India is a multiparty, federal, parliamentary democracy with a bicameral legislature. The president, elected by an electoral college composed of the state assemblies and parliament, is the head of state, and the prime minister is the head of government. Under the constitution, the country’s 28 states and nine union territories have a high degree of autonomy and have primary responsibility for law and order. Electors chose President Ram Nath Kovind in 2017 to serve a five-year term, and Narendra Modi became prime minister for the second time following the victory of the National Democratic Alliance coalition led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the 2019 general election. Observers considered the parliamentary elections, which included more than 600 million voters, to be free and fair, although with isolated instances of violence.
The states and union territories have primary responsibility for maintaining law and order, with policy oversight from the central government. Police are under state jurisdiction. The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) controls most paramilitary forces, the internal intelligence bureaus and national law enforcement agencies, and provides training for senior officials from state police forces. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police; torture by prison officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners in certain states; restrictions on freedom of expression and the press, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists, use of criminal libel laws to prosecute social media speech, censorship, and site blocking; overly restrictive rules on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); frequent reports of widespread corruption at all levels of government; violence and discrimination targeting minorities based on religious affiliation or social status; and forced and compulsory child labor, including bonded labor.
Despite government efforts to address abuses, a lack of accountability for official misconduct persisted at all levels of government, contributing to widespread impunity. Investigations and prosecutions of individual cases took place, but lax enforcement, a shortage of trained police officers, and an overburdened and under-resourced court system contributed to a small number of convictions.
Separatist insurgents and terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, and Maoist-affected areas committed serious abuses, including killings and torture of armed forces personnel, police, government officials, and civilians, and recruited and used child soldiers.
On August 5, the government announced major changes to the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, converting the state into two separate union territories. In the ensuing security crackdown, authorities detained thousands of residents, including local political leaders; shut down mobile and internet services; and imposed restrictions on movement. As of December the government had taken steps to restore normalcy, including partial restoration of telephone and mobile services, but had not yet announced a timeline for local assembly elections.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The constitution provides for freedom of expression, but it does not explicitly mention freedom of the press. The government generally respected this right, although there were several instances in which the government or actors considered close to the government allegedly pressured or harassed media outlets critical of the government, including through online trolling. There were also reports of extremists perpetrating acts of killing, violence, and intimidation against journalists critical of the government.
Freedom of Expression: Individuals routinely criticized the government publicly and privately. According to HRW, however, sedition and criminal defamation laws were used to prosecute citizens who criticized government officials or opposed state policies. In certain cases, local authorities arrested individuals under laws against hate speech for expressions of political views. Freedom House, in its most recent report, asserted that freedom of expression was weakening in the country and noted the government’s silence regarding direct attacks on free speech. The report stated authorities have used security, defamation, and hate speech laws, as well as contempt-of-court charges, to curb critical voices in media outlets. In some instances the government reportedly withheld public-sector advertising from media outlets that criticized the government, causing some outlets to practice self-censorship.
On January 10, Assam’s prominent academic Hiren Gohain, activist Akhil Gogoi, and journalist Manjit Mahanta were arrested in Guwahati and charged with sedition for their comments during a protest against the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill. On January 11, Gohan and Gogoi were awarded interim bail, and Mahanta was awarded absolute bail. On February 15, Gohan and Gogoi were given absolute bail. Gogoi was later arrested on December 10 while protesting the enacted Citizenship (Amendment) Act; his case was referred to the National Investigation Agency for sedition, criminal conspiracy, unlawful association, and assertions prejudicial to national integration.
On March 10, filmmakers, artists, musicians, and intellectuals joined a protest in Kolkata against the “unofficial ban” on the Bengali feature film Bhabishyater Bhoot (Spirits of the Future), a political satire by director Anik Datta. Media reported that two days after the film’s release on February 15, most cinema halls in West Bengal refused to screen the film, citing unofficial pressure from authorities. The government’s film certification board had already cleared the film. Following an April 11 Supreme Court order, the West Bengal government paid a fine of two million rupees ($30,000) to the film’s producer.
