MUMBAI - United Nations chief Antonio Guterres chided India during a visit on Wednesday over its human rights record, which critics say has regressed under Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Since Mr Modi came to power in 2014 in the Hindu-majority nation of 1.4 billion people, campaigners say persecution and hate speech have accelerated against religious minorities, especially for India’s 200 million-strong Muslim minority.
This is particularly the case in Indian-administered Kashmir, activists say.
In 2019, the Modi government imposed direct rule on the Muslim-majority region where it has half a million troops stationed.
Pressure has also grown towards government critics and journalists, particularly women reporters – some have suffered relentless campaigns of online abuse including death and rape threats.
“As an elected member of the Human Rights Council, India has a responsibility to shape global human rights, and to protect and promote the rights of all individuals, including members of minority communities,” said Mr Guterres in a speech in Mumbai.
Though he praised India’s achievements 75 years after leaving British rule, Mr Guterres also pointedly said the understanding that “diversity is a richness... is not a guarantee”.
“It must be nurtured, strengthened and renewed every day,” he added.
Citing independence hero Mahatma Gandhi and India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru – both of whom have become hate figures for some in Mr Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party – Mr Guterres said their values need to be guarded by “condemning hate speech unequivocally”.
India must do this “by protecting the rights and freedoms of journalists, human rights activists, students and academics. And by ensuring the continued independence of India’s judiciary”, Mr Guterres said.
“India’s voice on the global stage can only gain in authority and credibility from a strong commitment to inclusivity and respect for human rights at home.”
He added that “much more needs to be done to advance gender equality and women’s rights”.
“I urge Indians to be vigilant and to increase your investments in inclusive, pluralistic, diverse communities and societies,” Mr Guterres said.
In February, UN rights experts called for an end to “misogynistic and sectarian” online attacks against one particular Muslim woman journalist who was a fierce critic of Mr Modi.
Media rights group Reporters Without Borders places India at No. 142 in its World Press Freedom Index, saying that under Mr Modi, “pressure has increased on the media to toe the Hindu nationalist government’s line”.
On climate change, Mr Guterres echoed New Delhi’s assertion that advanced economies must take the lead in cutting carbon emissions and provide money to poorer countries like India to develop renewable energies.
But the UN Secretary-General also said nations like India need to “take an extra step to close the mitigation gap”, referring to efforts to reduce or prevent the emission of greenhouse gases.
Even as India sets ambitious goals for renewable energy, coal still makes up 70 per cent of its energy needs.
India and China weakened the final summit declaration at 2021’s COP26, insisting that language was changed from “phase out” coal to “phase down”.
Mr Guterres also said that as home to one-sixth of humanity, India can “make or break” the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
Some of the most fundamentals of these have “gone into reverse” due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the cost of living crisis “accelerated by the war in Ukraine”, he said. AFP