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Rising Mass Atrocity Risks in India

Protests between Indian forces & Kashmiri muslim protesters in Srinagar. Burhaan Kinu/Flickr

India ranks second in this year's Early Warning Project Statistical Risk Assessment, marking its highest risk and rank to date. For the last five years, India has ranked in the top 15 highest-risk countries in the world. We spoke with Waris Husain about the risks, drivers, and dynamics of violence against civilians in India. The assertions, opinions, and conclusions are those of Dr. Husain. They do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Waris Husain is a human rights attorney and adjunct professor of international human rights law at the Howard University School of Law. He is the former South Asia Policy Analyst at the US Commission on International Religious Freedom, where he covered religious freedom issues pertaining to India. He holds a doctoral degree in comparative constitutional law focusing on Supreme Courts of South Asia.  

How would you characterize the risks of mass atrocities in India?

The risk is rather high as some underlying conditions are worsening. Over the last decade, especially under the Narendra Modi administration and the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) ruling party, exclusionary ideology—a known mass atrocity risk factor-–has escalated. In this case, the ideology is Hindutva nationalism, which depicts India’s Muslim population as a rapidly expanding threat that must be culled. 

What risk dynamics are you currently most concerned about worsening?

I’m most concerned that targeted attacks on Muslims, which have occurred recently but have not been criminally prosecuted, could become more systematic and widespread. Certain policies like a failure or refusal by governmental authorities to punish perpetrators of violence against minority communities as well as the BJP’s exclusionary rhetoric contribute significantly to these risks. The likelihood of a mob or militia attack on Muslims or Muslim neighborhoods is increased by these factors. 

The 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy and their aftermath are prominent examples of these dynamics.

With the CAA, the administration allowed non-Muslim persecuted groups to seek refuge in India, but purposely excluded Muslim groups to further the narrative that Muslims are aiming to take over the country, and thus Muslims from other South Asian countries should not be welcomed into India via citizenship. During the protests that followed, the BJP-affiliated paramilitary armed groups sent people to attack Muslim protesters and other protesters who opposed the law. The perpetrators of violence have not faced criminal prosecution. 

Additionally, in 2019, the government revoked the legal autonomy of Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in India. The removal of autonomy was part of a series of campaign promises made by the BJP and was marketed as a method to eventually remove the Muslim majority in all aspects of life, from property ownership to political power. Subsequently, there were many protests inside Kashmir and around the nation. The government then cracked down on the protests that ensued and did not effectively prosecute those who committed violence against protesters. Instead, the government used legislation, such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, to target persecuted minorities who were victimized by violence from mobs and by criminal prosecution from the government during and after the protests. This pattern of impunity for mobs attacking peaceful protestors feeds into the current environment where perpetrators of violence and discriminatory actions perceive there to be no limitations from the government but instead state support for violence against Muslims, which can lead to more aggressive action.

BJP political leaders have also incited violence through dangerous rhetoric. For example, India’s home minister Amit Shah said in April 2019 that the BJP “will remove every single infiltrator from the country, except Buddha, Hindus and Sikhs.” Additionally, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populated state, said in February 2020, “Muslims did no favour to India by staying here.”

What regions do you view as at highest risk of mass killing?

Kashmir is certainly the state to watch in terms of risk of mass atrocities. On the one hand, I don’t envision a high likelihood that the Indian army’s troops would be used to commit a mass atrocity as they seem to be preoccupied with maintaining a constant harassment and monitoring campaign against leaders and young people. This constant harassment has led many citizens to be afraid of gathering in groups publicly, which could limit the likelihood of a mass crime by armed forces. Yet, at the same time, the lack of outcry surrounding the revocation of Kashmir’s autonomy and the government’s imposition of a 18-month-long internet shutdown might signal that the broader public would not be bothered if violence by the state was ratcheted up.

In Uttar Pradesh, non-state actors such as street gangs and government-affiliated paramilitary groups—with a green light from the national government-–are likely to commit mob violence. There are already high levels of violence there, including cow vigilantes, which are patterned militant Hindu-affiliated mob attacks against groups associated with eating beef, including Muslims, Dalits, and Adivasis. 

The international community should closely monitor these dynamics considering there appears to be some level of public toleration of group-targeted violence and atrocity risk factors remain high.

The BJP is up for a third term in the national elections scheduled for May 2024. The party may face a bit more opposition, which could inspire it to take more aggressive actions against its perceived enemies–including religious minority communities–leading up to the election. If the BJP is able to secure a third term leading the country, there could be further threat escalation of their anti-minority policies if they perceive a public mandate to continue their discriminatory policies.

Cross-border issues present an additional risk. For example, when there are cross-border issues with Pakistan, such as clashes at the border, the Muslim community in India is usually persecuted in more distinct ways. Additionally, if there were a terrorist attack or a false-flag terrorist attack, especially in Kashmir, the government could use it as an opportunity to justify further discriminatory policies against Muslims.

The degradation of institutions meant to preserve democratic order and hold the government accountable, including the media, the judiciary, and the parliament, presents an additional concern. For example, the BJP has reduced institutional independence by threatening and charging local reporters for critical reporting on the government and by politicizing the judiciary. These factors, alongside a public that seems to accept the BJP's exclusionary policies, raise greater concerns regarding the potential for mass atrocity.

The international community should also monitor risks of violence for other identity groups, including Dalits and Christians, who also face discrimination and violence based on their identity. Other vulnerable groups include human rights defenders, progressives, and government critics, who face targeted harassment and violence. 

What actions should the international community take to help prevent mass atrocities in India?

First, the international community must let India know that it is watching carefully and does not accept the government’s anti-minority policies or rhetoric. In my view, a mass atrocity only happens if the Modi administration thinks that the international community has its eye off the ball.

Especially in the European Union and the United States, policy makers need to stop viewing India primarily as a counterweight to China. The emphasis on this dynamic leaves underlying problems for India undiscussed, undisclosed, and uncriticized. The Indian government, and other governments, see this as a green light for getting away with discriminatory and violent policies.

The US government especially tends to view human rights issues as secondary or tertiary to security and trade concerns. Yet, you cannot have a trade and security partner who is committing mass atrocities; that makes an inherently unstable partner. So unless we view these mass atrocity and human rights issues as part and parcel of the government's ability to be a stable partner, we will continue to see this dangerous slide.

The Indian government has been responsive when issues are brought up directly and with concrete pressure, such as with EU and US requests on labor issues, but not if they perceive room to maneuver.