A Bright Future – Recent Human Rights Victories

Source: Yahoo Images, Unknown Artist

In the midst of a pandemic and international unrest, it is vital to stay encouraged and optimistic as we continue our efforts to uphold and protect human rights internationally. That is why we at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB will be using this article to break up the negative news cycle and put a spotlight on a few of the amazing victories and progress the international community has made during the pandemic that you might not have heard about. Though positive human rights news may not always make headlines, it is important to recognize each success, just as it is vital we address each issue. 

Source: Quentin Meulepas via Flickr

The UN Declares Access to a Clean Environment is a Universal Human Right – July 2022

Of the 193 states in the United Nations general assembly, 161 voted in favor of a climate resolution that declares that access to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is a universal human right; one that was not included in the original Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. While the resolution is not legally binding, it is expected that it will hugely impact international human rights law in the future and strengthen international efforts to protect our environment. Climate justice is now synonymous with upholding human rights for the citizens of member-states, and the United Nations goal is that this decision will encourage nations to prioritize environmental programs moving forwards.

Kazakhstan and Papua New Guinea Abolish the Death Penalty- January 2022

Kazakhstan became the 109th country to remove the death penalty for all crimes, a major progress coming less than 20 years after life imprisonment was introduced within the country as an alternative punishment in 2004. In addition to the national abolition,  President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has signed the parliamentary ratification of the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Article 6 of the ICCPR declares that “no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of life”, but the Second Optional Protocol takes additional steps to hold countries accountable by banning the death penalty within their nation. Though the ICCPR has been ratified or acceded by 173 states, only 90 have elected to be internationally bound to the Second Optional Protocol (the total abolition of the death penalty), and Kazakhstan is the most recent nation to join the international movement to abolish the death penalty globally. 

Papua New Guinea also abolished their capital punishment, attributing the abolishment to the Christian beliefs of their nation and inability to perform executions in a humane way. The 40 people on death row at the time of the abolishment have had their sentences commuted to life in prison without parole. Papua New Guinea is yet to sign or ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, but by eliminating the death penalty nationwide the country has still taken a significant step towards preserving their citizens right to life. 

Source: Randeep Maddoke via Wikimedia

India Repeals Harmful Farm Plan – November 2021

Many of you will remember seeing international headlines of the violent protests following India’s decision to pass three harmful farming laws in 2020. The legislation, passed in the height of the pandemic, left small farmers extremely vulnerable and threatened the entire food chain of India. Among many other protections subject to elimination under the farm laws was the nations Minimum Support Price (MSP), which allowed farmers to sell their crops to government affiliated organizations for what policymakers determined to be the necessary minimum for them to support themselves from the harvest. Without the MSP, a choice few corporations would be able to place purchasing value of these crops at an unreasonably low price that would ruin the already meager profits small farmers glean from the staple crops, and families too far away from wholesalers would be unable to sell their crops at all. 

Any threats to small farms in India are a major issue because, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “Agriculture, with its allied sectors, is the largest source of livelihoods in India”. In addition, the FAO reported 70% of rural households depend on agriculture and 82% of farms in India are considered small; making these laws impact a significant amount of the nation’s population.  A year of protests from farmers unions followed that resulted in 600 deaths and international outcries to protect farmers pushed the Indian government to meet with unions and discuss their demands. An enormous human rights victory followed as Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in November of 2021 that they would rollback the laws, and on November 30 the Indian Parliament passed a bill to cancel the reforms. As the end of 2021 approached, farmers left the capital and returned home for the first time in months, having succeeded at protecting their families and their livelihoods.

Source: Sebastian Baryli via Flickr

Sudan Criminalizes Female Genital Mutilation – May 2020

Making history, Sudan became one of 28 African nations to criminalize female genital mutilation / Circumcision (FGM/C), an extremely dangerous practice that an estimated 200 million woman alive today have undergone. It is a multicultural practice that can be attributed to religion, sexual purity, social acceptance and misinformation about female hygiene that causes an onslaught of complications depending on the type of FGM/C performed and the conditions the operation is performed in. Among the consequences are infections, hemorrhage, chronic and severe pain, complications with childbirth, and immense psychological distress. It also causes many deaths from bleeding out during the operation or severe complications later in life. We have published a detailed article about female genital mutilations, gender inequality and the culture around FGM before, which you can find here

FGM/C is a prevalent women’s rights issue in Africa, and in Sudan 87% of women between the ages of 14 and 49 have experienced some form of “the cut”. While some Sudanese states have previously passed FGM/C bans, they were ignored by the general population without enforcement from a unified, national legislature. This new ban will target those performing the operations with a punishment of up to three years in jail in the hopes of protecting young women from the health and social risks that come from a cultural norm of genital mutilation and circumcision.

Where do we go from here?

While we have many incredible victories to celebrate today, local and international human rights groups will continue to expose injustices and fight for a safer and more equal future for all people. Our goal at the Institute for Human Rights at UAB is to educate; to inform readers about injustices and how they can get involved, and to celebrate with our incredible community when we have good news to share! While the past year has been marked with incredible hardships, it is always exciting when we have heart-warming international progress to share!

You can find more information about us, including free speaker events and our Social Justice Cafes on our Instagram page @uab_ihr! Share which of these positive stories you found most interesting in our comments, and feel free to DM us with human rights news you would like us to cover!

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. 

Pegasus: A Frightening Era of Digital Surveillance

Imagine a secret company tapping every word you say and email you read, all because someone decided you are a threat. It may seem draconian and futuristic, but this is the reality of human rights activists around the world under a mysterious spyware called Pegasus. Reminiscent of George Orwell’s novel 1984, Pegasus is an international symbol of decreasing privacy, invasion of privacy restrictions, and increasing digital surveillance of citizens by their governments.  

