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 eight 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 in the 2019 general election. Observers considered the parliamentary elections, which included more than 600 million voters, to be free and fair, although there were reports of 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 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. Members of the security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful and arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings perpetrated by police; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by some police and prison officials; arbitrary arrest and detention by government authorities; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; political prisoners or detainees 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; restrictions on political participation; widespread corruption at all levels in the government; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; tolerance of violations of religious freedom; crimes involving violence and discrimination targeting members of minority groups including women based on religious affiliation or social status ; and forced and compulsory child labor, as well as 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 underresourced court system contributed to a low number of convictions.
Separatist insurgents and terrorists in the Union Territory of 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 recruitment and use of child soldiers.
The government continued taking steps to restore normalcy in Jammu and Kashmir by gradually lifting some security and communications restrictions. The government released most political activists from detention. In January the government partially restored internet access; however, high-speed 4G mobile internet remained restricted in most parts of Jammu and Kashmir. The government began a process to redraw electoral constituencies but did not announce a timeline for local assembly elections. Local district development council elections took place in December in which a coalition of Kashmiri opposition parties won the majority of seats.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape in most cases, although marital rape is not illegal when the woman is older than 15. According to legal experts, the law does not criminalize rape of adult men. Rape of minors is covered under the gender-neutral POCSO laws. Official statistics pointed to rape as one of the country’s fastest-growing crimes, prompted at least in part by the increasing willingness of victims to report rapes, although observers believed the number of rapes remained vastly underreported.
Law enforcement and legal recourse for rape victims were inadequate, and the judicial system was overtaxed and unable to address the problem effectively. Police sometimes worked to reconcile rape victims and their attackers; in some cases they encouraged female rape victims to marry their attackers. The NGO International Center for Research on Women noted low conviction rates in rape cases was one of the main reasons sexual violence continued unabated and at times unreported. The NGO Lawyers Collective observed the length of trials, lack of victim support, and inadequate protection of witnesses and victims remained major concerns and were more pronounced during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Incidents of rape continued to be a persistent problem, including gang rape, rape of minors, rape against lower-caste women or women from religious and nonreligious minority communities by upper-caste men, and rape by government officials.
The minimum mandatory punishment for rape is 10 years’ imprisonment. The minimum sentence for the rape of a girl younger than age 16 is between 20 years’ and life imprisonment; the minimum sentence of gang rape of a girl younger than 12 is punishable by either life imprisonment or the death penalty. An online analytic tool, the Investigation Tracking System for Sexual Offenses, exists for states and union territories to monitor and track time-bound investigation in sexual assault cases.
On March 20, the four men convicted of the high-profile 2012 gang rape of Nirbhaya were hanged. The victim is known as Nirbhaya, meaning the fearless one, because of the law forbidding the disclosure of rape victim names. Nirbhaya, a medical student at the time, was attacked on a bus by six men while traveling home with a friend. Her friend was beaten unconscious, and she was gang-raped and brutally tortured with an iron rod. Nirbhaya died two weeks later. Of the six arrested, one died in his jail cell and another, a minor at the time, was released after three years in a reform facility. The four remaining were sentenced to death and were hanged at Delhi’s Tihar Jail after the Supreme Court dismissed their final petitions.
On July 13, a woman who filed a complaint of gang rape in Bihar was arrested for misbehavior while recording her statement in court. The 22-year-old survivor was accompanied by two social workers, and the three were arrested on charges of disrupting court proceedings when the survivor, who was illiterate, refused to sign a written statement for the court and demanded it be read aloud by the social workers. Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, a nonprofit organization, protested the arrests, asserting the survivor’s distressed state and noncompliance were caused by the trauma of the gang rape, the ordeal of narrating the incident during police investigation and court proceedings, and the lack of family and mental health support after the incident. As of July 15, the three women were being held in jail under judicial custody, and one of the five men accused of the gang rape was arrested. A group of 376 lawyers from across the country sent a letter to the Patna High Court (in Bihar) to express their concern regarding the local court’s handling of the case.
On September 28, CHRI released Barriers in Accessing Justice: The Experiences of 14 Rape Survivors in Uttar Pradesh, India, that detailed strong evidence of the barriers imposed by police on women survivors, including caste-based discrimination, discouragement to report the crime, and forceful acceptance of illegal compromises. The report noted legal remedies against police malpractice were difficult to pursue and often did not provide redress.