On April 28, police in Andhra Pradesh’s Vijayawada prevented film director Ram Gopal Varma from addressing a press conference in the city to promote his movie, Lakshmi’s NTR, which portrays the life of former state chief minister N.T. Rama Rao. Varma alleged that police acted under pressure from the ruling Telugu Desam Party, which opposed the movie’s release during national elections. Police claimed that Varma was not allowed to address a press conference as prohibitory orders were in force during the conduct of the elections.
In late April, BJP Party workers in Assam allegedly attacked journalists in the Nalbari, Tinsukia, and Jorhat Districts when the journalists were covering the national elections. On May 6, Trinamool Congress Party workers in West Bengal allegedly attacked journalists covering elections in several locations.
On July 21, Tamil Nadu police arrested a 24-year-old man in Nagapattinam District for consuming beef soup in a Facebook posting. Police filed charges against him for disturbing peace and communal harmony. Four others were arrested on July 11 for allegedly attacking the accused but were later granted bail.
On July 28, two men shot and killed Pradeep Mandal, a journalist with Hindi daily Dainik Jagran in Bihar’s Madhubani town. Media outlets reported that he was targeted for exposing bootleggers’ syndicates in the state. Bihar has imposed a prohibition on the sale and consumption of liquor.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and generally expressed a wide variety of views. The law prohibits content that could harm religious sentiments or provoke enmity among groups, and authorities invoked these provisions to restrict print media, broadcast media, and publication or distribution of books.
According to several journalists, press freedom declined during the year. There were several reports from journalists and NGOs that government officials, both at the local and national levels, were involved in silencing or intimidating critical media outlets through physical harassment and attacks, pressuring owners, targeting sponsors, encouraging frivolous lawsuits, and, in some areas, blocking communication services, such as mobile telephones and the internet, and constraining freedom of movement. Several journalists reported that the heavy deployment of security forces, accompanied by a communication blockade in Jammu and Kashmir from early August, severely hampered the freedom of the press in Jammu and Kashmir. Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of the Srinagar-based newspaper the Kashmir Times, filed a petition in the Supreme Court in August stating that journalists were not allowed to move freely in Jammu and Kashmir. The petition also claimed the intimidation of journalists by the government and security forces. On September 1, authorities stopped another Kashmiri journalist, Gowhar Geelani, from flying to Germany to participate in a program organized by the German broadcaster Deutsche Welle.
The 2019 World Press Freedom Index identified physical attacks on journalists and “coordinated hate campaigns waged on social networks” as major areas of concern. Harassment and violence against journalists were particularly acute for non-English language journalists, those in rural areas, and female journalists. Journalists working in “sensitive” areas, including Jammu and Kashmir, continued to face barriers to free reporting through communications and movement restrictions, and local affiliates reported increased fears of violence. Attacks on journalists by supporters of Hindu nationalist groups increased prior to the May national elections, according to the report. Reports of self-censorship due to fear of official or public reprisal were common, including the use of Section 124a of the penal code, which includes sedition punishable by life imprisonment.
The Editors Guild of India claimed the government limited press freedom by exerting political pressure and blocking television transmissions. The guild separately called for authorities to restore communications in Jammu and Kashmir, where a prolonged communications shutdown limited media freedom.
On July 12, Hyderabad police arrested journalist Revathi Pogadadanda, reportedly in connection with a six-month-old case registered under the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act. Police allegedly did not produce an arrest warrant at the time of arrest and released her on bail a week later. Pogadadanda alleged her arrest was part of the government’s vindictive action against her mentor and senior journalist Ravi Prakash, who had published two interviews online accusing the Telangana chief minister, Kalvakuntla Chandrashekhar Rao, and a prominent industrialist, P.V. Krishna Reddy, of corruption in a multimillion dollar public transport scam. On October 5, Prakash was arrested on allegations of corporate fraud. The Committee to Protect Journalists denounced both arrests.
The government maintained a monopoly on AM radio stations, limiting broadcasting to the state-owned All India Radio, and restricted FM radio licenses for entertainment and educational content. Widely distributed private satellite television provided competition for Doordarshan, the government-owned television network. There were some accusations of political interference in the state-owned broadcasters. State governments banned the import or sale of some books due to material that government censors deemed could be inflammatory or provoke communal or religious tensions.
Violence and Harassment: There were numerous instances of journalists and members of media organizations being threatened or killed in response to their reporting. Police rarely identified suspects involved in the killing of journalists. According to the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, at least six journalists were killed in connection with their work in 2018.
On April 8, the Manipur High Court ordered the release of television journalist Kishore Chandra Wangkhem. Police arrested Wangkhem in November 2018 under the National Security Act for criticizing the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his social media posts.
On May 26, the Bengaluru police filed a “first information report”–a report prepared by police upon first receipt of information of a possible crime–against Vishweshwar Bhat, editor of Kannada daily Vishwavani, for allegedly publishing derogatory remarks against K. Nikhil, son of then Karnataka chief minister H.D. Kumaraswamy. Police did not make any arrests.
On May 29, six unidentified persons grievously injured journalist Pratap Patra in Balasore District of Odisha. Patra alleged he was attacked after publishing an investigative article on May 8 against a local sand miner, who had been illegally quarrying sand. The article led authorities to levy a fine of 1.6 million rupees ($23,000) on the sand-mining company. Police arrested three individuals on June 2.
On June 8, Uttar Pradesh police arrested and filed criminal charges against a freelance journalist for allegedly posting a video of a woman claiming to be in a relationship with state chief minister Yogi Adityanath. On June 11, the Supreme Court ordered the release of the journalist and chastised the Uttar Pradesh government for the arrest.
Online and mobile harassment was especially prevalent, and incidents of internet “trolling,” or making deliberately offensive or provocative online posts with the aim of upsetting someone, continued to rise. Journalists were threatened online with violence and, in the case of female journalists, rape.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Citizens generally enjoyed freedom of speech, but the government continued to censor and restrict content based on broad public- and national-interest provisions under Article 19 of the constitution.
A right to information response by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology in 2017 revealed that at least 20,030 websites were blocked at that time. The government proposed rules in February that would give it broad latitude to demand content removal from social media sites, which civil society organizations felt could be used to stifle free speech.
Libel/Slander Laws: Individuals continued to be charged with posting offensive or derogatory material on social media.
Several individuals in Telangana were either arrested or disciplined during the year for making or posting critical comments through videos and social media platforms about Chief Minister K. Chandrashekhar Rao and other leaders of the ruling Telangana Rashtra Samithi Party. On April 24, Telangana police arrested Thagaram Naveen for producing and sharing a derogatory video about Rao. On April 30, Hyderabad police arrested Chirpa Naresh for posting abusive comments and sharing morphed images of Rao and then member of parliament K. Kavitha.
On May 25, police arrested tribal rights activist and academic Jeetrai Hansda for a Facebook post defending his community’s right to eat beef. Hansda was arrested in response to a complaint filed in 2017 by the Hindu nationalist students’ organization ABVP under charges that he violated sections of the Indian Penal Code that govern insults to religious feelings and attempts to promote enmity between groups of people.
On August 14, police in Assam registered a complaint against Gauhati University research scholar Rehana Sultana over a two-year-old Facebook post, allegedly about the consumption of beef. According to media reports, police took note after the two-year-old post resurfaced.
National Security: In some cases government authorities cited laws protecting national interest to restrict media content. In August 2018 numerous outlets reported that the Indian Department of Telecom was seeking the views of telecom companies, industry associations, and other stakeholders on ways to block mobile apps, including Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Instagram, “in cases where national security or public order are under threat.”
