The Bharatiya Janata Party-led Central government in 2023 persisted with policies that stigmatise and discriminate against religious and other minorities, international non-governmental organisation Human Rights Watch said in a report released on Thursday.

“This led to increasing incidents of communal violence in many parts of the country, including in Manipur state, where hundreds were killed in ethnic clashes,” the group said in its annual report.

It also stated that the police in BJP-ruled states did not investigate crimes against minorities properly. Instead, officials responded to the incidents by summarily punishing the victim communities, including those who protested such abuse, the report said.

Human Rights Watch cited the example of communal violence that had broken out in Haryana’s Nuh on July 31.

The violence had erupted between Hindus and Muslims during the Brij Mandal Jalabhishek Yatra, a procession organised by the Bajrang Dal and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, and quickly spread beyond Nuh. Hindu mobs had gone on a rampage in Gurugram, torching a mosque in Sector 57, killing its deputy imam and setting fire to shops and shanties of Muslim migrant workers in Sector 70 the next day.

“Following the violence, as part of a growing pattern, the authorities retaliated against Muslim residents by illegally demolishing hundreds of Muslim properties and detaining scores of Muslim boys and men,” the report said. “The demolitions led the Punjab and Haryana High Court to ask the state whether it was conducting ‘ethnic cleansing’.”

On Manipur

Human Rights Watch noted that civil society activists have accused Manipur Chief Minister N Biren Singh of fueling divisions in the state, which has been gripped by ethnic violence between the Meitei and Kuki communities since early May.

It took note of allegations that Singh provided “political patronage to violent groups in the Hindu-majority Meitei community” and stigmatised the Kukis by alleging their involvement in “drug trafficking and providing sanctuary to refugees from Myanmar”.

The report also mentioned that over a dozen United Nations experts had raised concerns in September about the ongoing violence and abuses in Manipur, saying the government’s response had been slow and inadequate.

In the same month, the Manipur Police had filed criminal cases against the Editors Guild of India after it published a report saying the state leadership had played a partisan role in the ethnic violence.

On media freedom

The Human Rights Watch report took note of the Delhi Police raids on several journalists associated with NewsClick in October. It stated that the government intensified efforts to silence independent journalists, civil society activists and even political opponents through threats and by using politically motivated charges.

It also said that the raids on the BBC offices in India by income tax authorities appear to be “reprisal for a two-part documentary that highlighted Prime Minister Modi’s record in failing to protect Muslims”.

The government had blocked the BBC documentary in India in January, using emergency powers under the Information Technology Rules.

On internet shutdowns

The report noted that while the central government promoted the use of digital public infrastructure, it also continued to impose rampant internet shutdowns.

“Indian authorities imposed the largest number of internet shutdowns globally in 2022, violating Indian and international human rights standards,” said Human Rights Watch. “The shutdowns disproportionately hurt socially and economically marginalised communities by denying them access to free or subsidised food rations and livelihoods, which requires adequate internet access.”

Human Rights Watch said that uneven access to internet services among rural communities hampered efforts to expand the delivery of social and economic services.

The NGO also said that amendments made in April to the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 weakened safeguards around encryption and “seriously undermine media freedom, privacy rights, and freedom of expression online”.