India: Community groups campaign for religious freedom

In 2008, communal violence broke out in Kandhamal district of India’s Odisha state, when Christian minorities were attacked by extremists from the majority Hindu community.

A local NGO, the Centre for the Sustainable use of Social and Natural Resources (CSNR) was formed in response, to protect the rights of religious minorities. ‘We are advocates for victims of communal violence in Kandhamal’, Dhirendra Panda, the founder of CSNR, explained: ‘For those who are Dalits and Adivasis practising Christianity – for their relief and rehabilitation, justice and security, and advocacy for change in policies that restrict the rights of minorities.’

The Odisha Freedom of Religion Act of 1967 prohibits the forcible conversion of any person from one religious faith to another. But in practice it has been used to persecute communities that willingly convert from Hinduism to Christianity or Islam and to restrict the right of minority groups to freely practise their religion.

‘[The Act’s] use of discriminatory provisions … threatens the activities of religious minority groups and contravenes the provisions of the Indian Constitution and the UN Declaration on Minorities,' Dhirendra explained. CSNR has launched a national campaign to reform this discriminatory law and protect the rights of religious minorities in India. The Declaration was a primary tool used in this campaign.

First, CSNR held a National Convention in Bangalore in November 2011. They invited a wide range of civil society and government representatives, including from India’s National Commission on Minorities. Speakers quoted provisions in the Declaration in order to highlight violations of the rights of religious minorities and the responsibilities of the state.

Based on this event, CSNR drafted a report on freedom of religion in India: ‘We used the Declaration while analysing problems of minorities caused by communal violence, discrimination and the absence, or inadequacy, of state protection.’

CSNR also used the Declaration to prepare a report for the UN Universal Periodic Review (UPR) – a process whereby the UN Human Rights Council reviews the human rights situation of UN member states every four years. Reports prepared by civilsociety groups provide key evidence during this review process.

CSNR has also lobbied members of the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission on Minorities, members of the national parliament and the Odisha provincial legislative assembly. In May 2012, Dhirendra travelled to Geneva for the UN Human Rights Council sessions on the UPR review process. He met with various influential UN policy-makers and took part in an event on freedom of religion.

As a result, fifteen states made recommendations in favour of minority rights in India. CSNR sent these to national policy-makers, government officials and the media. In September, India accepted some recommendations, including a recommendation to: ‘Strengthen the federal government’s efforts to guarantee freedom of religion to everyone in this world’s largest democracy.’

Dhirendra plans to continue using the Declaration as a tool to monitor implementation of the UPR recommendations, and laws and policies to protect rights and to track violations.

Universal Periodic Review: The process of reviewing the human rights records of all 193 UN member states once every four years. It provides an opportunity for each state to declare what actions they have taken to improve the human rights situation in their country and to meet their human rights obligations.

Photo: Dalits in the Sundarban area of West Bengal state, India.

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Date: 26/11/2012

Countries:

India

Categories:

Indigenous Peoples
Advocacy
Religion/Religious minorities

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