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. In 2015 the implementation of a land-boundary agreement between India and Bangladesh enfranchised more than 50,000 previously stateless residents, providing access to education and health services.
The country hosts a large refugee population, including 80,000 Tibetan refugees and approximately 95,230 refugees from Sri Lanka. The government generally allowed the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to assist asylum seekers and refugees from noncontiguous countries and Burma. In many cases refugees and asylum seekers under UNHCR’s mandate reported increased challenges regularizing their status through long-term visas and residence permits. Excluding Tibetan and Sri Lankan refugees, all other refugees were registered by UNHCR; however, they were not granted legal status by the government.
In-country Movement: The central government relaxed restrictions on travel by foreigners to Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Mizoram, Manipur, and parts of Jammu and Kashmir, excluding foreign nationals from Pakistan, China, and Burma. The MHA and state governments required citizens to obtain special permits upon arrival when traveling to certain restricted areas.
Foreign Travel: The government may legally deny a passport to any applicant for engaging in activities outside the country “prejudicial to the sovereignty and integrity of the nation.”
The trend of delaying issuance and renewal of passports to citizens from Jammu and Kashmir continued, sometimes up to two years. The government reportedly subjected applicants born in Jammu and Kashmir, including children born to military officers deployed there, to additional scrutiny and police clearances before issuing them passports.
Citizenship: On May 28, Assam Border Police arrested 52-year-old Mohammed Sanaullah, a war veteran and 2017 army retiree, and put him in Goalpara detention center for illegal immigrants after declaring him a foreigner following Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) exercise. The Gauhati High Court released him on June 8.
In July a Foreigners’ Tribunal in Assam’s Jorhat District declared Indian Border Security Force officer Muzibur Rahman and his wife Jargin Begum as foreigners.
On December 12, the Citizenship Amendment Act received assent from the president. The act provides an expedited path to citizenship for Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian religious minorities from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. The act makes no provision for Muslims. The act does not apply to the tribal areas of Assam, Meghalaya, Mizoram, or Tripura. Following passage of the act, wide-scale protests against its passage and exclusion of Muslims occurred throughout the country, leading to arrests, targeted communications shutdowns, bans on assembly, and deaths in a few reported instances.
f. Protection of Refugees
Abuse of Migrants, Refugees, and Stateless Persons: The law does not contain the term “refugee,” treating refugees like any other foreigners. Undocumented physical presence in the country is a criminal offense. Persons without documentation were vulnerable to forced returns and abuse. The country has historically treated persons as refugees based on the merits and circumstances of the cases coming before them.
The courts protected refugees and asylum seekers in accordance with the constitution.
Refugees reported exploitation by nongovernment actors, including assaults, gender-based violence, fraud, and labor and sex trafficking. Problems of domestic violence, sexual abuse, and early and forced marriage also continued. According to NGOs, gender-based violence and sexual abuse were prevalent in the Sri Lankan refugee camps. Most urban refugees worked in the informal sector or in occupations, such as street vending, where they suffered from police extortion, nonpayment of wages, and exploitation.
NGOs observed an increase in antirefugee (specifically anti-Rohingya) rhetoric throughout the year in advance of state and national elections, which reportedly led to an increased sense of insecurity in refugee communities. In October 2018 the Supreme Court rejected a plea to stop the deportation of seven Rohingya immigrants from Assam. The court noted the individuals, held in an Assam jail since 2012, were arrested by Indian authorities as illegal immigrants and that Burma was ready to accept them as their nationals. According to media reports, the nationality of the immigrants was confirmed after the Burmese government verified their addresses in Rakhine State. Rights groups said the government’s decision to deport them placed them at risk of oppression and abuse. According to HRW, the government deported the seven ethnic Rohingya Muslims to Burma where “they are at grave risk of oppression and abuse.” HRW further noted, “The Indian government has disregarded its long tradition of protecting those seeking refuge within its borders.”
