The Platform

Indian farmer protesting in 2019. (Sanket Jain)

The long and troubled history of abuse in Punjab reveals systemic failures to secure justice.

In the Indian state of Punjab, a land noted for its rich cultural heritage and agricultural significance, the shadows of historical and current human rights violations loom large. The region’s history is marred by a disturbing pattern of abuses against its inhabitants, a troubling sequence that resonates globally and warrants international focus. In a world that prides itself on democratic principles and human rights protection, the recent upheaval in Punjab highlights India’s struggle to fulfill its human rights obligations and casts doubt on the government’s commitment to these foundational principles.

Punjab’s landscape has long been blighted by human rights abuses, but the events following the 2022 farmer demonstrations thrust these issues into international consciousness. In response, the Indian government enacted the State Foreign Operations and Related Appropriations Bill 2024 (SFORAB). However, this legislation has stumbled, ineffectively addressing the violations due to an apparent lack of commitment from Indian authorities to confront the root problem.

With financial backing from the U.S. State Department, USAID, and other programs, the SFORAB sought to channel resources to amend human rights abuses in Punjab. But the promise of financial commitment has not translated into tangible change. The principal clause of the law requires the U.S. Secretary of State to present a comprehensive report on specific violations in Punjab, such as extrajudicial killings, torture, forced disappearances, suppression of free expression, and the treatment of religious minorities.

Paradoxically, the SFORAB itself has faced allegations of human rights breaches, as in events in Manipur in 2000 and Kashmir in 2007. Though the Indian government refutes these charges as unfounded and politically inspired, the continued existence of these allegations emphasizes the urgent need for an unbiased examination, a step that remains uninitiated.

One of the gravest concerns related to the SFORAB is its failure to hold the Indian government accountable for abuses. The absence of oversight mechanisms creates an environment of immunity from the rule of law, fostering a culture of impunity that feeds India’s cycle of violence. To confront this, launching an impartial inquiry, monitored by a credible international organization with unhampered access to relevant information, becomes a critical necessity.

Furthermore, the Indian government must prioritize the issue of human rights abuses in Punjab. Encouraging local human rights organizations, imposing sanctions on violators, and cooperating with impartial observers could demonstrate genuine resolve to enhance the situation. The international community’s role is underscored by entities like the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR) pressing India for action and justice.

Simultaneously, the moral duty of the U.S. government to champion human rights worldwide becomes evident. Beyond the SFORAB, bipartisan efforts in the U.S. Congress, such as the Sikh Human Rights Awareness Act, signify a multifaceted approach encompassing coordination across governance levels, both in the U.S. and globally.

The long and troubled history of abuse in Punjab reveals systemic failures to secure justice. Amid this complex background, the proposal for a human rights ombudsman for the SFORAB emerges as a pressing need. Empowered to probe violations, propose reforms, and aid in correcting ongoing human rights transgressions, such a figure would embody the international community’s collective responsibility to act.

A nuanced dialogue surrounds India’s human rights scenario, especially during diplomatic engagements such as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visits to the United States. Balancing strategic interests with ethical imperatives poses a considerable challenge. Yet, the convergence of global pressure, legislative initiatives, and grassroots activism accentuates the necessity of a cohesive strategy in addressing human rights dilemmas, as illustrated by Punjab’s case. The duty to resolve these crises extends to local governments and the global community alike.

In a world increasingly calling for accountability, united efforts are vital in securing justice, equality, and the protection of all individuals’ rights, beyond geopolitical considerations. It invites nations to rise above strategic interests and prioritize human rights, laying the foundation for a future imbued with dignity and universal respect.

Humma Rehman Qureshi is a researcher at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad.