India’s UAPA: A Crackdown on Indian Activists

In a move that enraged the international community, the Indian government arrested a Kashmiri human rights activist, Khurram Parvez, under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) in late November 2021. Parvez, a native of the disputed Jammu Kashmir region that borders India and Pakistan, worked extensively on covering suspicious disappearances and investigating the stories behind unmarked graves in Kashmir. His family reports that authorities ransacked his belongings and confiscated all electronics while threatening their lives, an example of India’s growing role in squeezing the soul out of human rights advocacy using the UAPA.  

#Human rights banner from a protest
“Human Rights for Future” Banner from Amnesty International Source: Unsplash

The Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is an anti-terrorism law that was originally enacted in 1967 to expand Indian authorities’ powers to address individuals that were or were suspected to be a threat to national or economic security. Despite its supposed justified intent, the controversial law has given the federal Indian government unprecedented power over the criminal justice system. In 2019, a new tenet permitting the categorization of individuals rather than organizations as terrorists was added to the law. People could be jailed without clear evidence or bail for months and even decades. A trial is not guaranteed, and if one trial is granted, but the case fails, there is no provision that allows the incarcerated person to be released. According to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), since 2015, arrests made under this provision have increased by 72% in 2019.  

The most widely covered injustice of the UAPA occurred in Bhima Koregaon, a town a few hours south of Mumbai, India. Annually, on January 1st, Dalits in Bhima Koregaon celebrate the victory of their ancestors over an upper-caste ruler as part of the British Army. In 2018, they clashed with Hindu residents during the celebration which resulted in 16 activists jailed under the UAPA for inciting violence at the deadly event. 3 years later, no official charges have been brought up against the 16. All the 16 activists were advocates for historically marginalized groups such as Dalits to protect their rights and elevate their status in society. One of the accused was released in early December 2021 on bail, and another was only released under a temporary medical release after concerns arose about his deteriorating health in July.  

Rv. Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and activist from the state of Tamil Nādu was another one of the 16 jailed in connection with the riots that occurred in Bhima-Koregaon, despite never having visited the town. He suffered from Parkinson’s Disease, was infected with Covid-19, and experienced multiple falls and injuries while detained. His requests for accommodations considering the spasms and locked muscles caused by Parkinson’s were also denied by the NIA. No requests for bail were granted even when his health began declining in the spring. Swamy died in jail on July 5th, 2021, because of what the Jamshedpur Jesuit Province calls inadequate health facilities and a lack of regard for human life in dire prison conditions. 

Similar caste violence prefaced the 2020 Delhi Riots in which Hindus and Muslims fought over a new unconstitutional citizenship law. Three student activists were implicated in the violence and were arrested under the UAPA, despite fervently denying the allegations. The three were released after one year on bail, although a fourth student activist is still behind bars for other charges under the UAPA.   

The same pattern repeats in every arrest made under this law: circumstantial detainment then extended detention with no promise for bail or trial. In fact, less than 3% of those brought in by the National Intelligence Agency (NIA) are convicted while many others have died waiting for trial. The right to due process with a fair and speedy trial is a key part of democracy, neither of which is given to those arrested under the UAPA, further suffocating human rights advocacy and discouraging potential activists. Human rights organizations including Frontline Defenders, International Federation for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and the Human Rights Watch fear for the health of free speech in India.  

Gavel
Gavel on a court surface representing law and justice Source: Unsplash

Lawmakers in the congressional houses of India’s federal administration control all of the UAPA provisions, but the judiciary of India, including the Supreme Court, has expressed its frustration and opposition to the anti-terrorism law. Not only is it unconstitutional, but the UAPA also infringes on broadly accepted ethical boundaries and totalitarian behavior. Academic experts, lawyers, journalists, teachers, and activists of all ages step into their shoes every day preparing to face the UAPA when they give voice to marginalized communities.  

This should not be brushed under the rug as a rare occurrence, because the UAPA is another dangerous tactic utilized by the ruling party in India to limit dissent. Akin to determined vultures, over the last couple of years, the government has circled closer to limiting basic freedoms including privacy, speech, assembly, and press. The law was initially aimed to combat terrorism but is now used as a legal tool to silence opposition, tightening the fist around minority populations. As the walls continue to close in, there is a very real possibility for the UAPA to become a harbinger of stifling, authoritative power in India, drastically shifting the definition of terrorism to encompass nonviolent political activity, otherwise known as activism. 

"Human Rights Violated by Modi Government in India" Protest Banner
“Human Rights Violated by Modi Government in India” Protest Banner Source: Unsplash

The UAPA is only a small part of a growing tsunami of problems seen around the globe. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), India has fallen to 53rd place in the Democracy Index – evident of a growing trend of backsliding democracy. The EIU has attributed India’s shortcomings to the increasing focus of religious sentiment in what is supposed to be a secular state, reinforcing harmful traditional stereotypes about wealth, race, and caste, while preventing social mobility for the less fortunate. Last year, India unveiled a new citizenship plan that hinders persecuted Muslims from becoming naturalized Indian citizens, a proposal that inflamed religious tensions already encouraged by India’s national Prime Minister.  

Human rights advocates and activists are the light in the dark for millions of people around the world, not only in India. Similarly, more than a few countries are seeking ways to funnel away basic rights that they see as disruptive to their goals of obtaining more control over their people and thus an iota of more power in the global discourse. If India succeeds with this violation of human rights and human rights defenders, it will set an irreversible precedent that countries similar to India in their ideological associations will follow. The international community must call for action and consequences for India’s actions. More support and funding from the international community should flow into the judicial system to question the legislation passed by Congress as well as organizations defending human rights activists to ensure the marginalized in India stand a fighting chance.   

The Hijab Row: The Latest on India’s Nationalist Actions

Societal destabilization is a normal part of any dystopian novel. The government cannot come to a consensus, politicians treat countries as puppets, and somehow, an awkward yet powerful adolescent is thrust into the spotlight to save the world. It is slowly dawning on the world that this outlandish twist of fate is now a reality.  

In January 2022, Karnataka, a state on India’s southwestern coastal border, banned hijabs in educational institutions. The epicenter of this issue is at the Government Pre-College University for Girls in the Udipi district of Karnataka, where Muslim students say that when they returned to school this past September, they were threatened to either remove the hijab or be marked absent. The girls were not allowed to attend classes or write their exams in their hijabs. This situation is not only a paramount issue and manifestation of India’s growing nationalist agenda, but also signals a threat to a fundamental right guaranteed in the Indian Constitution: religious freedom. 

Muslim woman wearing a head covering
Muslim woman wearing a head covering Source: Unsplash

Politics 

The Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), the ruling political party of India, is infamous for its right-wing actions against minorities. The pride of the party, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is a devout Hindu and believes that a superior India will only be restored to glory by becoming homogenous, a passion increasingly echoed across India. In recent years, minority alienation in terms of religion, caste, and gender has accelerated. Hindu activist groups in Karnataka believe the hijab ban is essential for social equality and for providing an unbiased classroom for every student to learn. Hindu student activists view the hijab as a symbol of the oppression of Muslim girls and wish to remove them for the sake of religious equality in education. They also compare the hijab to a saffron shawl Hindus often wear in religious ceremonies. It was implied that if hijabs are allowed, then every Hindu should be allowed to wear the saffron shawl to class as well.  

History 

Despite the social equity of this ban, the defense of upholding it is rather weak. This ban forces Muslim girls to choose between their religion, their bodily autonomy, or their education. Who can learn properly when they don’t feel comfortable in their own body? When the hijab is a part of your identity, not wearing it can be a source of ceaseless discomfort and alienation from your body and your perception of yourself.  

17-year-old Aliya Assadi, a karate champion in the city of Udupi, summarized the necessity of the hijab in one statement. Much like other Muslim girls, Assadi derives confidence and is assured by wearing her hijab. Removing it is not an option for her because it is a lifestyle that she pays her respects to. Assadi does not feel oppressed in her hijab but being forced to remove it is embarrassing and humiliating.  

Rows of seats in a university lecture hall
Rows of seats in a university lecture hall Source: Unsplash

The National Congress Party, BJP’s competition, vehemently opposes the hijab ban and stated that it is a violation of religious freedom. The BJP’s response asserted that the hijab is not an essential manifestation or practice of Islam, and therefore, the ban is not a violation of the Constitution. The Quran, the primary religious text in Islam, states that “It is not that if the practice of wearing hijab is not adhered to, those not wearing hijab become the sinners, Islam loses its glory, and it ceases to be a religion.” Based on this one quote, the Karnataka High Court deemed the hijab not essential for religious practice, ruled that the ban was constitutional, and dismissed all petitions made by Muslim girls barred from attending class. However, the hijab has more meaning than a literal interpretation of the Koran. Each of the groups that practice Islam in India and across the world have different cultural values and exhibits diversity in their traditions. Similarly, the hijab has underlying traditional value for each person or group, and in some parts of the world, the hijab is a symbol of resistance.  

Religious freedom, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Banning hijabs imposes on equal access to education and women’s rights because, without comfort and peace of mind in oneself, students cannot learn to their optimal ability. Yet, this problem does not extend to male students. This is the reason for their apparent alienation from the education system, which should be teaching them how to be successful and advocate for their beliefs. The right to education without discrimination on religion or gender is a universal human right—a human right that is being violated.  

Future Implications 

As religious divides deepen between Muslims and Hindus in India, human rights defenders worry that other states will consider enacting a similar ban on hijabs now that the precedent has been set. This is a potential slippery slope that may alienate the Muslim population with additional restrictions and obligations narrowing their sense of self. Already, far-right Hindu groups have claimed that Gujarat, Prime Minister Modi’s home state, is in the process of creating a hijab ban and Uttar Pradesh is next. The majority of both states’ politicians identify as members of the BJP, as well.  

The Muslim girls, however, are not close to surrendering in this fight. They plan to appeal to India’s Supreme Court for a final, unbiased verdict on the case. The young people of India, now the majority age group in the country, are attempting to take India’s future into their own hands. The ramifications of this case, if the Supreme Court were to hear it, will be momentous.  

For years, a Hindu nationalist agenda has decreased the rights and autonomy of minorities of all classes. Often, these moves were underhanded and created through loopholes or loose interpretations of the law—just as the hijab ban was. Once the ban’s constitutionality reaches the Supreme Court, the whole country, including the federal administration, will be put on trial for their actions in the past and the future by India’s minority and majority populations.  

Women in hijabs at a protest with signage "Hijab our Right"
Women in hijabs at a protest with signage “Hijab our Right” Source: Flickr

International Consequences 

Unfortunately, islamophobia and minority discrimination are ideologies that have centuries of history behind them, and it will be challenging to fight this growing movement. When we think of history makers and game changers, it is often about one person with enough strength and bravery to face the world. However, lasting progress is sustained by consistent change and accountability. Anyone can fight and advocate against Islamophobia, and, eventually, a little effort from millions can be amassed into a movement capable of changing society from within.  

Countless organizations, lawyers, and legislators are facing the brunt of standing their ground against harsher political movements, but the public perspective must change first. In India, is important to communicate the despicable nature of Islamophobia online. Residents can report to the police commissioner or the District Magistrate in-person, or they can tag national authorities on social media such as the Ministry of Home, international human rights groups, and UN agencies. Openly support your neighbors or community members and help them file FIRs against Islamophobia acts and follow directives from local anti-Islamophobic organizations. In America at least, people can support anti-Islamophobic legislation and communicate with their government representatives about their discontent and rage over the treatment of their Muslim counterparts. People can also support American Indivisible and Shoulder to Shoulder, organizations that work to dismantle structural islamophobia. Regardless of your location, demonstrating solidarity and opening honest conversations is an imperative initial step to combating Islamophobia. 

2022 Olympics Shine a Spotlight on China’s Record with Human Rights

The Olympics serve a global spotlight for the world’s best athletes. The tradition was born out of Ancient Greece over 3,000 years ago. After not being held for over a millennium, The Modern Olympics began once more in Athens, Greece in 1896, and have been held in alternating cities every four years since. The Winter Olympics began being held as a separate set of games in between each occurrence of the Summer Olympics in 1994.

The Olympics were famed not only for bringing the world’s most power athletes together for weeks of competition, but also for the prosperity they would bring to the host city. The Olympics bring in hundreds of thousands of tourists, and provide cities incentives to build state-of-the-art stadiums, creating new jobs locally. Despite this, the Olympics have also come under scrutiny in the last few years because they also bring major disadvantages to the host cities and nations.

To make way for new Olympic facilities, impoverished neighborhoods within cities are often demolished. This occurred in Beijing just fourteen years ago when they hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, and this mass eviction of the urban poor became an extremely hot topic during the 2016 Rio De Janeiro Games, when the city had to use Police Pacification Units to clear out the city’s favelas in a highly militarized way.

used to show one of china's new construction projects
The Olympics brings temporary economic prosperity to the host nation via the need for elaborate new construction projects, such as depicted in this image. SOURCE : Google Images

These acts of forced removal have been called out by human rights activists as dangerous violations of human rights, but this is not the only way human rights affects the Olympic games and their respective host cities. The worldwide attention the Olympics receive every two years highlights not only the host city, but the host nation. The 2022 Winter Olympics, hosted once again by Beijing, have put China into hot water as international press have scrutinized China’s alleged human rights violations. So what has been going on in China?

China’s Crackdown on Dissent

News outlets across the globe were fascinated by China’s COVID-19 protocols for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which began in early February. Using a massive amount of manpower and resources, China constructed an Olympic “bubble”, or quarantine zone which will house over 11,000 athletes from all over the world. The bubble consists of a “closed loop” of stadiums, conference centers, and over seventy hotels, and all athletes inside this bubble will have no contact with the wider Chinese population. The Chinese central government is taking precautions to absolute extremes, even warning citizens not to intervene if an Olympic vehicle is involved in a car crash while transporting athletes between facilities.

But China’s Olympic “bubble” serves a dual purpose – it also keeps Chinese human rights activists away from the games. Prominent human rights activist Hu Jia was placed under house arrest in order to keep him out of the public eye for the duration of the Winter games. In an interview with CNN, he wrote that “In China, people like me are called ‘domestic hostile forces’… that’s why they have to cut me off from the outside world”. Jia has been under house arrest since January 15.

Human rights activists, who have monitoring China for decades, report that crackdowns on activists and speech — which can range from shutting down social media accounts to house arrests, detentions or enforced disappearances — are typical in the lead up to high-profile events in China, where the Communist Party keeps a tight lid on dissent. But the situation continues to deteriorate in China as controls on dissent tighten year-round, and the protocols for “sensitive” and “normal” periods have begun to blur.

China’s Record with Human Rights 

The Human Rights Watch continues to watch China and their increased authoritarianism in the past few decades. Their 2021 report overviews several alarming trends in the Communist nation.

After the COVID-19 pandemic originated in the nation in the late fall of 2019, it was reported that “The Chinese government’s authoritarianism was on full display in 2020“. Authorities in China were criticized globally for initially trying to cover up the outbreak of COVID-19 in Wuhan province. China has all refused to comply with international requests for an independent investigation into the government’s initial handling of the pandemic. It has also been alleged that Chinese authorities placed families of COVID victims under harsh surveillance.

But China’s recent rise in authoritarian behavior even predates the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2019, Hong Kong experienced six months of intense antigovernmental protests, leading to the adoption of a new “National Security Law” on June 30 that was labelled by Human Rights Watch as “draconian”. Activists were deeply alarmed by the broad and sweeping language of the new legislation, which penalizes “secession”, “subversion”, “terrorism” and “collusion with foreign forces” with a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Under the National Security Law, even the use of common political phrases such as “Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times” have been outright banned, stifling free speech throughout China.

Perhaps most alarmingly, China has also come under international scrutiny for allegations of genocide and other crimes against humanity enacted against the Uyghurs, a Turkic Muslim minority ethnic group who mostly reside in the northwestern region of Xinjiang. Activists have reported the presence of “re-education camps” which have allegedly been used to detain over one million Uyghurs in recent years, with hundreds of thousands more being sentenced to prison. Evidence has also been brought forth showing the Chinese government’s use of Uyghur people for forced labor, and some women have been forced to undergo sterilization. The re-education camps have also been reportedly rife with sexual violence against Uyghur women, as reported by survivors. Cultural genocide has also been reported, as several Uyghur religious practices have been banned in the region, and China has demolished Uyghur mosques and tombs.

shows a re-education camp
An image captured of a Uyghur “re-education” camp in the Xinjiang region. It is alleged that over one million Uyghurs have been placed into these camps.

As China continues to project power on the global stage through their economic successes, military prowess, and spotlight events such as the Olympics, it is important to remember that authoritarianism does not protect human rights. China, from a surface-level perspective, may be viewed as one of the biggest success stories of our modern age. Their economy is the second-largest in the world, and many in China are enjoying an amount of prosperity not seen in the regions in centuries. Their citizens, especially those who want a better future for China, are paying the price for this alleged “success”, as their rights to freedom and privacy are infringed daily by the robust Chinese surveillance state. Modern states should be based on robust human rights, and China will need to enact several heavy reforms to move away from their current authoritarianism. China can become one of the world’s leading powers in the 21st century, but they can only do so if they uphold the rights of their citizens.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities: Disability Rights Successes in South Asia

The image shows a man with a prosthetic leg sitting on the ground. In his hand is a volleyball, on which he is writing something with a marker.
“Disabled men play volleyball” by World Bank Photo Collection is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

December 3rd marked the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – a day to raise awareness of disability rights, the benefits of inclusion, and the challenges society poses for individuals with disabilities. The theme for this year is “Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities toward an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post-COVID-19 world.” In honor of this occasion, we wanted to highlight a few of the many instances in recent times where strides have been made in inclusion and accessibility. This post will focus on the progress made in south Asia, while the post by Danah Dib will speak to the achievements that have been made in the Middle East. There have been numerous successes in the efforts to push disability rights forward in south Asia, particularly in the spheres of politics, health, and education.

Political Rights

Efforts to secure the political and civil rights of individuals with disabilities in south Asia passed a milestone in 2015. The “South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation” convened for the first time in October of 2015, bringing together over 80 representatives from disabled people’s organizations and election management bodies across south Asia. The conference aimed to advocate for increased access to elections for people with disabilities by providing recommendations to the Forum for South Asian Election Management Bodies (FEMBoSA) during its annual conference. After three days of deliberation and advocacy work, the participants in the South Asia Regional Disability Rights Dialogue on Political Participation produced a nine-point charter on disability inclusion in elections and managed to get the Columbo Resolution modified to include language that was inclusive of people with disability. The Columbo Resolution was the culminating document of the conference, setting forth the Forum’s priorities and commitments for the future. In the same document, FEMBoSA also resolved to develop appropriate standards to ensure that people with disabilities are included in elections.

Numerous changes occurred in the wake of this resolution, in part due to continued advocacy by disabled people’s organizations in implementing the recommendations. Smitha Sadasivan, a member of the Disability Rights Alliance India, described the work of the organization in the implementation process in the state of Tamil Nadu, India: “Persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities were enrolled in electoral rolls after the Colombo Declaration”. Numerous additional steps were taken, starting with the appointment of officers specifically responsible for disability inclusion. Electors with disabilities were mapped, and reasonable accommodations were identified. Inclusive voter educational material was developed, and election officers and volunteers were trained on inclusive practices. In 2016, the Election Commission of Sri Lanka included a unit regarding disability in its strategic, four-year plan, with the intent to research barriers to inclusion and increase the participation of people with disabilities. These changes are key steps in ensuring that individuals with disabilities are afforded their civic liberties and can take part in shaping their community.

The image shows a stethoscope placed on a surface covered by cloth. The length of the stethoscope is coiled.
India has made progress in improving clinical care for individuals with disabilities by reforming medical education. Source: Unsplash

Rights to Health and Healthcare

A second important development for disability rights takes us from the polling booths to hospital clinics. The impacts of healthcare providers holding negative attitudes towards disability, and a lack of knowledge on appropriate communication, is well documented. It not only impacts the doctor-patient relationship and decreases quality of care, but also results in individuals with disability utilizing healthcare services less frequently. It goes without saying that this contributes to worsened health outcomes for those who are disabled. In recent times, the Medical Council of India has taken steps to bridge this deficiency in clinical care. Starting from August 2019, medical schools in India are required to conduct a month-long training on disability rights that covers culturally appropriate communication and optimum clinical care for people with disabilities. This change came after numerous disability rights advocates, and doctors with disabilities, raised their voice regarding the lack of disability related competencies in the new medical curriculum designed by the Medical Council of India in 2018. Spearheading these efforts was Dr.Satendra Singh of the University College of Medical Science in Delhi University.

