Freedom in the World 2000 - 2001


Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s right-wing coalition pushed ahead with economic liberalization measures including a 28 percent fuel price increase in October 2000 and plans to privatize and reduce the size of the power, banking, and insurance sectors. Yet the Indian public seemed far from reaching a consensus over the scope and pace of economic liberalization.  Some opposition parties and even members of Vajpayee’s coalition criticized the measures, which could cost milllions of state workers their jobs and cause farmers and other influential groups to lose subsidies.

India achieved independence in 1947 with the partition of British India into a predominantly Hindu India, under Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and a Muslim Pakistan. The centrist, secular Congress Party ruled continuously for the first five decades of independence, except for periods of opposition from 1977 through 1980 and from 1989 through 1991. During the campaign for the 1991 elections, a suspected Sri Lankan Tamil separatist assassinated former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, heir to the political dynasty of Congress standard-bearers Nehru and Indira Gandhi. After Congress won the elections, the incoming prime minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, responded to a balance-of-payments crisis by initiating gradual reforms of the autarkic, control-bound economy. 

Even as the crisis receded, Congress lost eleven state elections in the mid-1990s. The party’s traditional electoral base of poor, low-caste, and Muslim voters appeared disillusioned with the economic liberalization and the government’s failure to prevent communal violence. In December 1992 and January 1993, northern India and Bombay had experienced some of the worst communal violence since independence after Hindu fundamentalists destroyed a sixteenth-century mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya. The rioting killed some 2,000 people, mainly Muslims. Regional parties made gains in southern India, and low-caste parties and the BJP gained in the northern Hindi-speaking belt. 

These trends continued at the national level in the April-May 1996 parliamentary elections. The BJP captured 161 seats versus 140 for Congress. However, in May a BJP-led minority government resigned after 13 days in office after failing to attract secular allies. A minority United Front (UF) government, dominated by leftist and regional parties, took office but collapsed in November 1997. It fell when Congress withdrew its support after an official commission linked a tiny, Tamil Nadu-based UF party to Sri Lankan guerrillas implicated in Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.

The turmoil among centrist and leftist parties provided an opening for the BJP to form a government under Vajpayee after winning the early elections held in February and March 1998. Final results gave the BJP (178 seats) and its allies 245 seats, while Congress (140) and its allies won 166. One of the government’s first major acts was to carry out a series of underground nuclear tests in May 1998. Archrival Pakistan responded with its own atomic tests.

Holding only a minority of seats, the BJP government faced frequent threats and demands from small but pivotal coalition members. The government fell after a Tamil Nadu-based party defected, but won reelection in voting held in September and October 1999. Final results gave the BJP-led, 22-party National Democratic Alliance 295 seats (182 for the BJP) against 112 seats for Congress. The BJP’s share of the popular vote held at 25 percent while Congress’s share rose from 26 to 29 percent. Among smaller parties, the election confirmed the continued decline of leftist parties and the growing importance of regional and caste-based parties. The BJP had campaigned on Vajpayee’s handling of a summer crisis in which Indian troops repelled an incursion into Kashmir by Pakistani-backed forces, and on suggestions that Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, the Congress leader and widow of Rajiv Gandhi, was unsuitable to lead an Indian government because of her foreign origins. Polls showed most voters were concerned primarily with local economic issues.

Vajpayee spent much of 2000 trying to build support for the government’s economic liberalization policies. While Congress mainly favored the liberalization process, it was opposed by some coalition members as well as by the National Volunteer Service, a far-right Hindu organization that exerts considerable influence on the Vajpayee government but which favors economic self-reliance. Both Congress and some coalition members heavily criticized Vajpayee’s backing in December of calls for a Hindu temple to be built in Ayodhya on the site of the mosque that Hindu fanatics razed in 1992. 

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Indian citizens can change their government through elections. However, democratic rule continued to be undermined by pervasive criminality in politics, decrepit state institutions, a weak rule of law, and widespread corruption. A survey commissioned by the Central Vigilance Commission and released in November showed that almost 50 percent of Indians using government services in five major cities end up paying bribes. The Berlin-based Transparency International’s 2000 Corruption Perceptions Index ranked India in a tie for 69th place out of 90 countries with a score of 2.8 on a 0 to 10 scale. The top-ranked, least corrupt country, Finland, received a score of 10.