Pegasus, named after the Trojan horse, is a malware created by an Israeli cybersecurity company known as the NSO group. The spyware was initially intended as a global weapon against terrorism and crime. Normally, most malware infects a device through an email or link containing the software, but Pegasus requires no action on the receiver’s device to become embedded in the device’s systems. Through the “iMessage zero click” exploit, Pegasus is automatically downloaded onto the target’s iPhone. Only a digital security lab has the resources to detect Pegasus on a device, because the program itself does not cause any disruptions to a device’s function.  

Pegasus spyware can access GPS location, calls, texts, contacts, emails, and more dangerously, encrypted and private data such as passwords. Attackers can gain access to a device’s microphone and camera, as well, which opens the door to unauthorized agencies recording audio or video without the owner’s knowledge. The first use of Pegasus was traced to 2013 and has since impacted over 45 countries, but international investigations only began a few years ago. Earlier in 2021, an international collaboration of news media including Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International launched The Pegasus Project to investigate, country by country, the impact of Pegasus use. Evidence has shown that governments use Pegasus to target activists, journalists, and public officials although every country accused has denied the allegation or insisted that it was necessary.  

Painted image of a CCTV camera on a white background
Black CCTV camera stamped on white paint on a concrete wall; Source: Upsplash

India 

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is accused of using Pegasus to illegally spy on people they classify as “Anti-India” or having an anti-government agenda.  

In July 2021, the Pegasus Project found over 300 Indian phone numbers including those of activists, politicians, journalists, and lawyers being tracked by the surveillance software. Four years earlier, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the right to privacy is protected under the Constitution. Despite the legal provision, the Indian government has used excuses of national security and protection when confronted with allegation of using the notorious spyware. This year, the Supreme Court appointed a committee to investigate the data produced by the Pegasus Project and determine whether the government did use Pegasus to spy on citizens and thus, violated the law.  

The Indian government has expanded the umbrella of legal surveillance since the passing of the 1885 Telegraph Act and 2000 Information Technology Act, rendering any word of restricting unauthorized surveillance from them laughable. The country’s ruling party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is responsible for enforcing the 2021 Information Technology Rules, but the legislation has increased the hunt for human rights activists and news outlets that criticize the government’s actions. Initially passed to prevent social media misuse, the rules act as an access card to control streaming sites, social media services, and online news sources that are crucial for citizens to become aware of accurate, although incriminating, investigative reports. 

Journalists sitting down and taking notes at a press conference
Journalists in search of the truth are targeted by governments. Source: Upsplash

Middle East 

Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, Qatar, and Turkey show similar patterns of digital repression over the last couple of decades. The UAE is already known for having the most surveillance over its people in the world. By claiming the invasive surveillance efforts for national security, the Emirati government tracked conversations of its residents, Qatari officials, members of the Saudi Royal Family, and other opponents. In 2016, a human rights activist from the UAE, Ahmed Mansoor, was targeted with Pegasus in 2016 before his arrest in 2017 and subsequent 10-year jail sentence. Fellow activists and scholars have sufficient evidence to suggest that governmental surveillance caused his illegal arrest. 

In 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a progressive journalist from Saudi Arabia, was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey by a team affiliated with the Saudi Arabian government. He was the editor-in-chief of the Al-Arab News Channel and went into hiding in 2017 after the government threatened him. From Turkey, he wrote articles chastising his home government. After his death, Pegasus was allegedly used to keep tabs on his son, fiancé, and other affiliations without their consent.  

Palestine 

Frontline Defenders, an Ireland-based human rights organization, found Pegasus on the phones of 6 Palestinian activists that began in July 2020. The activists belonged to human rights and civil society organizations such as Defense for Children’s International – Palestine and the Union of Palestinian Work Committees in Israel of which 6 have been declared terrorist organizations despite lacking credible evidence supporting the designation.  

Most Israeli surveillance laws do not apply to security companies and give them free reign to use the NSO’s spyware. In 2019, Facebook filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group for invading the popular international messaging platform WhatsApp on 1400 devices. And on November 23rd, Apple sued the NSO Group in California Court for violating a federal anti-hacking law by providing dangerous software to spy on their Apple customers. Despite the obvious unethical nature of spyware, the Israeli government fully licenses Pegasus and is a client of NSO Group. Experts speculate whether the Israel had a role in the hackings around the world, which may be considered an international crime if proven.  

Zoom of a computer screen with green and white lines of code
Source: Upsplash

El Salvador 

The Pegasus Project also uncovered illegal surveillance of investigative journalists in El Salvador, a region in Central America torn apart by frequent gang wars and corruption. Citizen Lab and Access Now forensically analyzed phones from reporters at El Faro and GatoEncerrado, media outlets that have been facing the brunt of President Nayib Bukele’s wrath in the race to retain his position. Evidence gathered by journalists and human rights organizations suggest that Bukele negotiated deals with El Salvador’s deadliest gangs in return for political advantage. Some individual’s phones were hacked over an extended period while others were infected intermittently when the media houses were investigating corruption in Bukele’s administration.  

In 2021, the Biden Administration officially blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser known surveillance company, Candiru, as well. This severs each company’s access to hardware necessary for maintaining servers and outsourcing the software. 

Access to accurate information, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and privacy is crucial to maintaining autonomy and a fundamental human right. Backsliding democracies and military states are re-instituting citizen surveillance digitally – endangering the lives of millions that are fighting for the future of their people. To contribute to cybersecurity labs and human rights organizations working to increase legislation against digital surveillance, please donate to the Citizen Lab (https://engage.utoronto.ca/site/SPageServer?pagename=donate#/department/91) and Frontline Defenders (https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/en/donors). 

