LUCKNOW, India, June 16 (Reuters) – Police in northern India fired shots in the air on Thursday to push back stone-throwing crowds and authorities shut off mobile internet in at least one district to forestall further chaos, as protests widened against a new military recruitment system.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government this week announced an overhaul of recruitment for India’s 1.38 million-strong armed forces, looking to bring down the average age of personnel and reduce pension expenditure. read more
But potential recruits, military veterans, opposition leaders and even some members of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have raised reservations over the revamped process.
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In northern Haryana state’s Palwal district, some 50 km (31 miles) south of the capital New Delhi, crowds hurled stones at a government official’s house and police protecting the building fired shots to keep the mob at bay, according to video footage from Reuters partner ANI.
“Yes, we have fired a few shots to control the crowd,” a local police official said, declining to be named.
There was no immediate information on casualties.
Mobile internet was temporarily suspended in Palwal district for the next 24 hours, Haryana’s information department said.
Protesters in eastern India’s Bihar state set a BJP office on fire in Nawada city, attacked railway infrastructure and blocked roads, as demonstrations spread across several parts of the country, police officials told Reuters.
Demonstrators perform push-ups as they protest against “Agnipath scheme” for recruiting personnel for armed forces, in Munger, Bihar, India June 16, 2022 in this still image obtained from a handout video. ANI/Handout via REUTERS
Protesters also attacked railway property across Bihar, settling alight coaches in at least two locations, damaging train tracks and vandalising a station, according to officials and a railways statement.
The new recruitment system, called Agnipath or “path of fire” in Hindi, will bring in men and women between the ages of 17-and-a-half and 21 for a four-year tenure at non-officer ranks, with only a quarter retained for longer periods.
Previously, soldiers have been recruited by the army, navy and air force separately and typically enter service for up to 17 years for the lowest ranks.
The shorter tenure has caused concern among potential recruits.
“Where will we go after working for only four years?” one young man, surrounded by fellow protesters in Bihar’s Jehanabad district, told ANI. “We will be homeless after four years of service. So we have jammed the roads.”
Smoke billowed from burning tyres at a crossroads in Jehanabad where protesters shouted slogans and performed push-ups to emphasise their fitness for service.
Bihar and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh saw protests over the recruitment process for railway jobs in January this year, underlining India’s persistent unemployment problem. read more
Varun Gandhi, a BJP lawmaker from Uttar Pradesh, in a letter to India’s defence minister Rajnath Singh on Thursday said that 75% of those recruited under the scheme would become unemployed after four years of service.
“Every year, this number will increase,” Gandhi said, according to a copy of the letter posted by him on social media.
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Writing by Devjyot Ghoshal;
Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean
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HARIDWAR, India — The police officer arrived at the Hindu temple here with a warning to the monks: Don’t repeat your hate speech.
Ten days earlier, before a packed audience and thousands watching online, the monks had called for violence against the country’s minority Muslims. Their speeches, in one of India’s holiest cities, promoted a genocidal campaign to “kill two million of them” and urged an ethnic cleansing of the kind that targeted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
When videos of the event provoked national outrage, the police came. The saffron-clad preachers questioned whether the officer could be objective.
Yati Narsinghanand, the event’s firebrand organizer known for his violent rhetoric, assuaged their concerns.
warned that “inciting people against each other is a crime against the nation” without making a specific reference to Haridwar. Junior members of Mr. Modi’s party attended the event, and the monks have often posted pictures with senior leaders.
“You have persons giving hate speech, actually calling for genocide of an entire group, and we find reluctance of the authorities to book these people,” Rohinton Fali Nariman, a recently retired Indian Supreme Court judge, said in a public lecture.“Unfortunately, the other higher echelons of the ruling party are not only being silent on hate speech, but almost endorsing it.”
increasingly emboldened vigilante groups.
Vigilantes have beaten people accused of disrespecting cows, considered holy by some Hindus; dragged couples out of trains, cafes and homes on suspicion that Hindu women might be seduced by Muslim men; and barged into religious gatherings where they suspect people are being converted.
