Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Using international minority rights framework to reiterate Indian Muslims’ right to development

A recent working paper presented by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister (EAC-PM) that is doing rounds in mainstream media spaces claims that the population of Muslims in India has increased by 43.15% while the population of Hindus has decreased by 7.82%.

Amid national elections, with on-record instances of the current Prime Minister asking for votes on communal lines, deliberately referring to Indian Muslims as infiltrators, this report will add further fuel to the fire, reinforcing the popular belief held by Hindu nationalists that their population in the country is in danger (hindu khatre me hai) because of the rising numbers of Muslims in the country who are seen as outsiders, invaders and infiltrators.

At an election rally in Rajasthan, PM Narendra Modi claimed that if Congress came to power, the wealth will be unfairly distributed to, or snatched away by ‘those who have more children’, apparently referring to India’s Muslim population. 

The EAC-PM report has been criticised for spreading misinformation by the Population Foundation of India, an independent think tank with a focus on collating data related to the population and reproductive health of communities in India. According to them, the report has compared the percentage share of the population from 1950 up to 2015, which has a rise of 4.25% percentage points, being represented as a 43.15% increase in their percentage share of the population.

It appears that this report has come just in time to substantiate the claim that the increase in the population of minorities in India signifies that the country provides a conducive atmosphere for minorities not just to exist, but also to thrive—a claim that is rendered disingenuous if one looks at the existing reality of minority lives in the country. With daily instances of mob justice, cow vigilantism, organised pogroms, imprisonments, carefully concocted media trials, songs and literature and social media harassment amongst a range of tools used to subvert and alienate minorities, and strip them of their dignity, the situation is bleaker than is recognised by international institutions. 

The concerns about India’s Muslim population remain relevant on both sides of the spectrum: for the Hindu majority, their deep and unfounded fear that the Muslims will take over ‘their’ resources, and for the Muslim minority, that factually remains the last-ranked community on most socio-economic indices. Since the Sachar Committee Report was released in 2006, which shed light on the dilapidated condition of Muslims in India in terms of their social, economic and political conditions, it has only further worsened. The report highlighted that the literacy rate for Muslims was at 59.1% (below the national average), with only 4% of Muslims holding graduate degrees and diplomas. Research suggests that Indian Muslims find themselves in the first position when it comes to communities that are left behind in the country’s developmental aspirations, as well as its manifested ground realities. Declining religious freedom with attacks based on clothing, attacks on mosques, hijab ban, and similar violent attacks only further contribute to the community’s alienation. On an infrastructural level, Muslims find themselves increasingly alienated and pushed towards the margins of cities, as a result of an intended neglect that results in the ghettoization of these communities.

While only local efforts from within and outside the community can make any substantial difference in uplifting the community from its state of persisting underdevelopment, it is also important to explore the avenues available in the international minority rights framework to reassert the community’s right to development. For instance, participation in UN Institutions like The United Nations Forum on Minority Issues (hereby UNFMI) can be used by the community as a platform for representation, but also as a platform to network and engage with other minority communities to learn from each other. The UNFMI was established in 2007, to promote dialogue and cooperation on issues of national, ethnic, religious, or linguistic minorities. The forum meets annually for two working days that are dedicated to thematic discussions concerning minority rights. It is attended by States, UN bodies, regional organisations, individual representatives, civil society organisations, organised minority groups, minority rights experts, etc. The work of the UNFMI is guided by the Special Rapporteur on minority issues, who in turn makes recommendations based on these discussions to the Human Rights Council.

The international minority rights protection framework is being used by ethnic, religious, caste-based, linguistic, and other minorities worldwide for representation. One of the most essential purposes served by attending the forum is the documentation of issues concerning minorities at an international level, representation and taking up of space in global identity politics. Attendance of the forum also helps transnational social mobilisation and allows communities to network and learn from the successes and failures of each other’s strategies. Global policies like those of the United Nations or other regional human rights regimes, or policies from states that have a significantly better record of the upkeep of their minorities can be analysed and used by minority groups to frame their policy demands. Minorities need to advocate for their participation in policymaking. 

At the 13th session of the forum, it was discussed how the UNFMI can borrow learnings from the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues or the Permanent Forum on People of African Descent to increase the space and time given to issues relating to minorities at the United Nations. The 2030 SDGs mention indigenous peoples 6 times but do not mention minorities. Minorities must advocate for space in the overall international developmental aspirations and removal of structural barriers that resultantly leave them behind in policymaking.

 It is also a good idea to reflect and point out the position of states in international fora in contrast with their actual policy decisions. India’s position on minority rights and Islamophobia at the international level is in complete contrast with its alienating policies like that of the discriminatory Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) or the Uniform Civil Code (UCC), imprisonment of minority rights activists and students, to name a few.

At the 14th and 15th sessions of the UNFMI, the statements made by India were the same, down to the exact words that were said, part of which stated, “India remains committed to guarantee all rights to its minorities in line with its commitments under national and international instruments”. In contrast, the ground reality of Indian minorities, as repeatedly pointed out by UN bodies and international human rights organisations goes from bad to worse every year with daily instances and recurring patterns of violence against minority communities. In 2019, in her annual report to the UNHRC, the UN Human Rights Chief warned that India is engaging in divisive policies that could stunt its economic growth. If at least for nationwide developmental objectives, the state’s policy should reflect equal growth aspirations for its minority communities. India also abstained from the UN General Assembly’s resolution on combating Islamophobia, citing that such a measure would allow further categorisations of phobias across religions, putting people into camps based on religion. It reflects the state’s persistent denial of atrocities that are committed against this specific religious minority and is not surprising considering that these atrocities are, in most instances organised or backed by the state itself. For instance, during pogroms, it has been found on more instances than one that it is the state’s police and paramilitary that, if not committing the acts itself in some cases, is found to be protecting and shadowing people committing them.

These injustices must be logged and heard at an international level. The issue of imprisoned human rights defenders (HRDs), the case of preventive detention laws, and the statistics reporting the number of undertrial prisoners in  Indian prisons far exceeding their percentage share in the population are some of the issues that should be brought up to the regional (Asian) forum on minority issues as well as the UNFIM. Although Indian Muslim organisations have previously done this, the rising political violence against the Muslim community makes it important that they take up more space in the global fora on minority rights and let progressive and human rights-based global policies inform their advocacy at the local level, along with the establishment of fruitful coalitions and networks with other minorities worldwide.

Transnational mobilisation among Indian Muslims has happened through organisations like International Council for Indian Muslims which is an organisation run by the Indian Muslim diaspora, with its headquarters currently based in Geneva. The organisation participated and represented the Indian Muslim minority in the 16th session of the forum and raised issues concerning Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, and Dalits. Miles2smile founder Aasif Mujtaba was also invited to attend the 16th session of the UNFMI in 2023 where he raised issues concerning the Indian Muslim community. Issues of Indian Muslims have also been previously raised by international organisations like Minority Rights Group.

Although the work of the forum on minorities has been criticised by the Special Rapporteur on minority issues for not having done enough to institutionalise the protection of minority rights at the international level through treaties, creation of a permanent forum, creation of working groups or setting up of a voluntary fund, these things can be achieved progressively over the coming years through participation and advocacy at the forum.

Indian Muslims, along with other minorities in India must make an effort to be a significant part of this change and reassert their developmental rights at the global level.

Wardah Beg is pursuing her Human Rights Master’s at the School of Advanced Study, University of London with particular research interest in minority rights, community development, citizenship laws and statelessness.

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