Additional Information related to recent digital surveillance and human rights violations: 

https://www.frontlinedefenders.org/sites/default/files/unsafe-anywhere_-women-human-rights-defenders-speak-out-about-pegasus-attacks_en.pdf 

If you would like to learn more about the people the Pegasus Project, follow the link below https://cdn.occrp.org/projects/project-p/#/  

 

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.

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.

Republic At Risk: COVID-19 in India

While the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) has impacted almost every corner of the globe, parts of Asia are still just beginning to see the systemic effects of the pandemic. As the second most populous country in the world, India has experienced a rise in COVID-19 cases and deaths which magnify current injustices across the country. This blog addresses India’s importance within the COVID-19 pandemic and its relationship with human rights issues concerning feeble governance, police brutality, migrant displacement, and Islamophobia.

As of late-July, over 1.4 million Indians have been diagnosed with COVID-19, while over 32,000 have died from the virus. India’s western state of Maharashtra is currently the country’s epicenter with over 375,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. On the southern coastline, the state of Tamil Nadu has the country’s second-largest number of confirmed cases (210,000+), while the capital territory of Delhi in the northwest has recently exceeded 130,000 confirmed cases. Additionally, the southeastern state of Andhra Pradesh has confirmed over 95,000 cases of COVID-19. Interestingly, India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, has only confirmed just over 65,000 cases which triggers questions about access to COVID-19 testing and essential resources throughout the country.

A National Lockdown

In late-March, the Indian government issued a nationwide lockdown that lasted two months. Inconveniently, the country’s 1.3 billion inhabitants were given less than a 4-hour notice of this initial 3-week lockdown. The effects of this tall order were apparent on day one since so many people throughout the country live on a daily wage or in extreme poverty. As food supply chains became compromised and manufacturing facilities closed, the country’s unemployment rate reached a 30-year low. All the while, facilities such as schools and train coaches have been converted into quarantine centers. These attempts have seemingly delayed the inevitable spike of COVID-19 cases. However, it is speculated that the low number of confirmed cases is the result of low testing rates.

This outcome has been attributed to lax contact tracing, stringent bureaucracy, and inadequate health service coordination, namely in Delhi where cases have recently surged. However, as India reopens, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has increased. Additionally, the introduction of newly-approved antigen kits have allowed for rapid diagnostic testing, although testing is not to be distributed proportionately. More specifically, family members and neighbors of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 claim they are not being tested. Also, in several instances, the family members of people who have tested positive for COVID-19 were not being informed about their loved one’s diagnosis. After much scrutiny, however, local health authorities in Delhi have attempted to pick up the pieces by using surveillance measures such as door-to-door screenings, drones, and police enforcement.

Policing the Police

While the recent murder of George Floyd sent shockwaves across the world, India has been confronting its own relationship with police violence. In June, two Tamil Nadu shopkeepers, J Jayaraj and his son Bennicks Immanuel, were arrested for keeping their business open past permitted hours during the national lockdown. They were then tortured while in police custody and died days later in the hospital. Due to this event garnering considerable attention and protesting, six police officers have since been arrested for their deaths. Also, Tamil Nadu police officers with questionable track records will now undergo behavioral correction workshops. However, this incident is no anomaly. According to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), nine Indians die in judicial or police custody every day. In comparison, official government crime data claims 70 people were killed in Indian police custody in 2018. This striking differential in reported custodial deaths suggests India’s law enforcement entities lack accountability and are riddled with corruption.

Much like the United States, India has a history tainted with police violence that disproportionately affects minority groups, namely people from the lowest Dalit caste, indigenous groups, and Muslims. With no choice but to work during the national lockdown, many of India’s poorest citizens were beaten by police. Videos of these violent acts surfaced across social media. In opposition, there have been over 300 reported incidents of attacks on police officers alone in Maharashtra. These recent events highlight the need for the Indian government to pass anti-torture legislation that curbs police violence. By ratifying the United Nations Convention Against Torture, the Indian government can help remove the colonial vestiges of power and punishment that have plagued the country for generations.

Migrant Displacement

The sudden announcement of a national lockdown had tremendous repercussions for the tens of thousands of daily-wage migrants throughout India. Overnight, businesses closed and transportation systems suspended throughout the country, placing many migrant workers in precarious economic conditions. Men, women, and children hunkered down in urban centers across the country as they waited for their workplaces to reopen but to no avail. In response, India’s major cities experienced an exodus of migrant workers attempting to return to their home states on foot, many living hundreds, even thousands, of miles away. As thousands trekked home, many died due to dehydration, exhaustion, sunstroke, and traffic accidents. Reports of pregnant women delivering, and subsequently carrying, their children in these horrific conditions have also surfaced.

A recent Supreme Court order has urged the well-being of India’s 100 million internal migrant workers affected by the hardships of COVID-19 by requiring the government to register, feed, shelter, and transport them until they return home. However, these efforts are seemingly inadequate because most internal migrant workers have not qualified for these “relief packages”, while those who have qualified are experiencing limited coordination between state governments. All the while, India has ended its national lockdown and many migrant workers are trying to return to their places of employment. Some employers are sponsoring the return of their lost workers, while some must find their own means to return. As such, some states have sought local help to accommodate the loss of migrant workers which places many Indians in even greater economic uncertainty.

Migrant workers walking on the shoulder of a highway during the nighttime.
The Indian Lockdown Migration – IV (PB1_4728). Source: Paramvir Singh Bhogal, Creative Commons.

