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India risks becoming 'main generator of atrocities', UN official warns

Warning from UN special rapporteur on minority Issues comes amid diplomatic crisis in Canada-India ties after murder of Sikh leader
Members of Christian community protest in India's Hyderabad against ongoing ethnic violence in the northeastern Manipur state, on 25 August (AFP)

India risks becoming one of the world’s main generators of “instability, atrocities and violence” amid rising religious nationalism, the United Nations special rapporteur on minority issues warned Thursday.

Fernand de Varennes raised the alarm in Washington DC during a speech organised by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

“India risks becoming one of the world’s main generators of instability, atrocities and violence because of the massive scale and gravity of the violations and abuses targeting mainly religious and other minorities such as Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and others,” he said.

"It is not just individual or local, it is systematic and a reflection of religious nationalism.”

Varenne’s warning came after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged that Indian “agents” had assassinated Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia.

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The accusation has sparked a crisis in bilateral ties between India and Canada with tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and each government warning its citizens against travel to the other’s country.

Human rights activists have accused the US and other western governments of brushing aside concerns about religious freedom in India as they court New Delhi as an ally against China. 

'Paraded naked, beaten and gang raped'

Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a strident supporter of Hindu nationalism and his government has been accused of engaging in or tolerating violence against religious minority groups.

The US State Department’s 2022 religious freedom report slammed India for rising violence against religious minorities, and last year the US Holocaust Memorial Museum warned about the rising risks of mass atrocities in India against religious minorities.

India’s rule over the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir has been a focal point of concern.

In 2019, New Delhi revoked Article 370 of India's constitution, the clause that granted Kashmir semi-autonomous status within the Indian Union. The same year, India also introduced the Citizenship Amendment Act, which rights groups have argued violates India's secular constitution by making religion a basis for citizenship.

But religious activists have also noted a sharp uptick in violence targeting Christian communities.

Varennes noted a video from the Indian state of Manipur - home to a large Christian majority - taken on 4 May that showed a mob forcing two Christian women to march naked on the street. Varennes said the two women from the Christian Kuki community had been "paraded naked, beaten and gang raped”.

"There was inaction from authorities until this video caught the international attention,” he added.

India, the world’s most populous country, is set to hold elections in 2024. Varennes warned that the targeting of minorities and human rights defenders will worsen as the election approaches.

“Indian authorities have not taken any tangible steps to hold perpetrators of abuses against minorities to account. Indian authorities have not engaged constructively with criticism, boasting instead of democratic values and the rule of law,” he said.

“Some senior leaders have either remained silent or have indeed contributed, through their own rhetoric, to the hostile environment against religious minorities.”

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