Vigilante violence aimed at religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government—often carried out by groups claiming to support the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—became an increasing threat in India in 2017.
The government failed to promptly or credibly investigate the attacks, while many senior BJP leaders publicly promoted Hindu supremacy and ultra-nationalism, which encouraged further violence. Dissent was labeled anti-national, and activists, journalists, and academics were targeted for their views, chilling free expression. Foreign funding regulations were used to target nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) critical of government actions or policies.
Lack of accountability for past abuses committed by security forces persisted even as there were new allegations of torture and extrajudicial killings, including in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Chhattisgarh, and Jammu and Kashmir.
Supreme Court rulings in 2017 strengthened fundamental rights, equal rights for women, and accountability for security forces violations. In August, the court declared the right to individual privacy “intrinsic” and fundamental under the country’s constitution, and emphasized the constitution’s protections, including free speech, rule of law, and “guarantees against authoritarian behaviour.”
That month, the court also ended the practice of “triple talaq,” allowing Muslim men the right to unilaterally and instantaneously divorce their wives.
In July, the court ordered an investigation into 87 alleged unlawful killings by government forces in Manipur state from 1979 to 2012.
Violent Protests, Impunity for Security Forces
In the first 10 months of 2017, there were 42 reported militant attacks in the state of Jammu and Kashmir in which 184 people were killed, including 44 security force personnel. Several were killed or injured as government forces attempted to contain violent protests.
In May, the army gave a commendation to an officer who used a bystander unlawfully as a “human shield” to evacuate security personnel and election staff from a mob in Jammu and Kashmir’s Budgam district.
In a setback for accountability for security force abuses, the Armed Forces Tribunal in July suspended the life sentences of five army personnel who were convicted in 2014 for a 2010 extrajudicial killing of three villagers in the Machil sector in Jammu and Kashmir.
Treatment of Dalits, Tribal Groups, and Religious Minorities
Mob attacks by extremist Hindu groups affiliated with the ruling BJP against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that they sold, bought, or killed cows for beef. Instead of taking prompt legal action against the attackers, police frequently filed complaints against the victims under laws banning cow slaughter. As of November, there had been 38 such attacks, and 10 people killed during the year.
In July, even after Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally condemned such violence, an affiliate organization of the BJP, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), announced plans to recruit 5,000 “religious soldiers” to “control cow smuggling and love jihad.” So-called love jihad, according to Hindu groups, is a conspiracy among Muslim men to marry Hindu women and convert them to Islam.
Freedom of Expression
Authorities in India continued to use sedition and criminal defamation laws against government critics. In June, police in Madhya Pradesh state arrested 15 Muslims on sedition charges for allegedly celebrating Pakistan’s victory over India in a cricket match, despite Supreme Court directions that sedition allegations must involve actual violence or incitement to violence. After a public outcry, the police dropped the sedition case but charged them with disturbing communal harmony. Also, in June, the Karnataka state assembly punished two editors for articles that allegedly defamed two of its members.
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
Multiple high-profile cases of rape across the country during the year once again exposed the failures of the criminal justice system. Nearly five years after the government amended laws and put in place new guidelines and policies aimed at justice for survivors of rape and sexual violence, girls and women continue to face barriers to reporting such crimes, including humiliation at police stations and hospitals; lack of protection; and degrading “two-finger” tests by medical professionals to make characterizations about whether the victim was “habituated to sex.”
The murder of a 7-year-old boy in a private school in Haryana state in September highlighted that child sexual abuse is disturbingly common in homes, schools, and residential care facilities.
In a deadly outcome resulting from state corruption and neglect, over 60 children died in a public hospital in Uttar Pradesh state in August when a private supplier cut off the oxygen supply after government officials failed to pay long-pending dues.
Children’s education was frequently disrupted in areas facing conflict and violent protests. Clashes between protesters and security forces in Jammu and Kashmir state that began in July 2016, continued to simmer throughout 2017, leading to frequent closing of schools and colleges. In May 2017, a student was killed by paramilitary forces inside a government school in Anantnag district during a violent protest.
Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
In August, the Supreme Court, in its ruling that privacy is a fundamental right, gave hope to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people in India by stating that section 377 of India’s penal code, which effectively criminalizes same-sex relationships between consenting adults, had a chilling effect on “the unhindered fulfilment of one’s sexual orientation, as an element of privacy and dignity.”
Rights of Persons with Disabilities
In April, India enacted a new mental health law that provides for mental health care and services for everyone and decriminalizes suicide. However, disability rights groups say much remains to be done to ensure that the law is properly enforced.
There were no executions in 2017 but nearly 400 prisoners remained on death row. The number of people sentenced to death nearly doubled from 2015 to 2016, from 70 to 136. Most crimes for which capital punishment was handed down included murder, and murder involving sexual violence.