Pathologizing Islam

COVID-19 in India has contributed to a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric that suggests this religious minority group is purposely spreading the virus.  The rumors began after Tablighi Jammat, a Muslim missionary group, held a congregation outside of India and, soon after, many members tested positive for COVID-19 in New Delhi. Videos on WhatsApp and various television channels have proliferated this misinformation to the Indian public alongside the usage of phrases such as “corona jihad” and “corona terrorism”. To make matters worse, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, which is notorious for its Hindu nationalist sentiments, has begun incorporating Tablighi Jamaat-related statistics to its daily COVID-19 briefings. Such rhetoric has influenced a slew of Islamophobic acts such as prohibiting neighborhood entry, restricting sales by street vendors, and even violent attacks.

These recent events fuel an existing fire that posits Muslims as reproducing at a pace to outnumber Hindus and compromising “Mother India”. However, recent efforts between Muslim Indians and allies has been quick to respond to this COVID-19 misinformation because they have been protesting India’s new citizenship law that offers amnesty to various non-Muslim immigrants and a nationwide citizen count that necessitates proof of documentation dating several years back. The BJP has made it apparent that Muslims are not welcome in India and weaponized the COVID-19 pandemic as a part of its Islamophobic campaign. As such, these efforts corner Muslim Indians into political and economic insecurities that pressure apartheid at a time when unity is paramount.

Masked medical professionals walking with a crowd in the background.
coronavirus-india-rep-image-hyd. Source: Anant Singh, Creative Commons.

Human Rights in India

As displayed, India has an array of prevalent human rights issues that have compounded since the arrival of COVID-19. Among the efforts that could protect Indians from these concerns are labor protections, health care reform, civil rights for minority groups, food security, and income equality. However, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has propagated a narrative of self-reliance that undermines these systemic inequalities. Service provision has highlighted these discrepancies because resources are scarce, and those with power and privilege are placed to the front of the line. In addition, many Indians cannot abide to the recommended sanitation and social distancing measures due to living in poor, dense settlements in the heap summer when water sources are limited.

Although tearing through communities and disrupting daily life in India, the COVID-19 pandemic can be viewed as an opportunity for social change. More specifically, it is well within the power of Parliament, the media, civil society, and local governments to right these wrongs by ending communal bias and impartiality within state institutions. Addressing these corrupt and oppressive practices will not only remediate the effects of COVID-19 but help shape an equitable future for a country that is rapidly becoming a global super power and expected to be the most populous country in the world by 2027. Real change and equity in the world’s largest democracy could send a much-needed shockwave of justice across the globe.

COVID-19: A Glimpse to the East

An image of a crowd of people in Wuhan, China. They are all wearing masks as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
2019-20 Wuhan coronavirus outbreak. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

COVID-19, otherwise known as the 2019 novel coronavirus, has spread to many countries around the world, affecting many immunocompromised populations and impacting millions of people worldwide. My colleagues have referenced hotspots where the response has impacted the most, from the Middle East to migrants right outside U.S. borders. They have illustrated how discrimination, isolationism, and plain ignorance have shattered families and populations, destroyed economies, and brought fear and terror into the hearts and minds of Earth’s people. It is in that essence that this article will continue to explain the impact of COVID-19 in another hotspot of the world, Asia.

The Asian continent, comprising 48 countries, according to the United Nations, encompasses immense diversity and roughly 60 percent of the global population within its boundaries. This diversity includes, but is not limited to, having the highest and lowest points on Earth, “the world’s wildest climatic extremes,” and “the birthplace of all the world’s major religions.” For the sake of this article, I will be focusing on three countries that are handling the virus very differently, India, China, and South Korea.

Food Insecurity

Having one of the highest populations in the world, India is often referenced as a case study when examining the impact of overpopulation, economics, and food security. In 2012, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, 60 million out of 200 million people were considered living below the poverty line. Economic inequality has further negatively impacted India’s poorest communities with “57 billionaires controlling 70 percent of India’s wealth” as of 2017. Such inequality has led to the increase in poverty, a lack of medical equipment and access, poor living conditions, and a lack of food.

An image of Indian Census data from 2011. The country is seen with an immense population density per square kilometer. Uttar Pradesh and the city of Kolkata are most dense.
Demographics of India. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

However, this pandemic has exacerbated the lack of access to food by Indian residents that comes on the heels of Prime Minister Nahendra Modi’s announcement to begin a “21-day nationwide lockdown.” With such an announcement also came with rising panic from Indians, crowding grocery stores and shops with people panic buying everything in sight. Under Modi’s plan, the “Prime Minister’s Poor Welfare Scheme”, individuals will be able to receive five additional kilograms of rice or wheat for the next three months. Although proposed to benefit 800 million people, many are wary of its success due to the closure of interstate travel, trains, and flights. It is under this lockdown that residents could face two years in jail and a financial penalty if they leave their home for non-essential reasons. In an interview with Time, an autorickshaw driver expressed concern over Modi’s decree to lockdown the entire country. Before the decree, his main concern was to save enough money to help get his son through college. However, “as he stays home with no daily income, his main concern is putting food on the table. He’s not sure what he will do” once those savings run out. When examining a singular issue impacted by COVID-19, the situation in India highlights the issues that countries with an enormous informal sector may face due to economic hardship and lack of infrastructure. For example, India can grow enough food for its growing population, although millions are left underfed due to “bottlenecked supply chain[s], inadequate logistics, food wastage and sharp societal inequalities.” The virus has further called to attention the lack of food security that many around the world face on a daily basis which infringes upon their basic human rights and a Sustainable Development Goal that must be achieved by 2030, Zero Hunger.

Government Control

An image of the spread of the coronavirus in January. The Wuhan province is shown to be the most effective, colored in black.
Timeline of the 2019-20 coronavirus pandemic from November 2019 to January 2020. Source: Wikipedia. Creative Commons.