Collaborating closely with people with disabilities and educators across the country, Dr.Singh and his colleagues developed 27 disability competencies based on the human rights approach to disability, as enshrined in the UN Convention on Rights of People with Disabilities. While more can be done to make education on disability rights increasingly comprehensive and immersive, such as inclusion of experiential learning where medical students spend time with individuals with disabilities outside of the hospital, these actions are undoubtedly a much-needed step in the right direction. India, like many other countries, also faces challenges in increasing medical student diversity in terms of disability – significant, structural barriers still exist for competent medical school applicants with disabilities. Disability rights advocates like Dr.Singh continue to challenge inaccurate and negative stereotypes regarding the abilities of individuals with disabilities, hoping to further improve medical care and education for people with disabilities.

The image displays gold medals stacked in pairs. Engraved on the medals is writing and a logo signifying the Special Olympics.
The Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society of Lahore, Pakistan, has trained numerous athletes with developmental disabilities who went on to win international competitions like the Special Olympics. “SPECIAL OLYMPICS EUROPEAN SUMMER GAMES 2014” by Special Olympics Oesterreich is licensed under CC0 1.0.

The Role of Non-Governmental Organizations

Another area of development is the not-for-profit sector, organizations that are working at the grassroot level to offer support to individuals with disabilities and to help implement and further systemic policy changes. An example of such an organization is the Rising Sun Education and Welfare Society in Lahore, Pakistan, which aims to encourage the independence of individuals with disabilities through education and training. One noteworthy aspect of the organization is their training in sports. Sports training is offered as a way to develop capabilities and life skills of individuals with disabilities and to allow them to compete at the highest level in international competitions like the Special Olympics. Over the years, athletes from the organization have won 91 medals in numerous events across the world.  The organization also provides vocational training in cooking through their “Special Chef” program – individuals who participated in the program went on to not only work for the Education and Welfare Society, but also join other organizations as chefs and start their own business ventures. Lastly, another crucial role the organization plays is in raising awareness amongst parents regarding the support services available to their children with disabilities. These efforts attempt to combat the stigma surrounding disability and promote the inclusion of individuals with disabilities as equal members of society.

Future Directions

Despite these accomplishments, there is a lot more work that needs to be done. A study by Paul Chaney of Cardiff University revealed that ableism is still pervasive in Indian society. Educational programs for individuals with disabilities are not funded adequately, and private schools often ignore the minimum supports for students with disabilities as required by the law. Individuals with disabilities in rural areas are particularly disadvantaged in terms of educational opportunities, leading to much higher likelihood of unemployment and poverty. Concerns continue regarding the accessibility of the healthcare system for people with disabilities. Still, efforts are being made to combat forced institutionalization and forced sterilization of individuals with disabilities, issues which compound at the intersection of gender discrimination.

The successes discussed in here are just a few examples of the change created by the disability rights movement across the world and the driving force behind it: namely, the advocates who work tirelessly to push society forward in its inclusion of individuals with disabilities. Although more progress is yet to be made, these testimonies give us hope that transformational change can occur, however gradually it may come about. This is our letter of gratitude to those who continue to work to ensure the equitable and rightful treatment of individuals with disabilities and our call to action to all others.

Bhutan: Persecution in Paradise

Bhutanese Landscape
Bhutanese Landscape. Source: Pxfuel

 Real Life Shangri-La

Bhutan is often referred to as an idyllic Himalayan nation, a land of peace and prosperity, happiness, and beauty. After visiting Bhutan in 2017, I was even more fascinated, and truly began to understand why the small, neutral country has been dubbed a “real-life Shangri-La”. It is the only nation in the world to measure annual success by Gross National Happiness, rather than Gross Domestic Product. It is also the only country to have a carbon-negative footprint, with extraordinary levels of hydropower and renewable energy production and a zero-tolerance policy for industrial development. Bhutan is rapidly decreasing poverty rates and increasing the middle-class population. Government programs have made education and trade school accessible to most citizens who desire it. Bhutan has managed to remain neutral for hundreds of years with a minimal military presence despite being nestled between two conflicting superpowers, India and China. Citizens of Bhutan enjoy the state’s extensive social welfare programs and are enamored with the royal family that abdicated power to allow a peaceful transition to a democratic system.

In short, the nation seems like a true paradise, where culture and tradition are preserved with love and care, where nature is respected and upheld, and where one can pursue life to the fullest in a land of prosperity and opportunity. When I had the opportunity to travel through Bhutan, I was stunned by the gorgeous landscape, nation, and culture. I was welcomed with clearer air than I thought possible, a colorful landscape filled with trees and prayer flags, and adorable buildings constructed in traditional Bhutanese fashion. The people were so happy, and talked passionately about their country, royal family, and culture. There is a strong sense of nationalistic pride, and from everything Bhutan boasts, it seemed to be entirely deserved. Our guide taught us about local customs, Bhutanese Buddhism, traditional dress and building style, and masterfully escorted us through the most beautiful aspects of Bhutan and its culture. 

It was only after leaving that I learned of human rights abuses Bhutan so carefully hides from tourists. Our state-sanctioned tour guide was an instrument in how this flawless reputation has been skillfully crafted, and the execution was so perfect that nothing felt staged while I was there. I enjoyed the country within an intricate veil of ignorance, unaware of the atrocities that no one is allowed to see.

Bhutanese children in traditional attire, leaning over a balcony
Bhutanese children. Source: World Bank Photo Collection

Violations Exposed

Bhutan may appear to be a nation without error, but the country has perpetrated major human rights violations since the 1980s. For four decades, the United Nations, Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have consistently criticized and exposed Bhutan’s human rights violations. The nation is limited by strict libel laws and a culture that is unwilling to speak negatively on the king or his policies. While free speech is protected under Bhutan’s constitution, it is rarely practiced and this self-censorship is coupled with a flawed judicial system that harshly punishes those found to be committing the dangerously broad charge of libel. In 2016, a Bhutanese reporter faced libel fines of up to 10 years salary for critiquing a prominent businessman on Facebook. With penalties like this, it is no wonder that citizens of Bhutan do not dare criticize the crown, even though free speech is allegedly protected. Bhutan has been on a Human Rights Watch list since the 80s due to prolific persecution of ethnic minorities. While Bhutan has received credit for its positive changes since transitioning into a democracy in 2008, they still have a long way to go before they can be considered a free nation.