Rohingya migrants continued to be detained in Assam, Manipur, and Mizoram. States such as Mizoram grappled with the detention of Rohingya migrants with little guidance from the central government on care and repatriation issues. Police in Mizoram rescued a dozen Rohingya refugees from a suspected trafficking operation in May.
Refoulement: The government advocated for the return of Rohingya refugees, including potential trafficking victims, to Burma; at least 17 Rohingya were returned since September 2018, according to UNHCR. At least 26 non-Rohingya refugees have been deported since late 2016 out of an estimated 40,000.
The identity card issued by UNHCR is the only formal legal document available for Rohingya migrants in the country. As the expiration date for these cards approached, several Rohingya migrants abandoned their temporary shelter. Some relocated to other parts of India, while others fled the country.
In July 2018 the MHA instructed state governments to identify Rohingya migrants through the collection of biometric data. The MHA directed state governments to monitor Rohingya and restrict their movements to specific locations.
In August the government finalized the NRC in Assam. The NRC is a Supreme Court-ordered citizenship list containing names of Indian citizens in an effort to identify foreign nationals living in the state. The NRC found nearly two million persons ineligible for citizenship in Assam. The government has established procedures for appeals against the NRC decisions in individual cases. News reports indicated the government was in the process of constructing 10 centers to detain illegal immigrants. On December 23, Prime Minister Modi denied any intention by the central government to implement a nationwide NRC process outside of Assam, despite widespread speculation of the government’s intention to do so.
Access to Asylum: The law does not provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has not established a system for providing protection to refugees. Absent a legal framework, the government sometimes granted asylum on a situational basis on humanitarian grounds in accordance with international law. This approach resulted in varying standards of protection for different refugee and asylum-seeker groups. The government recognized refugees from Tibet and Sri Lanka and generally honored UNHCR decisions on refugee status determination for individuals from other countries, including Afghanistan.
UNHCR did not have an official agreement with the government but maintained an office in New Delhi where it registered refugees and asylum seekers from noncontiguous countries and Burma, made refugee status determinations, and provided some services. The office’s reach outside of New Delhi was limited. Nonetheless, the government permitted UNHCR staff access to refugees in other urban centers and allowed it to operate in Tamil Nadu to assist with Sri Lankan refugee repatriation. Authorities did not permit UNHCR direct access to Sri Lankan refugee camps, Tibetan settlements, or asylum seekers in Mizoram, but it did permit asylum seekers from Mizoram to travel to New Delhi to meet UNHCR officials. Authorities did not grant UNHCR or other international agencies access to Rohingyas detained in Kolkata or Aizawl (Mizoram), nor were they granted access to any refugees or asylum seekers in detention. Refugees outside New Delhi faced added expense and time to register their asylum claims.
The government generally permitted other NGOs, international humanitarian organizations, and foreign governments access to Sri Lankan refugee camps and Tibetan settlements, but it generally denied access to asylum seekers in Mizoram. The government denied requests for some foreigners to visit Tibetan settlements in Ladakh.
After the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, the government ceased registering Sri Lankans as refugees. The Tamil Nadu government assisted UNHCR by providing exit permission for Sri Lankan refugees to repatriate voluntarily. The benefits provided to Sri Lankan Tamil refugees by the state government of Tamil Nadu were applicable only within the state. The central government approved the extension of funding to run the camps until 2020.
Employment: The government granted work authorization to many UNHCR-registered refugees, and others found employment in the informal sector. Some refugees reported discrimination by employers.
Access to Basic Services: Although the country generally allowed recognized refugees and asylum seekers access to housing, primary and secondary education, health care, and the courts, access varied by state and by population. Refugees were able to use public services, although access became more complicated during the year because many refugees were unable to acquire the digitized national identity (Aadhaar) card necessary to use some services. In cases where refugees were denied access, it was often due to a lack of knowledge of refugee rights by the service provider. In many cases UNHCR was able to intervene successfully and advocate for refugee access. The government allowed UNHCR-registered refugees and asylum seekers to apply for long-term visas that would provide work authorization and access to higher education, although the rate of renewal for long-term visas slowed significantly. For undocumented asylum seekers, UNHCR provided a letter upon registration indicating the person was under consideration for UNHCR refugee status.