Being the most populated country in the world, China is often criticized for its drastic measures and horrifying treatment of Muslim minorities. When examining the pandemic, COVID-19 is known to have originated in the Wuhan province in China and was noticed by Chinese ophthalmologist Li Wenliang. Dr. Wenliang had used a private online chat to explain his worry for the novel virus, which quickly went viral, resulting in him being reprimanded by Chinese police. Following this observation, the province had shut down, cutting off transportation and sealing residents off from the outside world. In an interview with Dr. Bruce Aylward, “the leader of the World Health Organization team that visited China,” had praised the Chinese government’s decisive actions towards preventing the spread of the virus:

“I think the key learning from China is speed — it’s all about the speed.” — Dr. Bruce Aylward

Although the Chinese government has sought to demonstrate its prowess and handling of the virus, through building hospitals in 10-days and publishing photos of patients who have been cured of the disease, many human rights groups have expressed concern and worry over the treatment of those who have been critical of the government. For instance, Chen Qiushi, a Chinese human rights lawyer, was “put under quarantine”, Fang Bin, a citizen journalist, disappeared in February, and Li Zihua, another journalist, was taken away by a group of men. Dr. Wenliang had died due to the virus early February of 2020. With the news of his death, thousands of comments flooded Chinese social media site Weibo criticizing the Chinese government and censorship in the country with top hashtags such as “Wuhan government owes Dr Li Wenliang an apology” and “We want freedom of speech.” According to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), when they searched for the hashtags a day after Wenliang’s death, they disappeared having been censored alongside many comments aimed at the Chinese government.

From Wuhan province, we now turn to the Xinjiang province in Western China, where the imprisonment of millions of Uyghur Muslims could prove to be a breeding ground for the virus as it spreads throughout the world. You can read more IHR blogs about The Uyghur Muslims in the context of Crimes Against Humanity here and how this crisis is affecting refugees on the US-Mexico border here. In Xinjiang, there are an estimated three million people detained in re-education camps in Western China, mostly of Uyghur Muslims who have been suppressed by the Communist Party. As alleged by Jewher Ilham, the daughter of a jailed Uyghur academic, some of the “conditions at the detention centers offered the perfect chance for coronavirus to spread” citing “systematic abuse, serious overcrowding and poor sanitary conditions inside the camps.” Given allegations of China’s unwillingness to publish the truth about these conditions combined with the alleged suppression of critics and ethnic minorities, it is deeply concerning to gauge the risks of infection amongst those who have been cited as not having enough to eat or doctors on staff to treat those infected. This is also a signal to international groups and organizations to ensure that all people have the chance to be cured and not suffer as a result of the virus or violating the human rights to freedom of speech.

An image of China divided into province. The Xinjiang province is highlighted with the highest concentration of Muslims
Xinjiang Region, China. Source: Flickr, futureatlas.com. Creative Commons.

Some Potential Success?

Amongst all the panic buying and the loss of toilet paper throughout the country, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel manifesting itself through ‘flattening the curve’. This method has seemed to be close to perfected by South Korea whose growth in COVID-19 cases has significantly slowed compared to the United States. When examining South Korea, many writers have explained the situation by comparing it to religion and culture, chalking it up to higher levels of social trust and the lingering aspect of Confucianism. However, that does not seem to be the case. By flattening the curve, South Korea has demonstrated that it is due to “competent leadership that inspired public trust.” Having tested more than 5000 people per million inhabitants than the United States, it is no wonder that taking early action and mobilizing health officials could lead to a successful response.

“No sacred Confucian text advised Korean health officials to summon medical companies and told them to ramp up testing capacity when Korea had only four known cases of COVID-19.” — S. Nathan Park

Compared to China, India, and even the United States, South Korea did not have to “lockdown entire cities or take some authoritarian measures,” rather, they learned from their past experience with MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome). Such preparation allowed the South Korean government to be proactive and “improve hospital infection prevention and control.” Combined with South Korea’s industrial and developmental advantages over both China and India, the government was able to take a proactive approach and deter the worst effects of the virus. Once South Koreans started getting sick in early February, the government immediately began “testing aggressively to identify cases — not only testing people who are so sick that they’re hospitalized but also mild cases and even suspected cases.” This initiative has allowed South Korea to quarantine those at a high risk while also managing to keep their factories, schools, hospitals, and entire cities open while other countries around the world are having to shut down everything to contain the spread.

An image of the cumulative and new cases of coronavirus in South Korea. The graph is showing a flattening of the curve.
2020 coronavirus cases in South Korea. Source: Wikipedia, KCDC. Creative Commons.

Conclusion

Looking back at India, China, and South Korea, it becomes apparent that a swift and proactive response is necessary in order to not allow for the lockdown of entire cities and countries. However, that proactivity must balance itself between being lax and aggressive. For example, China’s efforts to curb the spread of the news rather than the virus has made human rights concerns more apparent to the world, especially since the freedom of speech for civilians is being curbed to protect China’s global reputation. In India’s case, the pandemic has shown many human rights groups and countries the issues that a country with a massive impoverished population faces during difficult times. By being able to demonstrate good leadership and mobilizing experts, South Korea has ultimately done what many other countries would only hope to accomplish. Such success has already inspired other Asian countries to follow suit, especially Singapore, Japan, and others. And although South Korea’s population is significantly small compared to that of India and China, their success is one that can be successfully implemented worldwide. Instead of casting these successes aside as an element of Confucianism or culture, it is necessary for us to be able to model our response like South Korea’s so that were such an event to occur again, we will be able to swiftly contain the spread rather than suffer through weeks and months at home without physical human interaction.

