Religious minorities, particularly Muslims, in India faced increasing "demonization", global rights group Amnesty International said on Thursday, accusing Indian authorities of using laws to stifle freedom of expression in the country.
In its latest annual report released, the group paints a bleak picture of human rights situation in South Asia. With reference to India, it said incidents like cow vigilantism and lynchings in the name of beef-eating plagued India over the past year, alleging inaction by the government.
"In India, dozens of hate crimes against Muslims took place across the country against the backdrop of a wave of Islamophobia under the Hindu nationalist government.
"At least 10 Muslim men were lynched and many injured by vigilante cow protection groups," it said, adding many of them seemed to operate with the support of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
"Some arrests were made, but no convictions were reported. Some BJP officials made statements which appeared to justify the attacks."
The report also speaks about issues like a threat to journalists and killing of Gauri Lankesh, an editor who was shot dead outside her residence in Bengaluru last year.
"Several journalists and human rights defenders lost their lives. Freedom of expression in universities also remained under threat. Lankesh, an outspoken critic of Hindu nationalism and the caste system, was shot dead outside her home in Bengaluru by unidentified gunmen in September. Criminal defamation cases were brought against several journalists."
It said: "Repressive laws were used to stifle freedom of expression...state governments banned books, and the central film certification board denied the theatrical release of certain films, on vague and overly broad grounds."
Minar Pimple, Director Operations, Amnesty, said politics of populism and demonisation was spreading in the world but was is being met by resistance in the US and in India with 'Not in My Name' campaign.
Biraj Patnaik, Regional Director South Asia, said space for civil society in the whole of South Asian region was shrinking and "India's neighbours are learning all bad things" from the country like variants of Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act, Cybersecurity Act were being initiated in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The report draws a dark picture of the plight of human rights, citing examples and of caste-based discrimination, communal violence, crimes against women and children in India.
It stressed that the Supreme Court and High Courts delivered several progressive judgments but some rulings undermined human rights as India "failed" to respect its human rights commitments made before the UN Human Rights Council.
Over 338,000 crimes against women were registered and over 106,000 cases of violence against children were reported.
"Activists remained critical of amendments to child labour laws which allowed children to work in family enterprises."
In Jammu and Kashmir, security forces continued to use inherently inaccurate pellet-firing shotguns during protests, blinding and injuring several people.
Impunity for human rights abuses persisted, it maintained.
In June, a military court set up under the paramilitary Border Security Force acquitted two soldiers of killing 16-year-old Zahid Farooq Sheikh in 2010.
It also noted that in July, the Supreme Court refused to reopen 215 cases in which over 700 members of the Kashmiri Pandit community were killed in Jammu and Kashmir in 1989, citing the passage of time.
"The same month, an appellate military court suspended the life sentences of five army personnel convicted by a court-martial of the extrajudicial executions of three men in Machil in 2010," it argued.
The report said that hate crimes against Dalits remained widespread as official statistics released in November stated that more than 40,000 crimes against Scheduled Castes were reported in 2016.
"Authorities were openly critical of human rights defenders and organizations, contributing to a climate of hostility against them," the report said, citing the deaths of two Dalit men who were killed by members of a dominant caste in Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, following a clash.
"Activists said that at least 90 Dalits employed as manual scavengers died during the year while cleaning sewers, despite the practice being prohibited," it stated adding that many of those killed were illegally employed by government agencies.
It also highlights that an estimated 40,000 Rohingya people in India were at risk of mass expulsion. They included more than 16,000 who were recognized as refugees by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, it said.