The United Nations human rights chief has warned India that its “divisive policies” could undermine economic growth, saying that narrow political agendas were marginalising vulnerable people in an already unequal society.
“We are receiving reports that indicate increasing harassment and targeting of minorities – in particular, Muslims and people from historically disadvantaged and marginalised groups, such as Dalits and Adivasis,” Michelle Bachelet said in her annual report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Wednesday.
Bachelet’s warning came a day after Amnesty International’s India chapter said it had recorded a “disturbing” number of hate crimes, including assault, rape and murder, against marginalised groups in 2018.
Relying on cases reported in mainstream English and Hindi media, the group on Tuesday said it had documented a total of 218 incidents of alleged hate crimes last year. Some 142 of them were against lower-caste Dalits, while 50 were against Muslims.
Aakar Patel, executive director of Amnesty India, told Al Jazeera that there was “a culture of impunity for hate crimes” in India.
The country’s law, with some exceptions, does not recognise hate crimes as a specific offence, Patel said, urging political leaders to be more vocal in denouncing such violence and calling on the police to “take steps to unmask any potentially discriminatory motive in a crime”.
“Legal reforms that enable recording of hate crimes and strengthen accountability must be a priority for any government that comes to power following the upcoming general elections,” he added.
Kavita Krishnan, an activist based in New Delhi, said “the UN human rights chief should be concerned about this irrespective whether it affects economic growth or not”.
“Everything cannot be measured in terms of economic growth. India’s moral stature is stunted by these organised attacks on minorities which is justified in the name of protecting cows or in the name of protecting Hindu women,” she said.
The report comes weeks ahead of the general elections due in April and May. Prime Minister Narendra Modi‘s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has been accused of not doing enough to address the rising attacks against minorities.
In December, Factchecker.in, a data journalism outfit, said “the year 2018 saw the most hate crimes motivated by religious bias in India in a decade”.
The group said 30 people were killed in 93 such attacks last year, the highest number of deaths since it began tracking hate crimes in 2009. More than 300 people were wounded, the group said.
Most of the attacks took place in states ruled by the BJP. Uttar Pradesh, the country’s most populous state, topped the list with 27 cases. Bihar, with 10 cases, came second. The figures by Factchecher.in show a spike in alleged hate crimes after Modi took power in 2014.
State governments ruled by the BJP have cracked down on the slaughter of cows, an animal many Hindus consider sacred, with vigilante groups beating and even killing poor Muslim and Dalit men over allegations of slaughtering cows and eating beef.
Modi has repeatedly said the state governments should punish vigilantes who commit violence in the name of cow protection, but his critics say the government has not done enough to prosecute the people accused of killings.
More than 80 percent of those killed in cow-related violence since 2010 are Muslims, according to Indiaspend website.
In 2015, Mohammad Akhlaq, a 52-year-old resident of Bisara village in Uttar Pradesh, was lynched by a Hindu mob over rumours of cow slaughter and beef consumption.
President of All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mashawrat, a federation of various Muslim organisations in India, said that Modi’s “divisive policies have destroyed the image of the country at international level”.
Shahnawaz Hussain, spokesperson for India’s ruling Hindu nationalist BJP, dismissed Bachelet’s comments as “baseless”.
“I reject the UN human rights chief’s report,” said Hussain. “These are baseless allegations to tarnish the image of India. India is the best country for Muslims in the world, and Hindus are their best friends.”
Political commentator and former vice chancellor of Islamic University of Science and Technology in India-administered Kashmir, Sidiq Wahid, said people in Kashmir could say with confidence that no one better understands the “deficit in fairness that exists in India, especially, although not exclusively, under the BJP regime”.
Many Kashmiri students living in Indian cities were attacked in the wake of a suicide bombing that killed 42 Indian paramilitaries in the disputed region’s Pulwama district last month. The Muslim-majority region has witnessed armed rebellion against Indian rule since late 1980s.
Wahid told Al Jazeera: “The UN report comes at a time that is both apt and embarrassing. It’s apt because India is about to have elections … It is embarrassing because the report conveys for the entire world to see the true state of democracy in the ‘world’s largest democracy’.”
Nazia Erum, author of the book Mothering a Muslim, however, said nothing would change unless Indian leaders recognised the toll divisive politics was taking on the country.
“When we work together in recognising the divisive forces at work, and act against them together, only then we can make a stronger nation,” she said. “We simply cannot allow the next generation to grow amidst growing hatred and narrow confines of resentment towards the people of other communities.”