India’s Relationship with the Third Gender

Simran, 30, walks through Bandra in Mumbai to ask tourists for money so she can pay her Guru. Photo by Sara Hilton for The New York Times

What is the Third Gender?

In April of 2014, the Supreme Court of India formally recognized the existence of a third gender. There is no formal definition of the third gender in India. People who identify as neither man nor woman are commonly referred to as Hijra or transgender. The Hijra have been subject to discrimination, harassment, and persecution for their genderqueer self-identification. Along with the queer community, Hijras have been targeted by law enforcement and government officials under Section 377. This law was used to criminalize any queer sexual acts and has been used to justify discrimination and mistreatment of the LGBTQ+ community since its enactment in British colonial era India.

What Is the History of the Third Gender In India?

Although the Hijra have been subject to much hate and discrimination in recent times, this has not always been the case. Hijras were well-respected and revered in ancient India. In fact, Hijras play important roles in many Hindu religious texts. One such text talks about the life of Lord Rama, one of the most virtuous Hindu heroes. At some point, Lord Rama was banished from his kingdom. After being banished, he told his followers that the men and women should wipe their tears and leave him. All of the men and women left. However, a group of people known as the Hijra remained standing before him. They were neither men nor women and refused to leave until Lord Rama returned fourteen years later. This community was praised for showing such loyalty.

Hijras also held religious authority and important court positions and administrative roles in Mughal era India. Believed to have the ability to bless, many would seek out Hijras for blessings during important religious ceremonies.  In ancient India, the Hijras were a community that was respected for being extremely loyal and were well trusted enough to be given important religious and governmental roles. This begs the question. If Hijras played an important role in ancient Indian society, then why are Hijras ostracized and persecuted in modern India?

Why Is the Third Gender Ostracized Today?

The answer is due in large part to the British colonization of India. When the British took over direct rule of India and absolved the British East India Company, government officials sought to enforce their western ideas and beliefs on Indians. Lawmakers accomplished this goal by enacting moral laws that banned anything that western society viewed as unclean and dirty. This included the creation of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed “against the order of nature.” From when Section 377 was implemented in 1858 to when it was recently deemed unconstitutional on 6 September 2018, Section 377 was used as justification to mistreat and punish Hijras, queers, and the LGBTQ+ community.

The western concept of hating and marginalizing anybody who was not straight and cisgender took hold in Indian society. The Hijra community was forced from a well-respected role as pillars of religious and governmental society to being social outcasts. This social exile is responsible for the socioeconomic and medical difficulties that Hijras face. Hijras are prone to being economically challenged because of the stigmas that they face. They are denied educational opportunities, jobs, and discriminated against in every area of their lives.

What are the Social, Economic, and Medical Problems Caused By Lasting Social Stigmas?

Despite gaining their independence from Britain in 1947, India has only recently begun to make progress on removing legislation that has been used to attack the Hijra and LGBTQ+ population. The many decades of subjugation stretching back generations have left a mark. Many of the hateful western views towards LGBTQ+ people have become deeply ingrained in India’s culture. Even with many public relations campaigns along with a growing group of supporters, the vast majority of Indians still are against Hijras. Many Indians don’t respect Hijras worth. Hijras are often called to come to auspicious events such as marriages and child-births for blessings. Many Indians view the Hijras as bringing good luck and warding off evil spirits. Yet because of widespread discrimination, the majority of Hijras are forced to beg for money since they are barred from most employment opportunities. Due to this, some of the common means of living for Hijras are begging, dancing, and prostitution.

Open employment discrimination has run rampant because of the lack of workplace protections and discrimination laws that are not comprehensive or well-enforced. Continued police harassment has also burdened the Hijra community. Many police officers have jailed and imprisoned the Hijra community over offenses such as begging, prostitution, and having queer sex. This community has had to resort to such practices because of the refusal to integrate Hijras into the economy. Yet despite not being able to find work, Hijras are attacked even more for trying desperately to survive in a society that has practiced institutionalized, pursued, and encouraged harmful policies towards this community since colonial times.

In addition to facing issues with getting employed, Hijras also have difficulties receiving access to basic medical care. There have been many unfortunate instances of medical malpractice against Hijra people. The Civilian Welfare Foundation is an NGO that conducted studies on the medical problems faced by the transgender community. The study found that the majority of doctors are not educated on gender identity issues and that a transphobic stigma is ingrained amongst medical professionals which is responsible for the lack of proper medical care for Hijras.

The study highlighted the stories of Saikat and Anushri. Saikat was a transgender patient who died from lack of treatment following a train accident. The reason is that doctors could not decide whether to admit her to the male or the female ward. Anushi was gang-raped by several men and sought medical treatment. However, doctors refused to treat her because she was transgender and even denied her access to anti-HIV medication. These two stories highlight the dangerous impact that social stigmas have on our society. In addition to facing persecution and discrimination daily, Hijra people are at risk for bodily harm and even death from bigoted doctors and nurses who are not trained to deal with gender identity issues.

Fear of the social stigmas for being associated with the transgender community is a major reason why many doctors try to avoid seeing Hijra patients and why some outright refuse treatment altogether. Adding on to social fears, healthcare professionals have been hesitant to treat Hijra people because of the risk of criminal prosecution under Section 377. Up until the recent 2018 Supreme Court decision, it was illegal to commit queer sexual acts as well as to aid and abet these acts. There have been cases of individuals being arrested simply for selling condoms to Hijra and queer people. The lack of proper medical care and access to safe sex talks and practices has led to an HIV rate amongst Hijras that is 100 times the national average. Doctors fear Hijra patients because they are misinformed and believe in multigenerational social stigmas. Hijra patients fear doctors because of the risks of being mistreated and harmed by substandard or complete refusal of medical care. This toxic mutual distrust can only continue to harm the Hijra community.

