerns in India in your joint communiqué with the Indian Prime minister Manmohan Singh and to address human rights concerns during your joint press conference with Prime Minister Singh.
Even though India is the world’s largest democracy, serious and disturbing human rights abuses are ongoing, including rape, extrajudicial executions, deaths in police and military custody, torture, cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, arbitrary arrests, and dowry deaths. The Government of India not only fails to prevent these abuses, but also shelters members of security forces from facing justice. People living in several of the northeastern states of India and in Kashmir, religious minorities, those belonging to the lowest social order called “Dalits”, and indigenous communities called “adivasis” face the brunt of these abuses. Other socially and economically marginalized groups including women face discrimination at the hands of the police and criminal justice system. Although laws were passed to address some of these human rights abuses, serious concerns remain about the implementation of such laws.
Some of the specific contexts in which mass abuses were or continue to be committed include:
Mass killings of Sikhs: Over three thousand Sikhs were massacred when the governing Congress Party incited mob violence targeting Sikh civilians in reaction to the 1984 assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. Scores of women were gang raped and some were burnt alive. After two decades, a judicial commission concluded that members of the governing Congress Party were involved. Twenty five years have passed since the massacre, but only a few have been brought to justice for this mass killing.
Mass killings of Muslims: In 2002, over 2,000 Muslims were massacred in Gujarat as a reaction to a train fire that killed 59 Hindus. This train fire was blamed on Muslims. Hindu mobs allegedly incited by state Bharatiya Janata Party members went on a killing spree targeting Muslims. Several hundred Muslim women and girls were gang raped and some were burnt alive. Pregnant women and children were also targeted. After nine years, very few individuals have been brought to justice.
Bhopal tragedy: Several thousand people have died and many more continue to die from a 1984 gas leak at Union Carbide’s pesticide plant in Bhopal in 1984. Twenty five years have passed since the leak occurred, but the plant site has not been cleaned up and toxic wastes continue to pollute the environment and ground water. Tens of thousands continue to live with debilitating illnesses. Despite numerous efforts, survivors continue to be denied adequate compensation, medical help, rehabilitation, and justice.
Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958: The Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 has remained in effect in “disturbed areas,” including Kashmir and large parts of the northeastern states of India for over forty years. This act is a major contributor to mass human rights abuses in these areas of India. This law protects Indian security forces from prosecution by requiring permission to prosecute from India’s Central Government–permission which is rarely given. As a result, security forces often take the law into their own hands and commit mass human rights abuses against the civilians. This law has facilitated grave human rights abuses, including “disappearances,” rapes, extrajudicial executions, and deaths resulting from torture.
Northeastern States: One of the areas “hidden” from international attention is the region of northeast India. Numerous abuses are taking place in this area, largely facilitated by the above-mentioned Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958. Security forces kill, rape, “disappear” and commit other gross human rights abuses with virtual impunity.
Kashmir: The Indian side of Kashmir is another area where Indian Security forces commit mass human rights abuses with impunity. Once again, the abuses are facilitated by the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act of 1958 and other similar laws. The civilian population of Kashmir has paid a high price for the conflict. Thousands have disappeared over the years.
Abuses against “Dalits”: India’s caste system involves a social hierarchy in which individuals are considered to be born into a particular caste in which they remain throughout their lives. Outside these caste categories are the “untouchables”, now commonly known as “Dalits”, whose occupations — sweepers, tanners, sanitation workers, etc — are viewed as “polluting” the community. Nearly 200 million people in India belong to this category. This system has been called India’s “hidden apartheid.” Abuses against “dalits” are numerous and take many different forms, including: parading of naked Dalit women through the streets, socioeconomic discrimination, killings, arson-burning of Dalit communities, gang rape, bonded labor, denial of land rights, and many more. The police and the criminal justice system also discriminate against Dalits. Though important strides have been made, much remains to be done.
Abuses against “Adivasis”: The indigenous communities called adivasis face immense pressure from dam and mining development projects and settlements. Adivasis face socioeconomic discrimination as well as discrimination by the police and the criminal justice system.
Mr. President, Amnesty International urges you to secure a meaningful commitment from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to improve India’s human rights situation. It is essential that human rights be treated as an important issue like trade and civilian nuclear partnership.
At a minimum, we urge you to press Prime Minister Singh to take the following steps:
Chhattisgarh: Ensure protection of civilians in ongoing and proposed military actions against Maoists-Naxalites in Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, West Bengal and other states. Stop harassing and arresting human rights defenders. Maoists must also end their violence against civilians.
Kashmir/Manipur: End impunity and make armed forces personnel accountable for human rights violations. In particular repeal the Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Manipur and other parts of the North Eastern States and Kashmir where imposed. Ensure that any replacement act is in line with international human rights standards.
Justice: Bring to justice those involved in the mass killings of Sikhs and Muslims.
Bhopal: Ensure establishment of the promised empowered Commission on Bhopal for the rehabilitation of Bhopal Gas victims, with adequate resources and capacity. In conjunction with the companies involved (including US based Dow Chemical), the Government of India should ensure effective measures to address the long-term impacts of the Bhopal gas leak, including proper clean-up and remediation of the factory site, medical care, regular supply of adequate safe water for the affected communities, and economic rehabilitation.
And with regard to India’s foreign policy:
Mr. President, we also urge you to discuss India’s International role and to urge India to use its close relationships with Burma and Sri Lanka to:
Burma: Urge Prime Minister Singh to engage with the Burmese authorities to end serious and systematic human rights violations and to release over 2,100 political prisoners including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Sri Lanka: Urge Prime Minister Singh to follow up on the promise made by the Sri Lanka Government to India that it would release the IDP’s within six months. Six months have passed, but still there are tens of thousands of civilians detained in military run internment camps. Secure access to an estimated 12,000 people (including children) suspected of links to the LTTE who have been detained. They have been denied access to ICRC and legal counsel.
Mr. President, we urge you not to miss this opportunity to speak for those whose rights have been violated in India. They need your help.