On September 30, Uttar Pradesh police cremated, without family consent, the body of a 19-year-old Dalit woman in her native village in Hathras, hours after she succumbed to injuries allegedly inflicted in a gang rape by four upper-caste men on September 14. Her death and subsequent cremation without the presence of family members sparked outrage among opposition parties and civil society. Police arrested all four accused, and the Uttar Pradesh state government assembled a three-member team to probe the incident.
On October 5, citing recent cases of alleged rape and murder, including in Hathras, the UN resident coordinator in the country expressed concern at the continuing cases of sexual violence against women and girls.
Women in conflict areas, such as in Jammu and Kashmir, the Northeast, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh, as well as vulnerable Dalit or tribal women, were often victims of rape or threats of rape. National crime statistics indicated Dalit women were disproportionately victimized compared with other caste affiliations.
The Kerala State Women’s Commission registered a rape case involving a 75-year-old Dalit woman suffering from dementia and other mental health issues. The woman was attacked and raped by a group of unidentified men on August 4 in Ernakulam District, Kerala State.
Domestic violence continued to be a problem. The COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown led to increased instances of domestic violence. Women and children were more vulnerable due to loss of livelihood of the perpetrator and the family being forced to remain indoors, where victims were locked in with their abusers with limited means to escape or access to resources. The Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi High Courts took note of the increased problem of domestic violence and directed national protection agencies to consider additional measures to address the rising instances of domestic violence.
Local authorities made efforts to address the safety of women. On August 10, the National Commission of Women (NCW) reported 2,914 complaints of crimes committed against women in July, including 660 cases of domestic violence. This represented the highest monthly level since November 2018. The data showed Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Delhi, and Punjab as the states with the highest levels of domestic violence against women. The latest available NCRB data estimated the conviction rate for crimes against women was 23 percent.
During the first weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown, the NCW received 239 complaints of domestic violence–a significant increase from the 123 complaints it received in the month preceding the lockdown. To provide protection and assistance, the NCW launched a WhatsApp helpline for women.
Acid attacks against women continued to cause death and permanent disfigurement. On February 28, a family member attacked a 25-year-old pregnant woman and her sister-in-law with acid in Haryana. After being hospitalized for one month, the pregnant victim succumbed to the wounds.
On July 15, Telangana police launched the “CybHer” online awareness campaign to protect women and children in cyberspace. The Telangana police chief stated that cybercrimes went up by 70 percent in the state during the COVID-19 lockdown, and women and children were the specific targets. The campaign was launched on multiple social media platforms.
Female Genital Mutilation/Cutting (FGM/C): No national law addresses the practice of FGM/C. According to human rights groups and media reports, between 70 and 90 percent of Dawoodi Bohras, a population of approximately one million concentrated in the states of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Delhi, practiced FGM/C.
In July 2018 the Supreme Court heard a public interest case seeking to ban the practice of FGM/C. The government, represented by Attorney General K. K. Venugopal, told the court that it supported the petitioners’ plea that the practice be punishable under the provisions of the penal code and the Protection of Children from Sexual Offenses Act. Days after a September 2018 meeting between the prime minister and the spiritual head of the Dawoodi Bohra community, who supports the practice of FGM/C, the government reversed its position, and the attorney general stated the matter should be referred to a five-member panel of the Supreme Court to decide on the issue of religious rights and freedom.
Other Harmful Traditional Practices: The law forbids the acceptance of marriage dowry, but many families continued to offer and accept dowries, and dowry disputes remained a serious problem. NCRB data showed authorities arrested 20,545 persons for dowry deaths in 2016. Most states employed dowry prohibition officers. A 2010 Supreme Court ruling mandates all trial courts to charge defendants in dowry-death cases with murder.
So-called honor killings remained a problem, especially in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana; they were usually attributable to the victim’s marrying against his or her family’s wishes. In April, three persons were arrested for the killing of a 19-year-old girl in Punjab. Family members allegedly poisoned the victim with sleeping pills, strangled her to death, and cremated her body. An honor killing of a 16-year-old girl was reported on May 2 in Rajasthan. She was strangled, burned, and buried allegedly by her mother and uncle because she eloped with a local boy of whom her family did not approve. The mother and uncle were arrested. On July 17 in Uttar Pradesh, a woman was shot and killed by her three brothers for marrying outside her caste two years previously. The accused also attacked the husband, leaving him grievously injured. Police arrested all three brothers.