Bhutanese refugees sitting outside
Bhutanese refugees. Source: Creative Commons

Ethnic Cleansing Pre-Democracy

The horrific treatment of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan is the most atrocious human rights violation known to be committed by the Bhutanese government. The Lhotshampa people are Bhutanese residents with Nepali ethnic backgrounds, who have lived in Bhutan for generations but still speak a separate dialect and have a differing culture from the majority in Bhutan. In order to understand the current plight of Nepali migrants in Bhutan, we must understand a little bit of the once-neighboring nation, Sikkim. Sikkim was once an established monarchical state with most of its population being of Mongolian/Tibetan descent as Sikkimese, just like the ethnic Bhutanese. However, Sikkim faced a mass migration of ethnic Nepalis (of Hindu and Indo-Aryan descent) that caused the people of Sikkim to become a minority in their own nation. Sikkim fell as an independent state and was annexed by India in the 1950s, and the leaders of Bhutan have used the fall of Sikkim as a fear-inspiring example ever since. It is this nationalism and fear of losing sovereignty to one of the superpower neighbor states that has created such a widely supported systemic oppression of the Lhotshampa people in Bhutan.

Bhutan faced its greatest human rights violations in the 1990s, as strong nationalism and resentment towards the Lhotshampa people came to a boiling point. The refugees crossed the border with tales of an ethnic cleansing occurring in Bhutan, stating they were given mere days to sell their homes and were marched from rural villages to Nepali refugee camps. The government’s forces accompanied the refugees across the border with loaded guns and photographers, and according to a Lhotshampa teen interviewed by the Human Rights Watch, “[They] told me to smile…He wanted to show that I was leaving my country willingly, happily, that I was not forced to leave”.  It is estimated that the total number of refugees produced in the 1990s was just above 100,000, which is absolutely astounding when we look at Bhutan’s current national population of 780,000. While Bhutan is often portrayed as a modern “Shangri-La”, the seemingly idyllic Himalayan country created more refugees per capita  than any other nation in the world in our recent history. Of those 100,000 refugees, 85% have now been rehoused in the United States.

 Bhutanese man with child
Bhutanese man with child. Source: Creative Commons

Democratic Safeguards Fail

Despite the nation peacefully transitioning towards a democratic state in 2008, the new government has continued the systematic harassment of the minority group, even increasing certain anti-Lhotshampa policies. While the Lhotshampa are no longer persecuted as openly as they were in the early 1990s, they still face significant discrimination within the nation their families have called home for generations. Out of countless treaties currently in existence to protect and defend human rights, Bhutan has only signed two. Bhutan signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990, and many within the international community argue that Bhutan has violated the convention due to the large population of children within the persecuted Lhotshampa refugees.

Perhaps the most recent evidence proving such discrimination came with Bhutan’s new constitution in 2008, when Lhotshampa people discovered their citizenship was up for debate, and access to passports and documentation became determined by financial, marriage, or literacy status, which is very reminiscent of the second-class citizenship African Americans faced in the United States. Some of the limitations imposed upon Lhotshampas with these targeted passport systems are the inability to travel internationally, which is a blatant violation of both the right to Freedom from Discrimination and the Right to Movement established in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. One of the brilliantly cruel aspect of the passport stipulations is that while Lhotshampa people may freely leave the country, it is extremely unlikely that they will be allowed to return. For many, a trip to visit neighboring India or Nepal is the termination of calling Bhutan their home. Essentially, the Bhutanese government made it abundantly clear that Lhotshampas are not welcome in Bhutan. 

In addition, while there is no clear law preventing Lhotshampas from purchasing property or moving freely within Bhutan itself, it is extremely unlikely in practice that Lhotshampas will be able to secure property or livelihoods outside of specific regions that have become socially designated for them. Bordering nations like Nepal continue to host new refugees fleeing a land many consider to be peaceful, sacred, and free of worldly troubles. Lhotshampas have continued to cross the Nepali border to refugee camps since 2008 purely out of desperation from lack of work or freedoms in Bhutan. Websites like these provide some much needed insight into the current plight of the Lhotshampas, as well as what life is like for those still awaiting rehousing inside of their temporary refugee camps. 

Refugees outside of a small hut
Refugees outside of a hut. Source: United Nations

How to Help

In order for change to be made, Bhutan needs continual pushes from the outside world. By spreading the true story of the Lhotshampa people and looking for ways to get involved, you are directly contributing to decades old efforts to ease the horrors they face. Creating action on any level is an excellent way to assist the Lhotshampa people and refugees like them. If you would like to donate or volunteer to assist Lhotshampa refugees, there are countless local and international efforts that will put anything you can give to great use. Reputable non-profits like Sewa USA use funds to provide necessities, transportation and employment help for Bhutanese refugees in the United States, and the World Food Programme uses donations to provide food and resources to Lhotshampas still displaced in refugee camps. Ultimately, resource-based aid is an excellent way to assist those who have been cruelly displaced and discriminated against, but only international pressure for domestic changes within Bhutan will be able to stop the persecution and prevent any more Lhotshampas from becoming refugees.

Violent Persecution of the Shi’a Hazaras of Pakistan

Who are the Hazara Muslims?

The Hazara Muslims are a predominately Shi’a Muslim group that originate from Afghanistan. Hazaras are famous for their music, poetry, and proverbs from which their poetry stems, which have been passed down orally through generations. They speak a dialect of Dari (Farsi – Persian dialect) called Hazaragi.

The conflict of Sunni Muslims versus Shi’a Muslims derives from a varying interpretation of the Holy Qur’an and the distinct lineage both sects choose to recognize. Consequently, extremist groups in Pakistan have resorted to violence carried out by Pakistani governmental organizations who have feared Shi’a Islam becoming a major sect since the Iranian Revolution in 1979.

These targeted killings had continually existed, but they reached unprecedented levels in 2013 with approximately 700 Shi’a murdered, many of which were Hazaras in Baluchistan. Bombings in 2013 also claimed innumerous Hazara lives, and such violence eventually led to protests by the Hazaras, including refusing to bury the deceased bodies until the Pakistani government took some action.

hazaras
Women protest the loss of innocent lives of Hazara Muslims. Source: Yahoo Images

What has been happening with the Hazaras recently?

Believing in a different interpretation of Islam and allowing more freedom to their women are two red flags to extremist groups such as the Islamic State (IS). The IS massacred. eleven Shi’a Hazara coal miners in Machh, Baluchistan, on January 2, 2021. The families of the deceased refused to bury the bodies and demanded a visit from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, along with immediate action against the perpetrators who claimed responsibility for the killing. On January 6, 2021, the Baluchistan Chief Minister, Jam Kamal, visited a protest camp and urged them to let go of their demand. He tried to reassure the protestors that his government is doing all they can to eradicate terrorism, but with little success. Considering the mass murder that has been occurring since 2013, the Hazara people have no reason to believe the Chief Minister of their state.

overcome grief
A father overcome with grief as he is told about his son’s death. Source: Yahoo Images.

What can be done?

For starters, the Pakistani government can acknowledge the persecution that Shi’a Hazara Muslims have been encountering for generations, and find a way to actually eradicate such acts of terrorism that are being justified by extremist groups with the overarching term, jihad.