The 1950 constitution provides for a lower, 543-seat Lok Sabha (House of the People), directly elected for a five-year term (plus 2 appointed seats for Indians of European descent), and an upper Rajya Sabha (Council of States). Executive power is vested in a prime minister and cabinet.

Recent elections have generally been free although not entirely fair. Violence and irregularities have marred balloting in many districts. The Associated Press reported in February that violence during state elections in the impoverished northern state of Bihar killed 43 people. In the 1999 national elections, guerrilla attacks in Bihar and northeast India and interparty clashes in several states killed some 130 people. 

Moreover, criminality has penetrated the electoral process. The chief vigilance commissioner, N. Vittal, told a November seminar on corruption in New Delhi that India’s “political process and the system of election depend on black money” that is obtained illegally through tax evasion and other means, according to Agence France-Press (AFP). In 1998, The New York Times cited studies showing that more than one-third of state legislators in Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, had criminal records. The London-based Financial Times cited Indian press allegations that it took three kidnappings to pay for a poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh. In neighboring Bihar, many legislators reportedly lead criminal gangs, and political killings are routine. The Election Commission estimated in 1997 that 40 members of parliament and 700 state assembly representatives nationwide faced charges for, or had been convicted of, offenses ranging from extortion to murder.

The judiciary is independent. In recent years judges have exercised unprecedented activism in response to public interest litigation over official corruption, environmental issues, and other matters. However, corruption is reportedly rife among lower-level judges, poor people generally cannot afford to take cases to court, and there is a backlog of more than 30 million cases. As a result, cases take an average of 20 years to dispose, according to AFP. Amnesty International said in 1999 that “many people await trial for longer than their ultimate sentence.”

Police continued to routinely torture suspects to extract confessions and to abuse ordinary prisoners, particularly low-caste members. Rape of female detainees by police continued to be a problem.

Police, army, and paramilitary forces continued to be implicated in “disappearances,” extrajudicial killings, rape, torture, arbitrary detention, and destruction of homes, particularly in the context of insurgencies in Kashmir and in Assam and other northeastern states. (A separate report on Kashmir appears in the Related Territories section.) While the National Human Rights Commission continued to monitor custodial deaths and other abuses, it had few enforcement powers. This is partly because the criminal procedure code requires the central or state governments to approve prosecutions of security force members, which is rarely granted. Security forces continued to detain suspects under the broadly drawn 1980 National Security Act, which authorizes detention without charge for up to one year (two in Punjab). During the year, the government considered introducing into parliament a tough draft security law, the Prevention of Terrorism Bill. Amnesty International said in June that the bill did not provide adequate safeguards to prevent human rights violations by authorities.

In India’s seven northeastern states, more than 40 mainly tribal-based insurgent groups sporadically attacked security forces and engaged in intertribal and internecine violence. The rebel groups have also been implicated in numerous killings, abductions, and rapes of civilians. Many of them raised money through extortion from tea plantations. The militants ostensibly seek either greater autonomy or independence for their ethnic or tribal groups. In recent years the army has committed atrocities with impunity during counterinsurgency operations in Assam, Manipur, and other northeastern states. The 1958 Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act grants security forces broad powers to use lethal force and detention in Assam and four nearby states, and provides near immunity from prosecution to security forces acting under it.

Left-wing guerrillas called Naxalites control some rural areas in Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, and Orissa and kill dozens of police, politicians, landlords, and villagers in these states each year. The Naxalites also run parallel courts in parts of Bihar. Naxalites and the Ranvir Sena, a technically illegal private army backed by middle-caste politicians and upper-caste landlords, continued to engage in tit-for-tat atrocities in Bihar that killed scores of people during the year. The New York-based Human Rights Watch/Asia reported in 1999 that in the past four years, Naxalites had killed more than 1,100 landowners, while the Ranvir Sena had killed more than 400 low-caste peasants.