On June 22, the Madras High Court acquitted B. Chinnasamy, who was accused in 2017 of hiring persons to kill his daughter’s husband because he belonged to a Scheduled Caste. The court also commuted the death sentences to life imprisonment for five previously convicted individuals. Several human rights activists described the verdicts as “a travesty of justice.”
There were reports women and girls in the devadasi system of symbolic marriages to Hindu deities (a form of so-called ritual prostitution) were victims of rape or sexual abuse at the hands of priests and temple patrons, including sex trafficking. NGOs suggested families exploited some girls from lower castes in sex trafficking in temples to mitigate household financial burdens and the prospect of marriage dowries. Some states have laws to curb sex trafficking and sexual abuse of women and girls in temple service. Enforcement of these laws remained lax, and the problem was widespread. Some observers estimated that more than 450,000 women and girls were exploited in temple-related prostitution.
On August 13, Telangana Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Commission chairman E. Srinivas told media that he observed continuing prevalence of the banned Jogini system, under which Dalit girls are forced into sexual slavery in the name of dedicating them to a village deity. He encouraged village chiefs to be held responsible for informing police and other authorities if such practices continued. District authorities announced protection of agricultural lands given to the rehabilitated Jogini women by the government in 1989.
No federal law addresses accusations of witchcraft; however, authorities may use other legal provisions as an alternative for a victim accused of witchcraft. Most reports stated villagers and local councils usually banned those accused of witchcraft from the village. Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, Assam, and Jharkhand have laws criminalizing those who accuse others of witchcraft.
On May 4, three women in Bihar were assaulted, tonsured, stripped seminaked, and forced to consume human urine and excreta by a mob that suspected them of witchcraft. Media sources reported that no bystanders came forward to help the women. Police acted after seeing a video of the incident, arresting nine persons. According to reports, the three women, all from the same family, were performing puja, a worship ritual, for a sick child at night when they were seen by villagers who suspected them of using black magic, after which they were targeted and abused the next morning.
On August 17, media reported family members beat 30-year-old Geeta Devi for allegedly practicing witchcraft in Jharkhand’s Giridih District. Geeta died before police could arrive. The deceased’s mother in-law filed a FIR with the Gawan police station to investigate the crime.
Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment remained a serious problem. Authorities required all state departments and institutions with more than 50 employees to operate committees to prevent and address sexual harassment, often referred to as “eve teasing.” By law sexual harassment includes one or more unwelcome acts or behavior, such as physical contact, a request for sexual favors, making sexually suggestive remarks, or showing pornography.
In February media sources reported that female trainee clerks working at the Surat Municipal Corporation were subjected to gynecological finger tests in a mandatory fitness test by female doctors at the Surat Municipal Institute of Medical Education and Research, a state-run hospital. The corporation’s employees union lodged a complaint when approximately 100 employees reported the incident. The women confided that they felt their privacy was violated when they were asked to strip naked and stand in groups while undergoing the test and being asked intimate questions about their pregnancy history. The Surat municipal commissioner formed a committee to investigate the allegations.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals generally have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children. Individuals have the right to manage their reproductive health and had access to the information and means to do so, free from discrimination, coercion, or violence.
The law prohibits the use of all technologies for the purpose of sex selection before or after conception. Nevertheless, although not widely enforced, policies and guidelines that penalized families with more than two children remained in place in various states. Certain states continued to maintain quotas for government jobs and subsidies for adults with no more than two children.
Many states promoted female sterilization as a family planning method, which has resulted in risky, substandard procedures and limited access to nonpermanent methods. The national government does not have the authority to regulate state public health policies. Some women, particularly poor and lower-caste women, were reportedly pressured to have tubal ligations, hysterectomies, or other forms of sterilization.
Almost all states implement “girl child promotion” programs, intended to counter prenatal sex selection. In 2015 the government launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao program to address a decline in the child sex ratio. According to government data, the sex ratio at birth improved from 918 girl-births for every 1,000 boy-births in 2014-2015 to 934 girl-births for every 1,000 boy-births in 2019-2020 due to the program.
