Human Rights in India

India is nominally the world’s largest democracy. Yet many Indian citizens are not granted the most basic human rights by their democratic government. Indians are faced with forced marriage, forced labour (including child labour, with India supplying nearly 25% of the world’s child labourers), horrifying conditions in the criminal justice system, and suppression of free speech.

33% of the world's child brides are in India. LEAF Society works with organizations such as Girls Not Brides to change this tragic statistic.

Source: “Ending Child Marriage” (UNICEF)

Why do Indian citizens suffer from so many human rights violations? In some cases, the perpetuation of ancient traditions—such as early and forced marriage, a practice dating back about four thousand years to the Vedic period—is responsible for modern-day human rights violations. In other cases, crushing poverty leads to bonded and forced labour, especially among children.

A report on human rights in India prepared by the U.S. Department of State cited weak law enforcement, a lack of trained police, and an overburdened court system. These conditions all lead to corruption, which is often responsible for abuse of power and violations of human rights.

“The most significant human rights problems were police and security force abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape; widespread corruption at all levels of government, leading to denial of justice; and separatist, insurgent, and societal violence.”

India 2013 Human Rights Report (produced by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; United States Department of State)

When the very government elected to represent and protect its people refuses to uphold basic human rights, abuses and violations are inevitable. Human rights violations by the police are especially egregious, considering that the police are given their arms and their powers for the express purpose of protecting citizens from wrongdoing. When the police themselves are doing wrong—by beating, sexually violating, or killing their prisoners—who can stop them?

Policing the Police

The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was formed by the Indian government for the purpose of identifying human rights violations, and making recommendations for their remediation.The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was formed by the Indian government. The NHRC recommended to the Criminal Investigations Department that any police-related deaths be investigated. However, the NHRC did not have authority to make this a binding recommendation, and many states do not follow it. In addition, state governments do not always adhere to the following guidelines, set forth by the NHRC:

  • Report all deaths resulting from police actions to the NHRC within 48 hours
  • Provide the families of victims of unlawful police violence with monetary compensation

Deaths of citizens in the custody of the Indian armed forces also go unreported to the NHRC.

The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), in effect in several states, allows the arrest of any person against whom there is “reasonable” suspicion. However, the arresting officer does not need to tell the detainee why the arrest is taking place. The AFSPA also allows security forces in any government-declared “disturbed area” to fire on any person at any time—under the guise of maintaining law and order. Lacking any real safeguards or clear definitions, the AFSPA has been used to cover human rights violations by Indian armed forces.

The Ministry of Home Affairs reported 318 cases of custodial torture and 126 custodial deaths caused by police brutality in a ten-month period.In a ten-month period between 2012 and 2013, the Ministry of Home Affairs reported 318 cases of custodial torture by police. Torture was used both to punish prisoners and to extort money from them.

There were 126 cases of custodial deaths in the same period. One cause of death was police beating prisoners.

In addition, there are ongoing reports of police raping women in their custody. In many cases, the rape victims themselves do not report the crime. The victims fear both retaliation and public shame. Even if the victims were to report these crimes, the lack of proper oversight often prevents the perpetrator from being made accountable. The callous nature of this particular crime is a reflection of the general disregard of the rights of women.

The Verma Commission, which had been formed to investigate the security lapses that led to the death of ex-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and at least fourteen other people, stated that the AFSPA created an atmosphere of legalized “impunity for systematic or isolated sexual violence in the process of internal security duties”. The Verma Commission’s recommendations included reviewing the AFSPA. In addition, the Verma Commission suggested that members of the armed forces who sexually violated women should be prosecuted under regular criminal law. However, as of 2013, the Indian government had not acted upon these recommendations.

Delay of Justice

One of the expectations in a democratic society is that criminal cases come to trial without undue or unreasonable delays. A year seems like a ridiculously long time to wait for a case to come to trial.

In India, however, it can take about a decade for a case to be tried. In the interim, the accused are kept waiting in an overcrowded, ill-equipped prison system. The victims of the crime are kept waiting for years to find out if justice will ever be served.


The Indian prison system suffers from overcrowding, notably due to the high number of pretrial detainees. (Given the noted backlog of the criminal courts system, accused (and not-yet-convicted) prisoners may be held for several years before their trials.) Prisons are not just very near capacity, as was the case in 2012 in Gujarat (95% full) and Maharashtra (99% full)—they sometimes exceed capacity, by staggering percentages:

Prisons in India are often overcrowded. This is partly due to the extraordinarily long pretrial detentions of criminal suspects.