Rithika, 23 and Ammu, 21, live with their Guru in the Koliwada area of Mumbai. Photo by Sara Hylton for the New York Times.

What Are the Recent Successes For the Hijra Community?

There are some recent successes that have helped the Hijra people. The Right for Transgender Persons Bill drafted in 2014 and passed in 2016 has been a major milestone in protecting the Hijra community. The law declared many forms of discrimination against Hijras to be illegal and banned the forcing of Hijras to beg or to leave their homes. Other benefits include the creation of a committee that focuses on helping Hijra pursue education by giving access to scholarships and textbooks among other needs. The bill has also allowed for Hijras to be recognized as socially and economically disadvantaged which qualifies Hijras for benefits from India’s Affirmative Action program. However, there are downsides to the bill as well. Hijra people have to go through a district screening process to receive their third gender certification and ID cards. This approach can lead to refusal of benefits to Hijras based upon the decision of a committee without oversight and comprised of people not trained in gender identity issues.

Also occurring in 2014 was the landmark Supreme Court decision that officially recognized the existence of the third gender. This has allowed for Hijras to opt for third gender classification on official legal documents such as driver’s licenses and passports. The decision has also signified acceptance of the Hijra community’s existence by a government that has continuously sought to marginalize those who aren’t cisgender. However, this decision has also come up short in addressing the many problems Hijras face. Third gender IDs, while motivated by good intentions, do not address many basic rights. When getting married, transferring property, or adopting children there are only cisgender ordinances in place. This means that Hijras cannot get married, cannot leave behind property for their kids, and cannot adopt kids that desperately need good homes while being recognized and identifying legally as the third gender.

Another recent Supreme Court decision that has increased the rights of Hijras happened in 2017. The court declared that the Right to Privacy was a fundamental right to all individuals and enacted protections for the privacy of Hijras’ sexual orientations. This will go a long way toward helping prevent socioeconomic and medical discrimination.

In addition to legal successes, there have also been gains in societal acceptance and integration of the Hijra community. In 2017 India accomplished many firsts. Joyita Mondal became India’s first third gender judge, Tamil Nadu became India’s first Hijra police officer, Natasha Biswas became India’s first third gender beauty pageant winner, and Kochi Metro Rail Ltd. became India’s first government-owned company to provide bulk employment to Hijras. There are plenty more Hijra success stories out there which are a sign of widespread societal change. There is hope that the social stigmas that have plagued the Hijra community will soon be fully erased.

It is clear that Hijras face many challenges in modern times. Widespread social stigmas and discrimination against this community were promoted for generations. It is also clear that such large problems take a long time to fix. However, if legal efforts and public relations campaigns are continued then India can one day become a society that fully embraces and supports all people regardless of sexual or gender orientation.

 

 

 

Section 377 is overturned, but now what?

Rainbow heart with "love" spelled out in the middle
LGBT Rainbow Heart with Love Inscription. Source: b_earth_photos, Creative Commons

For the past 150 years in India, homosexual acts were not only banned but were criminally punishable by up to ten years in prison. Introduced in 1861, while India was still under British colonial rule, Section 377 of the Indian Penal code made illegal any “unnatural offenses” that were deemed as sexual activities “against the order of nature.” For many years this gave policemen, government officials, and local village leaders free reign to harass and discriminate against the LGBTQ+ population of India. Recently on 6 September 2018, the Supreme Court of India, after years of court decisions and decades of public protest, ruled that the application of Section 377 to queer and trans sex was unconstitutional. The justices denounced this law’s infringement upon the freedoms of LGBTQ+ people as it “criminalized consensual sexual acts of adults in private”. This determination has ceased much of the governmental abuse of the Indian LGBTQ+ population. It is worthwhile to note that despite the public opinion that Section 377 was repealed, the law is still active and applicable to other offenses such as rape, bestiality, and sexual acts with minors. The supreme court decision simply made it illegal to apply Section 377 to queer sexual acts.

Now that Section 377 can no longer target sexual minorities, India’s vast LGBTQ+ population is beginning to emerge from the shadows and realize their true selves in public without fear of prosecution and imprisonment. This is not to say that there is not a reason to still be afraid. Many people and institutions are still very hostile towards the queer and trans community because of the social stigmas, stereotypes, ignorance, and intolerance that are still very much ingrained in Indian culture. There is still much work to be done to educate the general population for LGBTQ+ issues to be destigmatized. There is hope that a culture friendly and accepting of all people, regardless of sexual or gender orientation, will soon become a reality in India.

It has long been held that “Section 377 in itself does not mean that you can be arrested for simply being or saying [that] you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, Hijra or Kothi. Your freedom of expression is not under threat”. This fact, however, has not prevented the widespread discrimination inflicted by police officers, hospital staff, and highly hostile work environments. India’s lack of a complete anti-discrimination law that protects all groups who may face prejudice has allowed such toxicity and hatred to fester and grow. Although a few anti-discrimination laws exist, they are not well enforced and only apply to public institutions. This means that all private Indian companies are free to discriminate against LGBTQ+ employees with no legal repercussions and allows government institutions to violate existing law without any harsh penalties. The criminalization of queer sex and the lack of adequate discrimination protections has ignited many lasting problems for the LGBTQ+ community. These people lack quality public healthcare, face cultural and religious persecution, and fear a prejudice entertainment industry that is encouraging the current generation of adolescents to be homophobic.