The government recognized the role of health-care professionals in treating survivors of sexual violence and implemented protocols that meet the international standards for such medical care. Government directives instruct health facilities to ensure survivors of all forms of sexual violence receive immediate access to health care services, including emergency contraception, police protection, emergency shelter, forensic services, and referrals for legal aid and other services. Implementation of the guidelines was uneven, however, due to limited resources and social stigma.
For some populations, limited access to quality reproductive and maternal health care services–including prenatal care, skilled care at childbirth, and support in the weeks after childbirth–contributed to high maternal mortality. The government Office of the Registrar General Special Bulletin on Maternal Mortality in India 2016-18 estimated that the maternal mortality ratio declined to 113 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2016-2018 from 130 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2014-2016.
Care received by women, especially those from marginalized and low-income groups, at public health facilities was often inadequate, contributing to a reluctance to seek treatment. Although government initiatives resulted in a significant increase in institutional births, there were reports that health facilities continued to be overburdened, underequipped, and undersupplied.
Coercion in Population Control: There were reports of coerced and involuntary sterilization. The government promoted female sterilization as a form of family planning for decades. Some women, especially poor and lower-caste women, reportedly were pressured by their husbands and families to have tubal ligations or hysterectomies. The government provided monetary compensation for the wage loss, transportation costs, drugs and dressing, and follow-up visits to women accepting contraceptive methods, including voluntary sterilization. There were no formal restrictions on access to other forms of family planning; however, despite recent efforts to expand the range of contraceptive choices, voluntary sterilization remained the preferred method due to the costs and limited availability of alternative contraceptive choices.
Policies penalizing families with more than two children remained in place in seven states, but some authorities did not enforce them. There were reports these policies created pressure on women with more than two children to use contraception, including permanent methods such as sterilization, or even termination of subsequent pregnancies. Certain states maintained government reservations for government jobs and subsidies for adults with no more than two children and reduced subsidies and access to health care for those who have more than two.
To counter sex selection, almost all states introduced “girl child promotion” plans to promote the education and well-being of girls, some of which required a certificate of sterilization for the parents to collect benefits.
Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination in the workplace and requires equal pay for equal work, but employers reportedly often paid women less than men for the same job, discriminated against women in employment and credit applications, and promoted women less frequently than men.
Many tribal land systems, including in Bihar, deny tribal women the right to own land. Other laws or customs relating to the ownership of assets and land accord women little control over land use, retention, or sale.
In February, Minister of Women and Child Development Smriti Irani told the lower house of parliament the sex ratio at birth was showing “improving trends” and increased from 918 to 931 per 1,000 live births at the national level between 2014 and 2019. Additionally, 395 of 640 districts, according to the 2011 census, showed improvements in the sex ratio during the same period.
According to media reports, the taboo and fear of giving birth to a girl child drove some women toward sex-selective abortion or attempts to sell the baby. Dowry, while illegal, carried a steep cost, sometimes bankrupting families. Women and girl children were ostracized in some tribal communities.
Members of National/Racial/Ethnic Minority Groups
The constitution prohibits caste discrimination. The registration of castes and tribes continued for the purpose of affirmative action programs, as the federal and state governments continued to implement programs for members of lower-caste groups to provide better-quality housing, quotas in schools, government jobs, and access to subsidized foods. The UN’s 2020 Multidimensional Poverty Index noted approximately 273 million individuals moved out of multidimensional poverty during the past 10 years. Previous reports showed Muslims, members of the Scheduled Tribes, and Dalits experienced the greatest reduction in poverty. Discrimination based on caste, however, remained prevalent, particularly in rural areas. Critics claimed many of the programs to assist the lower castes suffered from poor implementation, corruption, or both.
The term Dalit, derived from Sanskrit for “oppressed” or “crushed,” refers to members of what society regarded as the lowest of the Scheduled Castes. According to the 2011 census, Scheduled Caste members constituted 17 percent of the population (approximately 200 million persons).