India’s private press continued to be vigorous although journalists face numerous constraints. In recent years, the government has occasionally censored articles critical of its policies by using its power under the Official Secrets Act to censor security-related articles. The Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontieres said in April that in the previous three years authorities had detained 15 journalists in Manipur on charges of supporting militant groups. Radio is both public and private. However, the state-owned All India Radio enjoys a dominant position, and its news coverage favors the government. The government maintains a monopoly on domestic television broadcasting, although foreign satellite broadcasts are available. 

There are some restrictions on freedom of assembly and association. Section 144 of the criminal procedure code empowers state-level authorities to declare a state of emergency, restrict free assembly, and impose curfews. In recent years, officials have occasionally used Section 144 to prevent demonstrations. Human rights groups say that in recent years police and hired thugs have occasionally beaten, arbitrarily detained, or otherwise harassed villagers and members of nongovernmental organizations who were protesting forced relocations from the sites of development projects. The organizations alleged that the government had awarded the projects with little local consultation and had provided inadequate compensation to those affected.                        Human rights organizations generally operated freely. However, Amnesty International reported in April that authorities occasionally carried out or tolerated abuses against human rights activists, including “threats, harassment, false criminal cases and in some cases torture, ill-treatment, ‘disappearances’ and even political killings.”

Each year, several thousand women are burned to death, driven to suicide, or otherwise killed, and countless others are harassed, beaten, or deserted by husbands, in the context of dowry disputes. Although dowry is illegal, convictions in dowry deaths continued to be rare. Rape and other violence against women also continued to be serious problems. Anecdotal evidence suggested that brothel owners continued to hold many women and teenage girls in conditions of debt servitude and subject them to rape, beatings, and other torture. Local officials continued to be complicit or to tolerate these abuses. By many accounts, families often deny inheritances to Hindu women. Tribal land systems, particularly in Bihar, often deny tribal women the right to own land. Under Sharia (Islamic law), Muslim women face discrimination in inheritance rights. 

The constitution bars discrimination based on caste, and laws set aside quotas in education and jobs for lower castes. However, evidence suggested that members of so-called scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, as well as religious and ethnic minorities, continued to routinely face unofficial discrimination. The worst abuse is faced by the 160 million dalits, or untouchables, who are often denied access to land, abused by landlords and police, and forced to work in miserable conditions. Religious freedom continued to be generally respected, but violence against religious minorities remained a problem. Attacks on Christians have increased since the BJP came to power in 1998. The Delhi-based United Christian Forum for Human Rights gave evidence in June of at least 35 anti-Christian incidents since the beginning of the year, including recent bomb attacks on four churches in three states and the murder of a Roman Catholic priest. Local media and some members of the sangh parivar, an umbrella organization of Hindu nationalist groups including the BJP, promote anti-Christian propaganda. New York-based Human Rights Watch said in March that the BJP and its allies have mandated Hindu prayers in certain state-sponsored schools and the revision of history books to include negative portrayals of Muslims and Christians.

Major cities each have thousands of street children, many of whom work in the informal sector. UNICEF estimates that overall there are up to 60 million child laborers in India. Many work in hazardous conditions, and several million are bonded laborers. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, only about 16 million of India’s 340 million workers are unionized. However, unionized workers wield disproportionate political and economic influence because they are concentrated in key industries including power, banking, and railways. Workers regularly exercised their rights to bargain collectively and strike. However, authorities forcibly broke up a major strike in Uttar Pradesh in January.

In the fall, the worst flooding in 22 years in West Bengal killed at least 1,000 people. Residents of the eastern state of Orissa continued to deal with the aftereffects of a powerful cyclone and subsequent flooding in 1999 that had left millions homeless and killed more than 10,000 people.

Economic reforms continue to devolve power to the states. However, there has been a widening gap in per capita income between the few states like Andhra Pradesh that have significantly liberalized their economies and attracted investment, and poorer states including Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, which together hold roughly one-quarter of India’s population.

2001 Scores



Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)