Foreign Affairs and International Relations

In Conversation with Meenakshi Ganguly: Defending Democracy & Human Rights in South Asia

Ambarin Munir Khambati and Prannv Dhawan speak with Ms. Meenakshi Ganguly in an exclusive interview for LSPR



Ms. Meenakshi Ganguly is the South Asia Director of Human Rights Watch. She has extensively worked on, and authored books on a wide range of issues such as police reform, attacks on civil liberties, human rights abuse, sexual violence, and armed conflict.


LSPR: How should States reconcile human rights and national security, in light of the armed conflict between insurgents and security forces in various theatres of conflict in South Asia?

Ms. Ganguly: States have the responsibility to ensure public safety, including to arrest and prosecute those responsible for violent attacks. But all law enforcement should comply with human rights legal standards. That means that there should be proper human rights training for security forces and accountability for violations. Insurgencies and violent attacks continue to be a challenge in South Asia, but too often, we also find that human rights violations end up perpetuating a cycle of violence. What might start out as a political demand, turns into an angry reaction to government abuses. This can serve as a tool for recruitment to violence, further violations by security forces in response, and the spiral continues. What is key is establishing universal rule of law, where everyone is held to account and there is no culture of impunity for government officials or troops, and instead prompt justice to victims.


LSPR: What is the particular impact on women and children in zones of armed conflict that popular media usually overlooks?

Ms. Ganguly: Civilians are too often caught in the middle of an armed conflict. Women and children are particularly vulnerable. Sexual abuses are rampant, but often ignored, in conflict situations. Families have to endure the fear of or the trauma leading from killings, torture, disappearances, arrests, and threats from all parties to the conflict. Children can also be forcibly recruited into combat. In some places, schools have been targeted, particularly as symbols of the state or because they are used as barracks by police or military.


LSPR: How does India’s foreign policy measure up to tackle human rights challenges of inter-country migration of persecuted minorities?

Ms. Ganguly: India has long provided shelter to people fleeing persecution or war. India hosts refugees from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Burma, Bhutan, Nepal, Tibet and Pakistan. There are also asylum seekers from Africa and other parts of Asia. In recent years, however, we have heard senior government officials promoting some highly discriminatory policies. There are some proposals, for instance, to provide sanctuary on the basis of religion, largely to exclude Muslims. Indian authorities said they want to deport Rohingya refugees, which would violate international law.  The United Nations has warned that the Myanmar military is responsible for a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya people. Refugees cannot and should not be forcibly returned to a place where they remain at risk.


LSPR: How should civil society respond to the government’s crackdown on dissent?

Ms. Ganguly: Political leaders want to shutdown criticism instead of dealing with their shortcomings and failures. It is important that a responsible civil society continues to flag concerns and demand rights protections.


LSPR: What is your opinion on the Indian government’s role in the discrimination and violence against minorities?

Ms. Ganguly: The Constitution of India sets out principles that protect against any form of discrimination. A Hindu nationalist ideology is being promoted not just by the BJP, but many of its affiliate organizations. A peaceful political idea, however, is very different from the ongoing violent actions by groups that support this ideology. They have threatened and attacked individuals based on their religion or caste. They have attacked those they view as political opponents. They have targeted freedom of speech and expression with violent attacks, and threatened, even physically attacked, activists, writers, artists, lawyers.

The criminal justice system has all too often failed in upholding rights. In some cases, police and public officials, instead of prosecuting those responsible, have instead protected them. At times, they have even targeted the victims themselves with criminal cases, ranging from cattle smuggling, offending religious sentiments, and even sedition. Prejudice and political bias have no place in justice.


LSPR: How do mainstream media and popular culture further the discrimination against and persecution of minorities and vulnerable communities?

Ms. Ganguly: It has been a mixed response. Unfortunately, instead of objective reporting, we often find that journalists are actively upholding a political ideology. In some cases, they have vilified political opponents. Or they have attempted to justify wrongful actions by interest groups, highlighting provocations instead. Much of the mainstream media appears to be under pressure from the government as well, with insidious warnings to restrict criticism of the government or its supporters.

However, there are many that continue to do their jobs. They continue to highlight rights violations. Internet communications and social media can be used to incite hate, but those mediums also make it very difficult to hide crimes.

This is a time when India can choose. Many around the world believe that India can lead on rights protections. The recent Supreme Court judgment on section 377 is a case in point. That judgement is being used as precedent to challenge similar laws in other countries. But at the same time, as populist discourse prevails, it is crucial that India does not fall prey to empty promises that exclude others on the basis of their identity. There are numerous challenges in India, but a rights-based approach both at home and abroad, will play an important role in securing justice.

Image Source: Human Rights Watch