Although the law protects Dalits, there were numerous reports of violence and significant discrimination in access to services, such as health care, education, access to justice, freedom of movement, access to institutions (such as temples), and marriage. Many Dalits were malnourished. Most bonded laborers were Dalits, and those who asserted their rights were often victims of attacks, especially in rural areas. As agricultural laborers for higher-caste landowners, Dalits reportedly often worked without monetary remuneration. Reports from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination described systematic abuse of Dalits, including extrajudicial killings and sexual violence against Dalit women. Crimes committed against Dalits reportedly often went unpunished, either because authorities failed to prosecute perpetrators or because victims did not report crimes due to fear of retaliation.
Several incidents of discrimination, atrocities, and insults against Dalits were reported in Andhra Pradesh during the year. On July 31, Kula Vivaksha Porata Samithi, an anticaste discrimination organization, alleged 150 such incidents occurred in the state during the previous four months.
On July 20, police in Andhra Pradesh summoned I. Vara Prasad, a 23-year-old Dalit, to the police station in connection with a dispute in his village and allegedly beat him and shaved his head and moustache, which are considered symbolic acts to insult Dalits. A subinspector and two constables were suspended and arrested under various sections of the penal code and Schedules Castes and Scheduled Tribes Atrocities (Prevention) Act.
NGOs reported Dalit students were sometimes denied admission to certain schools because of their caste, required to present caste certification prior to admission, barred from morning prayers, asked to sit in the back of the class, or forced to clean school toilets while being denied access to the same facilities. There were also reports teachers refused to correct the homework of Dalit children, refused to provide midday meals to Dalit children, and asked Dalit children to sit separately from children of upper-caste families.
Manual scavenging–the removal of animal or human waste by Dalits–continued despite its legal prohibition. HRW reported that children of manual scavengers faced discrimination, humiliation, and segregation at village schools. Their occupation often exposed manual scavengers to infections that affected their skin, eyes, and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. Health practitioners suggested children exposed to such bacteria were often unable to maintain a healthy body weight and suffered from stunted growth.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Societal violence based on religion and caste and by religiously associated groups continued to be a serious concern. Muslims and lower-caste Dalit groups continued to be the most vulnerable. Ministry of Home Affairs data for 2016-17 showed 703 incidents of communal (religious) violence occurred in which 86 persons were killed and 2,321 injured. According to the NHRC, there were 672 cases of discrimination and victimization against Scheduled Castes and 79 cases against minorities in 2018-19.
In April media reported state-run public Ahmedabad Civil Hospital set up segregated wards for Muslim and Hindu patients “as per [the] government decision” in a treatment facility for COVID-19 patients. Following media uproar and widespread criticism, the segregation of patients on the basis of faith was revoked, according to Muslim community sources.
In May the Rajasthan High Court granted bail to two of the four men accused in the 2018 attempted lynching of cattle trader Rakbar Khan, who later died in custody. Villagers reportedly assaulted Khan on suspicion of cow smuggling before authorities detained him. Police took four hours to transport Khan to a local hospital 2.5 miles away, reportedly stopping for tea along the way, according to media sources. Doctors declared Khan dead upon arrival.
On June 17, the Telangana High Court held the state police to account for arresting a “disproportionately high number of Muslims” for violating COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. The court noted police often used excessive force when enforcing the lockdown rules. For example, the court cited the case of a Muslim volunteer, arrested while distributing food to migrants, who required 35 stiches on his face due to police brutality. The court asked the state principal secretary for home and the director general of police to submit documentary evidence in support of their claim that action had been taken against police officials who used excessive force.
On July 14, the Untouchability Eradication Front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) issued a report that identified 81 violent crimes against Dalits throughout Tamil Nadu, including rape and murder, during the national lockdown.
In November the Uttar Pradesh state government passed the Prohibition of Unlawful Conversion of Religious Ordinance, 2020, making forced religious conversion by marriage a criminal offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison and requiring individuals converting to another religion to notify authorities no later than 60 days prior. Opposition leaders, media, and civil society groups criticized the law as violating constitutional protections on freedom of religion and reinforcing derogatory stereotypes of Muslim men using marriage to coerce Hindu women into religious conversions, often referred to as “love jihad.” Media reports indicated the Uttar Pradesh state government filed several criminal cases against Muslim men after the passage of the law. In December the Madhya Pradesh state government passed similar legislation regulating interfaith couples and religious conversion.