It seems odd that Section 377’s past criminalization of queer sex could damage the healthcare available to the LGBTQ+ population. However, it is important to realize that not only was having queer sex a criminal act, but anyone that was found to have helped hide or abet LGBTQ+ sexual acts would have also been prosecuted as an accessory to the crime. This was the case with Arif Jafar, an Indian health counselor. Arif made it his mission to attempt to help the queer population have safe sex and avoid being infected with HIV by handing out condoms each week. After nearly three decades of aiding the LGBTQ+ community, Arif was arrested for abetting and promoting the criminal offense of queer sexual acts. He was beaten, spent 47 days in jail, and has had to appear in court each month for over a decade. This is but one of the many atrocities committed against the LGBTQ+ people because of Section 377. Simply selling condoms and other objects used for safe sex to queer/trans men and women was unlawful. This created dangers for both the LGBTQ+ community and any doctors willing to serve them. For these reasons, many LGBTQ+ in India have avoided healthy sex conversations out of fear that their doctors, nurses, or other healthcare professionals involved with their care would report their “criminal” sexual acts to the authorities.

Section 377 instilled so much fear in the LGBTQ+ community that many refused to see a doctor for treatment for AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases. In fact, the UN collected data detailed in the 2017 UNAIDS Data report that showed that the national HIV infection rate for queer men is 4.3% while the national average is .31%. This means that queer men are nearly fourteen times more likely to be infected with HIV than straight men. It is impossible to determine exactly how large of an impact the lack of access to condoms and other safe sex essentials has had on the LGBTQ+ HIV epidemic. However, it is clear that these policies could only have increased the health risks for this community.

In addition to preventing many from seeking or receiving proper medical care, doctors were not well educated on the common spectrum of LGBTQ+ health issues, and as such were not adequately equipped to serve these patients. Even after the recent Supreme Court decision absolved these risks, the vast majority of the LGBTQ+ population are still hesitant to going to the doctor for sexual related issues. Doctors play a key role in providing sex education to their patients. It is well established that these safe sex talks help to decrease patients risk for sexually transmitted diseases. However, when patients fear talking to their physicians for fear of getting reported to the authorities then these safe sex talks do not occur. One can only hope that the sacred bond and trust between patient and physician can heal over time for this community.

Many Indians cite cultural and religious reasons as grounds for their anti-LGBTQ+ attitudes. However, this stance doesn’t hold up under scrutiny. Hindu culture has a long history of acceptance for LGBTQ+ people and religious figures. H. H. Sri Sri Ravi Shankar makes this point clear by saying that “Homosexuality has never been considered a crime in Hindu culture. … It is not a crime in any Smriti. Everyone has male & female elements … [and] Nobody should face discrimination because of their sexual preferences. To be branded a criminal for this is absurd”. Institutions such as the Hindu American Foundation and the Gay & Lesbian Vaishnava Association corroborate this pro-LGBTQ+ attitude. This begs one to question why public opinion differs from historical evidence and major religious organizations.

The answer lies 150 years ago when Britain took direct control of India from the British East India Company. After Britain began governing India in 1858, they implemented Section 377 and other social policies that attacked the prevalent LGBTQ+ population India had at the time. This was an enforcement of British values on Indian society. When India decriminalized queer sexual acts this past year it wasn’t, “India becoming ‘westernized.’ It’s India decolonizing.” says Twitter user @shamiruk. Being colonized and subjugated for many generations has caused a multitude of prejudice western practices to become entrenched in Indian society. The goal moving forward is for India to evolve past the harmful effects of colonization and be fully reunited with the LGBTQ+ accepting culture of pre-colonial India.

 

LGBT activist during the 16th Kolkata Rainbow pride walk 2017 in South Kolkata on Sunday, December 10, 2017. Express photo by Partha Paul.

Although great strides are being made to help the LGBTQ+ community gain legal protections and societal acceptance in India, the current entertainment industry’s portrayal of the queer community in a negative light, often at the butt of insults and jokes, is endangering an entire current generation of young people to be homophobic. The progress for widespread social change has been incredibly slow. There are many stereotypes in mainstream Indian cinema that only fuel derogatory comments and demeaning behavior towards the LGBTQ+ population. In fact, after the news spread about the Supreme Court decision on Section 377 many young people were tagging each other on Instagram and Twitter saying things like “you’re free now!” in teasing and mocking tones. The term “gay” itself has become a common insult for kids to tease and mock their peers. This highly toxic culture is the direct result of a society that makes light of making fun of the LGBTQ+ community as ‘just joking’ by media outlets, and even the parents and role models of these young children. Scared of the prejudice and abuse that being openly queer will bring, many LGBTQ+ people still aren’t comfortable with coming out and being comfortable in their own skin.

The 6 September 2018 Supreme Court decision to decriminalize queer sexual activities by Section 377 was a major step forward in LGBTQ+ rights and protections. This is a milestone that will forever be remembered as a landmark case in the LGBTQ+ social movement for acceptance in Indian society. Going forward there are many issues left to tackle. The most crucial factor in combatting these issues is educating the public on the LGBTQ+ community. This is vital to removing the deeply ingrained homophobic stigmas. A more educated and open-minded public will also be more likely to elect governmental officials who will enact laws to protect LGBTQ+ people. If the public can learn how to be accepting and respectful of LGBTQ+ individuals, then both institutional and societal change can happen.

The government needs to take a key role in helping to enact these changes by, “disseminating new guidelines to public institutions, especially to law enforcement,” says Dr. Sambuddha Chaudhuri. Chaudhuri is a public health expert based in Mumbai, who has done research on HIV and sexual minorities. Steps need to be taken to educate the public through media outlets and by instituting LGBTQ+ education in primary and secondary school curriculums. Meanwhile, the government should focus on passing laws to protect the rights of the LGBTQ+ community.  This top-bottom two-pronged strategy will help to quickly facilitate the necessary legislative changes and increased pace of social acceptance required to make a pro-LGBTQ+ India that people deserve.