To ensure progress is being made, the Foreign Minister of Pakistan, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, and the leader of the prominent Afghan Hezb-e Wahdat-e-Islami political party, Karim Khalili, met in Islamabad on January 12, 2021. They exchanged views on Pakistan-Afghanistan relations and progress in the Afghan peace process. The political figures also briefly recalled the visit of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan in November 2020 to Kabul to hold talks with Afghani President Ashraf Ghani. During those talks, Afghanistan promised Pakistan it would do “everything, whatever is possible” to aid the peace process. But Pakistani officials like Qureshi believe that there are “spoilers” within and outside of Afghanistan who do not wish to see the return of peace in Afghanistan and other affected regions.

It is time for the international system to fulfil its role in protecting the global population. Years and years of persecution of a people who have done nothing to deserve such brutality needs to come to an end.

The ‘Kisaan’ Protest: A Turning Point for India’s Democracy

Depiction of Kisaan
A kisaan in his khet, or field. Source: Yahoo Images.

You may have heard or seen news about the ongoing farmers’ protest in India right now. This protest was sparked by three bills that were adopted by the Indian government in September 2020. These three bills primarily place the livelihood of these farmers from the state of Punjab at the mercy of corporations. The privatization of the agricultural economy will surely benefit the Indian government, but the farmers will suffer greatly since corporations will purchase their crops at a much lower rate, leading to generational debt which has already led to farmer suicide in India. To prevent the exploitation of their livelihood, the kisaans (“farmers”) have set out on a protest, the highlight of which has been their march from Punjab to Delhi, India’s capital. The Indian government, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has not reciprocated the farmers’ concerns with any form of sympathy. Rather, senior leaders of the Indian government have called the protestors “anti-nationalist” and “goons.” Such a reaction from the government is not unusual for the Sikh farmers who have been the target of persecution by the Indian government multiple times in the past.

Historical Context

In the 1970s and 1980s, Punjabi Sikhs held similar views in regards to the Indian government’s support for agriculture, an industry which has always been essential to the Indian economy and still is with 60% of the Indian population reliant upon farming for its sustenance. Unfortunately, the Indian government reacted the same way it is in 2021 – by labeling the protestors anti-nationalist. Additionally, the government launched a series of egregious human rights abuses consisting of attacks on the Punjabi population in the 1980s, attacking the Golden Temple of Amritsar in June of 1984, launching a state-sponsored pogrom in November of 1984, and extra-judicial killings in the following decade. What is worse is that the Indian government has never acknowledged nor apologized for these events, giving the people of Punjab a reason to have grievances towards the government.

But the state of Punjab is not the only population that has been the prey of India’s ongoing human rights abuses. The rise of right-wing authoritarianism in India coincides with the ascension of Narendra Modi to the role of Prime Minister; Modi himself took part in genocidal violence in 2002 while presiding over Gujrat’s anti-Muslim pogroms as chief minister of the state. Though the current protests are pogroms, the Indian government has acted in an undemocratic manner with its press censorship, journalist detention , and violent crackdowns on the non-violent protestors.

Protest
Protestors took over the Indian capital of Delhi, demanding their rights. Source: Yahoo Images.

What do the farmers want?

Farmer unions and their representatives have asked that the three farm acts passed by Parliament be repealed; they will not settle for anything less. The government proposed an 18 month delay of the laws to give the farmers time to adjust, which was also rejected. Between October 14, 2020 and January 22, 2021, eleven inconclusive rounds of talks have taken place between the government and union representatives. The farmers even suggested overthrowing the government on February 3, 2021 if the laws are not repealed.

The reasoning for the farmers’ escalating anger is two-fold: one, the human rights abuses the Indian government is inflicting on the non-violent protestors, including tear gas; and two, the failure of the Indian government and leaders to cooperate with the unions. To peacefully protest a set of acts is well within the rights of a people belonging to a democratic nation, but it is not the right of the government to respond to peace with violence and neglect the concerns being voiced by its people. That is not what a democracy is.

Coup d’état in Myanmar: a precarious situation for human rights

On the first of February, the military of Myanmar, also known as Burma, staged a coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. The armed forces had backed opposition candidates in the recent election, which Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party won in a landslide. Since the coup, Suu Kyi has been arbitrarily detained, supposedly for possessing illegal walkie-talkies and violating a Natural Disaster law. Suu Kyi was previously detained for almost fifteen years between 1989 and 2010, although she continued to organize pro-democracy rallies while under house arrest. The military has stated that they are acting on the will of the people to form a “true and disciplined democracy” and that they will soon hold a “free and fair” election, after a one-year state of emergency.

The military leader, Min Aung Hlaing, is currently in control of the country. Hlaing has been an influential presence in Myanmar politics since before the country transitioned to democracy and has long garnered international criticism for his alleged role in military attacks on ethnic minorities. There is significant cause for concern that a government under Hlaing will impose repressive anti-democratic laws, and more Islamophobic and ultra-nationalist policies.

Min Aung Hlaing in military uniform
Min Aung Hlaing / Getty / Fair use.

Since the 1970s, Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar have suffered from large-scale and orchestrated persecution. Myanmar’s official position, including under the Suu Kyi administration, has been that Rohingyas are illegal immigrants and thus are denied citizenship. In 2016, the military, along with police in the Rakhine State in northwest Myanmar, violently cracked down on Rohingyas living in the region. For these actions, the Burmese military has been accused of ethnic cleansing and genocide by United Nations agencies, the International Criminal Court, and others. The United Nations has presented evidence of major human rights violations and crimes against humanity, including extrajudicial killings and summary executions; mass rape; deportations; the burning of Rohingya villages, businesses, and schools; and infanticide. A study in 2018 estimated that between twenty-four and thirty-six thousand Rohingyas were killed, eighteen-thousand women and girls were sexually assaulted, and over one-hundred-sixteen thousand were injured (Habib, Jubb, Salahuddin,Rahman, & Pallard, 2018). The violence and deportations  caused an international refugee crisis which was the largest in Asia since the Vietnam War. The majority of refugees fled to neighboring Bangladesh, where the Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia became the largest of its kind.

Aung San Suu Kyi has not been immune to criticism for her inaction during the genocide, with many questioning her silence while the military carried out gruesome crimes. Suu Kyi also appeared before the International Criminal Court of Justice in 2019 to defend the Myanmar military against charges of genocide. Regardless, she is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate who enjoys broad support from the people of Myanmar, and there seems to be very little legitimate justification for her removal from power. Protests in response to the coup have grown rapidly since early February, with the BBC calling them the largest in Myanmar since the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

The United Nations Human Rights Council met in special session in mid-February to discuss the coup, recommending targeted sanctions against the leaders. Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif and Special Rapporteur Tom Andrews argued that action taken against the coup’s orchestrators would not hurt Myanmar’s already vulnerable population. They urged the United Nations to take action to replace Min Aung Hlaing and the rest of the military leadership in a broad restructuring that

Protestors in Yangon
Protestors in Yangon / Hkun Lat / Getty / Fair use.

would put the military under civilian control. There is an increasing sense of urgency from human rights bodies due to troubling information getting out of the country, despite repression of the media by the military junta. Reports have started to come to light of live ammunition and lethal force being used against protestors and several protestors have been killed.  In addition, over two-hundred government officials from Suu Kyi’s administration have been detained, with many being “disappeared” by plain-clothes police in the middle of the night. The UN has long been critical of the Myanmar military, with Deputy UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Nada al-Nashif recalling the Human Rights Council’s 2018 report which stated that the “[military] is the greatest impediment to Myanmar’s development as a modern democratic nation.” The Burmese military has functioned for over twenty years with impunity, benefiting from virtually non-existent civilian oversight and disproportionate influence over the nation’s political and economic institutions.