The government began issuing long-term visas to refugees from other countries in 2014, but UNHCR reported that the government did not regularly issue long-term visas during the year.
According to UNHCR and an NGO working with Rohingya in Hyderabad, government of Telangana authorities provided food supplies through public distribution system, postnatal care for mothers, periodic immunization, and a bridge school for children along with three meals a day. Further, the Telangana Open School Society waived the Aadhaar card requirement for Rohingya students to appear for high school examination.
The government did not fully comply with a 2012 MHA directive to issue long-term visas to Rohingya. It has reportedly slowed renewals for those with long-term visas significantly, limiting access to formal employment in addition to education, health services, and bank accounts.
Sri Lankan refugees were permitted to work in Tamil Nadu. Police, however, reportedly summoned refugees back into the camps on short notice, particularly during sensitive political times, such as elections, and required refugees or asylum seekers to remain in the camps for several days.
Government services, such as mother and child health programs, were available. Refugees were able to request protection from police and courts as needed.
The government did not accept refugees for resettlement from other countries.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials at all levels of government. Officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year.
Corruption: Corruption was present at all levels of government. On July 10, minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office Jitendra Singh informed parliament’s lower house that the CBI registered 412 corruption-related cases from January until May 1. Between 2016 and June 30, the CBI registered 61 corruption cases against 86 government officials and achieved convictions against 26 persons in 20 cases. Singh also stated that 1,889 cases of corruption were referred to the CBI in 2018 through an internal government mechanism and that 43,946 corruption-related complaints were received by the Central Vigilance Commission in 2018 and 2019, of which 41,755 were dismissed. NGOs reported the payment of bribes to expedite services, such as police protection, school admission, water supply, and government assistance. Civil society organizations drew public attention to corruption throughout the year, including through demonstrations and websites that featured stories of corruption.
Media reports, NGOs, and activists reported links among politicians, bureaucrats, contractors, militant groups, and security forces in infrastructure projects, narcotics trafficking, and timber smuggling in the northeastern states.
In July multiple complaints of criminal corruption were lodged against opposition party leader and Member of Parliament Azam Khan alleging that he illegally obtained farmers’ land for the Mohammad Ali Jauhar University, which he founded in 2006. Khan was a cabinet minister in Uttar Pradesh at the time. In November criminal charges were filed against Khan’s wife and son as well, both of whom were opposition members of the state’s Legislative Assembly. More than 84 cases have been registered against Khan, and probes have been conducted by central government authorities into money laundering as well. The cases remained under investigation at year’s end.
In several sex trafficking cases in government-funded shelter homes uncovered in 2018, victims alleged in a few cases that government officials facilitated the trafficking and, in three cases, were clients of shelter residents exploited in sex trafficking.
In Deoria, despite multiple letters from the district government to cease sending vulnerable women and children to a shelter operating without proper registration, three police superintendents sent at least 405 girls to the shelter over two years, where shelter employees exploited many in sex trafficking. The Uttar Pradesh state government requested a report from all shelter homes in the state, initiated investigations, and arrested the owner of the shelter.
In a separate case in Agra in October 2018, a judge sentenced a government-run shelter warden to life imprisonment on conviction of selling shelter residents into sex trafficking.
Financial Disclosure: The law mandates asset declarations for all officers in the Indian Administrative Services. Both the Election Commission and the Supreme Court upheld mandatory disclosure of criminal and financial records for candidates for elected office.
In September 2018 a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the judiciary could not disqualify politicians facing charges related to serious offenses and stop them from contesting elections. The court asked parliament to frame laws to bar those accused of crimes from being able to run for elected office.