Poor sanitation, insufficient food, and inadequate medical care are endemic in the Indian prison system—as can be expected with such significant overcrowding. Potable water is only sometimes provided. The prison system is understaffed. Physical assault and mistreatment of prisoners is commonplace.


Citizens can “disappear” when they are arrested by the police, but no reports of the arrest are filed. Disappearances of arrested citizens number in the hundreds. However, these claims are usually denied by representatives of the government and the police. Often, the only way the families of the disappeared persons can determine their whereabouts is to bribe prison guards. This, of course, is further evidence of the deep-seated corruption of the Indian government, which facilitates human rights violations.

Sadly, many of these disappearances are permanent.

“[…] unmarked graves found in Jammu and Kashmir contained more than 2,943 bodies of victims of extrajudicial executions from 1990 to 2009. While the government expressed its intention to conduct investigations into unmarked graves, no investigation was initiated by year’s end.”

India 2013 Human Rights Report (produced by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor; United States Department of State)

Freedom of Speech Suppressed

On 30 October 2015, Dalit folksinger Kovan of Tiruchirappalli, Tamil Nadu was arrested at his home, and jailed for sedition.

Dalit folksinger Kovan, of Tamilnadu, was arrested and charged with sedition for performing songs which criticized the government. After much furor on social media, he was later released.Kovan had dared to perform two songs which accused the state government of profiting from the poor. Like many artists, Kovan was using his art to express his opinion, and to communicate what he felt was a wrong against his people. He did so peacefully.

After much exposure on social media, and interest from human rights groups, Kovan was released on bail on 16 November 2015.

In a democracy such as India, free speech—without fear of government suppression or retaliation—is essential. In fact, freedom of speech and expression is one of the six freedoms guaranteed in Article 19 of the Indian Constitution.

If citizens are afraid to speak out against a perceived injustice, what is to prevent a corrupt government from abusing its power?

The sedition law used to arrest Kovan hearkens back to sedition laws established over one hundred years ago. These laws were first imposed by the British colonial government to suppress the Indian independence movement.

“Affection cannot be manufactured or regulated by the law. If one has no affection for a person, one should be free to give the fullest expression to his disaffection, so long as he does not contemplate, promote or incite to violence.”

— Mahatma Gandhi, charged with sedition in 1922 under Section 124-A of the Indian Penal Code

Any time one citizen speaks out, other citizens must make their own decision as to whether that person’s views are true. If the government is accountable for its actions, and treats its citizens fairly under the law, chances are that its citizens will be content. Content, well-treated citizens will feel little need to criticize their government. But citizens should always have the basic human right to do so, without fearing repercussions for expressing their opinions.

Thankfully, communications are so global and instantaneous that it is becoming more difficult to operate a culture of secrecy and fear. Social media in particular gives anyone in virtually any part of the world the ability to speak directly to a worldwide audience. Once word gets out, it can spread like wildfire.

International outrage can create leverage against unfair practices. A democratic government is meant to reflect the will of the people. A self-declared democratic government must operate with transparency, to show the world that it protects the rights of its citizens. A country with a poor reputation for human rights may face trade sanctions and strained diplomatic relations with other nations.

LEAF Society’s Activities to Promote Human Rights

While a nation’s international regard can affect the lives of its people, what goes on inside the borders of that nation has an even greater impact. LEAF Society recognizes the impact of human rights violations, especially in rural areas.

LEAF Society continues to train rural women and youth to use the Right to Information Act. This emphasis on Indian citizens’ Right to Information fosters government accountability and transparency, and thereby helps to protect basic human rights.

LEAF Society is making presentations on the rights of young workers in villages vulnerable to forced labour practices.LEAF Society is working with Geneva Global and Freedom Fund to eliminate modern day slavery and bonded labour in the garment and textile industries. As part of this effort, LEAF Society is giving a series of presentations in villages such as Valayapatty and Andapuram in Namakkal, which are especially vulnerable to forced labour practices.

LEAF Society works with Girls Not Brides to help prevent child marriage.LEAF Society’s promotion of Childline 1098 is a lifeline for those seeking to escape both forced labour and forced, premature matrimony. LEAF Society has also joined forces with global organization Girls Not Brides to fight against child marriage.

Help LEAF Society improve basic human rights practices in rural India:

  • Join our global team of volunteers to promote a better quality of life for India’s citizens.
  • Discuss your thoughts and ideas on human rights below.
  • Share this story on social media.

Remember: Awareness of the issues is the first step toward solving them.


Michelle Baumgartner is a freelance writer and editor. One of her current projects is an internship with LEAF Society. Michelle’s company, StellaWriting LLC, provides blogging, online content, and marketing materials for businesses and nonprofit organizations.


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