On February 27, the military removed the nation’s UN Ambassador from his position.

Kyaw Moe Tun
Kyaw Moe Tun / Twitter.

Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun had on the 26th denounced the coup as “not acceptable in this modern world” and asked for international intervention by “any means necessary” to end military control. Special Rapporteur on Myanmar Tom Andrews called Moe Tun’s speech a “remarkable act of courage”. Ambassador Moe Tun’s unexpected speech reinvigorated the protestors on the ground, who have faced steadily more intense crackdowns from the government forces. “When we heard this, everyone was very happy, everyone saying that tonight we are going to sleep very happily and encouraged,” Kyaw Win, executive director of Burma Human Rights Network said, “These are peaceful protesters, civilians. And they are standing up against a ruthless, brutal army. So you can see that without any international intervention or protection, this uprising is going to end very badly.”

International response to the coup has been varied. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called it a “serious blow to democratic reforms”, while the United States and United Kingdom have sanctioned military officials. US Secretary of State Blinken issued a statement saying “the United States will continue to take firm action against those who perpetrate violence against the people of Burma as they demand the restoration of their democratically elected government.” On the other hand, China blocked a UN Security Council memorandum criticizing the coup, and asked that the parties involved “resolve [their] differences”, while Myanmar’s neighbors Cambodia, Thailand, and the Philippines have characterized the coup as an “internal matter”.

Additional References:

Habib, Mohshin; Jubb, Christine; Ahmad, Salahuddin; Rahman, Masudur; Pallard, Henri. 2018. Forced migration of Rohingya: the untold experience. Ontario International Development Agency, Canada. ISBN 9780986681516.

 

Farm to Table: The World’s Largest Protest in India

Farmers Protests

In November 2020, India saw the largest protest in world history with tens of thousands of farmers and more than 250 million people standing in solidarity. For the past six months, India’s farmers have been protesting and striking against three agricultural bills that were passed last September. Until recently, the government has refused to listen to the demands of farmers and agricultural unions, and instead met them with force and police brutality. On January 26, India’s Republic Day, tensions between the government and the protestors heightened. This led to peaceful protests turning violent when the farmers that were hosting a rally in India’s capital, Delhi, stormed the city’s Red Fort. Here they were met with police that were armed with tear gas, batons, and assault rifles; as a result of this violence approximately 300 police officers were injured, one protestor died, more than 200 protestors and eight journalists were detained. Violence on this day, subsequent suppression of the press by the government, and internet cuts and shutdowns in areas surrounding protests led to activists like Rihanna, Greta Thunberg, and Meena Harris using their platforms to call global attention and aid to the situation.

Source: Rihanna (Twitter)

What led us here?

In September, India’s Parliament passed three agricultural bills that loosened the rules around the sale, pricing, and storage of farm produce with the support of Prime Minister Modi. Modi and the government claim that these pieces of legislation will benefit the farmers as they will have more control and freedom of trade over their produce; these laws allow online and interstate trading, enable farmers and buyers to enter exclusive contracts, and finally limit the government’s ability to regulate these products. The farmers, however, disagree. They argue that this deregulation will allow corporate buyers and private companies to drive down the prices and exploit the sellers due to increased competition in supply. This, compounded with the bill that involves the removal of government imposed minimum prices, is detrimental to the health and livelihood of the farmers and their families. India already suffers from record numbers of farmers suicides, and there is increased fear that these new bills further drive this suicide epidemic. The number of these deaths are thought to increase even more after these bills are passes and reach an all-time high.

Indian farmers protest in December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What do the farmers want?

The farmers are demanding a complete repeal of the three bills that were passed in fear of corporate exploitation. They say they were already struggling to make ends meets under the protection of the government, but now with an open market with minimal regulatory support, the farmers are afraid that they won’t be able to survive and will be in poverty (if they weren’t already). In turn, the government has failed to address these demands until recently, but now allude to possible compromises, albeit unsatisfactory attempts in the eyes of the farmers.

More recently, however, India’s Supreme Court has suspended these bills in early January, and has ordered a committee to look into the grievances of the farmers and the lack of negotiations on behalf of both the protestors and the government. Chief Justice Bobde released a statement saying, “These are matters of life and death. We are concerned with laws. We are concerned with lives and property of people affected by the agitation. We are trying to solve the problem in the best way. One of the powers we have is to suspend the legislation.”

Farmer unions addressed that they would not participate in any committee processes, as the committee members have previously shown bias to how the agricultural bills were pro-farmer (when they were not). The farmers said they continue with their protests and planned to hold a rally in Delhi on India’s Republic Day on January 26 unless the laws were repealed in the meantime. The Supreme Court’s decision is both a gift and a curse. One on hand, the Court has been widely favorable to Modi’s agenda and policies in the past so this decision is a setback to the Prime Minister, but on the other hand, this decision to suspend the law allows the government to wrestle its way out of negotiations with the farmers without appearing to do so.

Farmers joined in sit-in protests near the capital. 5 December 2020. Image via Wikimedia Commons by Randeep Maddoke. CC0 Public Domain.
Source: Randeep Maddoke (globalvoices.org)

What’s going on now

As of January 20, the government has said that they are willing to suspend the new legislation for up to 18 months to two years, but the farmers have rejected this as it does not meet their demands. The government requested the protesting farmers design a proposal regarding their objections and suggestions to the laws to bring to their next table of negotiations. What’s interesting is that the supporters of the agri-legislations claim that the farmers do not understand the laws which the farmers refute and claim that these laws do not support their labor suggesting the real issue is “over the rights and treatment of agricultural workers.”

Following the violence and brutality on Republic Day, internet shutdowns and cuts by the Ministry of Home Affairs, as well as suppression of the press, individuals and protestors as they clash with the police has been rampant in areas surrounding Delhi. These blackouts should’ve been lifted by now, but protest organizers have said that in some areas the internet was still not working leading to concerns over democracy. While the Indian government argues that this shutdown is necessary to “for public safety” and to curb “the spread of misinformation,” people’s right to expression and communication is being actively and purposefully hindered. As a human rights crisis, the economy suffers, the press struggles to get the news out, children are not receiving the best resources at education their schools have to offer, and those who need emergency services are not getting it or the aid is greatly delayed.

India is the world’s most populous democracy, but it is also a world leader in internet shutdowns. This is not the first time this has happened. The Indian government imposed a blackout in Indian controlled Kashmir after the removal of Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019 as well as another shutdown in areas of New Delhi after protests regarding a controversial and discriminatory citizenship law against Muslims. As the world’s most populous democracy, it’s incredibly concerning to see the suppression of press freedom under the guise of public safety. With no further days set to talk about negotiations in light of recent events, there seems to be no end in sight for these protests. As the new farming season begins in March, farmers may choose to hold on to their demands as a show of strength and unity instead of going back home, and it might be the final domino needed to trigger systemic change in agricultural labor.

How can you help?     

  • Donate to Khalsa Aid and Sahaita.org
  • Until recently, media in the U.S. has been quiet regarding the protests. Educate and share information about the largest protest we’ve seen, as well as on agri-workers rights and treatment.

Not Fair, Still Lovely: The Perpetuating Toxicity of Colorism

advertisement for a skin whitening cream
Source: Adam Jones

This past summer, two pandemics plagued the world: COVID-19 and systemic racial discrimination and prejudice against Black communities. While the former was making modern history, the latter had been happening for centuries. As I thought of ways to address and educate myself and my family on these injustices, I found myself revisiting and reevaluating my own biases, particularly those I’ve experienced within the Indian community.

Growing up in South India, I would mimic my mother and grandma’s daily skin care routine when they used “Fair and Lovely,” a skin lightening and bleaching cream. I was constantly told to not play outside because I might get too dark, and my foundation for dance competitions and rehearsals was often shades lighter that what it needed to be. I was raised in a world where your worth was defined by the color of your skin, and if by chance your skin was too dark or too tan, then you were seen as un-beautiful, unworthy, and incompetent. Most women like my mom, my grandma, and I, as well as other individuals that suffer from the stigma that being dark is ugly, have often fallen prey to companies that profit off the ideology that whiter skin is equivalent to beauty, self-confidence, and self-worth.

Colorism in Indian Society

Colorism is an issue that is often ignored and rooted in societal pressure around fairness. It is a discriminatory practice in which institutions or individuals treat those with lighter skin tones more favorably, upholding instead White, Eurocentric standards of beauty. India is a mixture of diverse cultures, languages, and shades of brown. With different skin tones came colorism that continues to perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and discriminatory actions. For generations, Indian society has been brainwashed into the ideology that fairer skin is more desirable, leading to the nation  developing a multibillion-dollar skin lightening industry. Everyday products like Olay’s Natural White Glowing Fairness Cream, Lotus Herbal’s White Glow Skin Whitening and Brightening Gel Crème, Pond’s White Beauty Daily Spot-Less Lightening Cream, etc. promote stereotypes against darker skin tones through their marketing strategies. For example, a current advertisement shows a young woman with a darker skin tone being rejected from a job later ends up using a fairness product to become more beautiful and thus confident. She then goes on to score an even better job at the end. Mainstream media also fails to provide accurate representations of India’s population, with many actors being light skinned and with frequent recruitment of foreign and predominantly White-presenting actors. Often the practice of “brown-face” is used among these actors and production companies to fit a certain role or aesthetic, thereby enforcing negative stereotypes when proper recruitment should’ve happened in the first place. Even more disturbing is that these stereotypes are so enforced in people’s homes and daily lives and can affect prospective marriages, job opportunities, and other relationships due to preferential treatment towards lighter skin.

The Origins of Colorism

Often, people mistakenly identify the origins of colorism with the caste system present in India. The caste system divides the Indian population according to labor and promotes the idea that each subgroup has its own functionally important role in society. Over time, this led to misrepresentation and manipulation of the caste system, because higher status on the ladder typically meant more prestigious work related to education, religion, trading, etc., whereas lower status meant more labor-intensive work that typically meant occupations in dirtier, outdoor environments. Naturally, those individuals lower on that ladder became darker due to their exposure to natural environmental conditions. Their natural and seasonal tanning along with their status as Dalits (“the untouchables”) within the caste system can be argued to have contributed to colorism. While the caste system does play a part in this ideology, it doesn’t fully explain why discrimination continues to happen, especially among individuals that identify with a higher status on the caste system but are also darker. Apart from that, multiple text depict Hindu deities as “dark-skinned,” and who hold a tremendous amount of respect, honor, and power. Neither the caste system nor religion can wholly explain the origins or colorism and why it still continues to perpetuate today.

A chart depiction of the Caste system.
Source: Source: The Ancient Wisdom Project

Colonization, the third factor of this equation, seems to be the missing part of the puzzle. Like many countries, India was not exempt from British rule and had only in the past century gained its independence. During the centuries of British rule and oppression, “colonization was embedded in the idea that fair skin people were the ruling class, and darker skinned people were the subjects.” Apart from this, there was also blatant favoritism by the newly erected British government towards light skinned Indians that directly affected social and class mobility as well as a family’s socioeconomic status. This was seen through discriminatory practices, such as offering lighter skinned individuals government pardons, jobs, and a voice, which were not offered to Indians of darker skin tones. This mindset, that the only way to be worthy, to be accomplished, and to be civilized and beautiful, slowly became an innate mantra amongst the Indian population, creating generations of individuals that strive for a beauty standard deeply rooted in anti-ethnic, anti-Indian, and anti-minority sentiments. The effects of colonization intermingled with the stereotypical notions of the caste system to give us unique and deeply rooted coloristic principles.

Difference between racism and colorism

Earlier, I mentioned that I wanted to address my own biases regarding systemic racism and educate myself on this issue. However, as an Indian-American immigrant, I found it difficult to navigate the differences between racism and colorism as the two are often intertwined and seen together in my community. But the more I researched on this issue, I found that people, often non South Asians, frequently mistook colorism for racism because it can perpetuates anti-Black sentiments within South Asian communities. Except, they are very distinct concepts. For example, in the U.S. (but not exclusive to the U.S.), skin color is the foundation of race, and continues to be a criterion in determining how they are evaluated and judged. The United States’ historic treatment and oppression of Black Americans is racially based, and within that exist preferences for certain skin tones. However, in a lot of Asian and colonized countries, race is not the primary indicator of how an individual will be treated. Instead, the color of a person’s skin on the wide range of the color spectrum will be the major determinant. While the two sound very similar, “the pervasiveness of a color hierarchy” is the crucial factor in social and class mobility, not necessarily race. Colorism and racism, while closely related problems need different solutions, and while these some of these solutions may overlap, each has a unique set of problems.

Woman holding a Black Lives Matter sign.
Source: Socially Urban

Right now, certain skin care and make-up companies, such as Unilever’s “Fair and Lovely,” that release skin whitening, bleaching, and lightening products have issued public apologies and are removing, re-advertising, and rebranding their products. While this alone is not enough, because the consumption of such products is based in generational trauma surrounding discrimination around darker skin and beautiful shades of brown, it is a step forward in addressing how such companies are profiting off anti-Black sentiments and how to halt such practices.

What can I do?

  • Follow Nina Davuluri’s “See My Complexion” petition and project.
  • Continue to callout and critique companies that promote skin bleaching and whitening products because cosmetic changes such as rebranding products is not enough to halt harmful beauty standards.
  • Most importantly, it’s important to address and actively combat our own implicit biases that are rooted in generational trauma.