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India is a multi-faith democracy, with a majority Hindu population. According to 2011 census data, 79.80% of the population of India is Hindu, 14.23% Muslim, 2.30% Christian, 1.72% Sikh, 0.70% Buddhist, and 0.37% Jain.

India’s constitution defines the nation as secular and protects freedom of religion or belief. However, there are concerns that religious minorities and other minority groups are suffering from persecution and discrimination, and that conditions have deteriorated in recent years.

Human rights groups have criticised the Government, which has been led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) since 2014, for not doing enough to protect minorities. Human Rights Watch, in its 2019 report on India claimed that “the government failed to properly enforce Supreme Court directives to prevent and investigate mob attacks, often led by BJP supporters, on religious minorities and other vulnerable communities”.

Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, who has led the BJP Government since it came to power, has defended its record on religious freedom. Mr Modi in an address to the US Congress in 2016, said:

For my government, the Constitution is its real holy book. And, in that holy book, freedom of faith, speech and franchise, and equality of all citizens, regardless of background, are enshrined as fundamental rights. [1]

Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA)

India’s Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by its Parliament in December 2019, has been a particular cause for concern for those worried about religious freedom in the country. BBC News outlined the purpose and effects of the law

The act offers amnesty to non-Muslim illegal immigrants from three countries – Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan

It amends India’s 64-year-old citizenship law, which currently prohibits illegal migrants from becoming Indian citizens.

It also expedites the path to Indian citizenship for members of six religious minority communities – Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi and Christian – if they can prove that they are from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Afghanistan or Bangladesh.

They will now only have to live or work in India for six years – instead of 11 years – before becoming eligible to apply for citizenship.

The government says this will give sanctuary to people fleeing religious persecution, but critics argue that it will marginalise India’s Muslim minority.[2]

In a press release Amnesty International stated that the law “legitimises discrimination on the basis of religion and stands in clear violation of both the constitution of India and international human rights law”.[3]

That same month as protests against the law sparked violent clashes, the Indian Prime Minister defended the law saying “we passed this bill to help the persecuted”. Mr Modi said the law would have “no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists”. He also blamed the opposition for the protests, accusing them of “spreading lies and rumours” and “instigating violence” and “creating an atmosphere of illusion and falsehood”.[4]

Other causes for concern for India’s Muslims include mob violence against Muslims accused of killing cows, animals that are sacred to Hindus.


According to a 2018 briefing by the Library of Congress, eight out of India’s twenty-nine states have Freedom of Religion Acts often called “anti-conversion” laws, that regulate religious conversions. These laws are seen to in particular target Christian groups. However, it is reported that there have been very few arrests or prosecutions under these laws.

According to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) an independent U.S. federal government commission that reports on religious freedom, the right to proselytize is protected alongside freedom of religion or belief in India’s constitution. However, religious freedom is “subject to public order,” a “vague phrase allowing the suspension of rights to protect social “tranquillity””.[5]

In its 2020 report the Commission reported that violence against Christians also increased:

With at least 328 violent incidents, often under accusations of forced conversions. These attacks frequently targeted prayer services and led to the widespread shuttering or destruction of churches.[6]

USCIRF report

The Commission’s report recommended that the US State Department designate India as a “country of particular concern,” citing the Citizenship Amendment Act as part of its justification for the recommendation.

The Washington Post reported that Anurag Srivastava, the spokesman for India’s ministry of external affairs, rejected the conclusions in the report. The commission’s “biased and tendentious comments against India are not new,” he said. “On this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels.”[7]

Other minority groups

Human Rights Watch’s 2019 report on India, suggested that Dalits and tribal communities continue to face discrimination:

Dalits, formerly “Untouchables,” faced violent attacks and discrimination. In September, the Supreme Court issued notices to authorities to examine caste-based exclusion at universities across India following a petition filed by mothers of two students—one Dalit and one from a tribal community—who committed suicide allegedly due to discrimination.

Nearly 2 million people from tribal communities and forest-dwellers remained at risk of forced displacement and loss of livelihoods after a February Supreme Court ruling to evict all those whose claims under the Forest Rights Act were rejected. Amid concerns over flaws in the claim process, the court stayed the eviction temporarily. In July, three UN human rights experts urged the government to conduct a transparent and independent review of the rejected claims, and evict only after it exhausted all options, ensuring redress and compensation.

Caste-based discrimination is banned under India’s constitution. On independence the Indian Government introduced quotas in government jobs and educational institutions for scheduled castes and tribes. Successive Governments have attempted to tackle caste-based discrimination.

[1]    ‘Freedom of speech and religion enshrined in constitution: PM Modi’, Economic Times, 8 June 2016.

[2]    ‘Citizenship Amendment Act: Court refuses to put controversial law on hold’, BBC News, 22 January 2020.

[3]    Amnesty International, ‘India: New Citizenship Amendment Bill ‘reeks of fear-mongering and bigotry‘, 12 December 2019.

[4]    ‘India protests: PM Modi defends citizenship bill amid clashes’, BBC News, 22 December 2019

[5]    United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2020 Annual Report, pp 21.

[6]    United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, 2020 Annual Report, pp 20.

[7]    ‘Religious freedoms in India deteriorated last year, U.S. government watchdog says’, The Washington Post, 28 April 2020

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