Myanmar was an example of how the easy dissemination of misinformation and hate speech on social media prepares the ground for violence. The difference in India, he said, is that it would be the mobs taking action instead of the military.
“You have to stop it now,” he said, “because once the mobs take over it could really turn deadly.”
The Dasna Devi temple in Uttar Pradesh state, where Mr. Narsinghanand is the chief priest, is peppered with signs that call to prepare for a “dharm yudh,” or religious war. One calls on “Hindus, my lions” to value their weapons “just the way dedicated wives value their husbands.”
The temple’s main sign prohibits Muslims from entering.
vast network of volunteers to mobilize voters and secure victories.
When he was chief minister of Gujarat, Mr. Modi saw firsthand how unchecked communal tensions could turn into bloodletting.
In 2002, a train fire killed 59 Hindu pilgrims. Although the cause was disputed, violent mobs, in response, targeted the Muslim community, leaving more than 1,000 people dead, many burned alive.
Rights organizations and opposition leaders accused Mr. Modi of looking the other way. He rejected the allegations as political attacks.
took an oath to turn India into a Hindu state, even if it meantkilling for it.
The police arrested Mr. Narsinghanand on Jan. 15, and he was charged in court with hate speech.
“He said nothing wrong,” said Swami Amritanand, an organizer of the Haridwar event. “We are doing what America is doing, we are doing what Britain is doing.”
Mr. Amritanand said the call for arms was justified because “within the next 10 to 12 years there will be a horrible war that will play out in India.”
Late last month, the monks again sounded a violent call to create a Hindu state, this time at an event hundreds of miles away from Haridwar in Uttar Pradesh. They threatened violence — referencing a bombing of India’s assembly — if Mr. Narsinghanand was not released.
Ms. Pandey described their actions as defensive. “We must prepare to protect ourselves,” she said.
To the Haridwar police, the event in Uttar Pradesh did not count as a repeat offense. Rakendra Singh Kathait, the senior police officer in Haridwar, said Mr. Narsinghanand was in jail because he had acted again in the city; others like Ms. Pandey got a warning.
“If she goes and says it from Kolkata, it doesn’t count as repeat here,” Mr. Kathait said.
Muttur Devi, a lower caste woman who works on a farm in the impoverished state of Bihar, adopted Christianity two years ago. Still, each morning, she affixes a bindi, a small circular sticker, to her forehead, and paints a vermilion stripe on her scalp. These are visible Hindu marks that she says help disguise her departure from Hinduism.
“If I take this off,” she said, touching her bindi, “the whole village will harass me.”
One cold night this past winter, Pastor Patil drove to a secret prayer session in an unmarked farmhouse. He quickly stepped inside. On a dusty carpet that smelled like sheep, two dozen Pentecostal Christians waited for him. Most were lower-caste farmers. When a dog barked outside, one woman whipped around and whispered, “What’s that?”
Pastor Patil reassured the woman that she was doing nothing wrong and that God was watching over. He cracked open his weathered, Hindi-language Bible and rested his finger on Luke 21, an apt passage for his beleaguered flock.
“They will seize you and persecute you,” he read, voice trembling.
“You will be betrayed even by parents, brothers, sisters, relatives and friends,” he went on, tracing the passages with his finger. “They will put some of you to death. Everyone will hate you because of me.”
The farmers sitting on the floor, some holding sleeping babies, watched him closely.
They also checked the windows to make sure no one was coming.
NEW DELHI — Om Prakash relied on relatives and neighbors to tend his wheat and vegetable fields. He ate food donated by sympathizers at home and abroad. When he felt feverish, he turned to volunteer medical workers huddled, like him, near a noisy overpass for months, through heat and cold and a deadly viral outbreak.
Now, his year away from his farm and his family has finally paid off.
Mr. Prakash was one of thousands of farmers in India who used their organizational skills, broad support network and sheer persistence to force one of the country’s most powerful leaders in modern history into a rare retreat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday said lawmakers would repeal new agricultural laws that the protesting farmers feared would leave them vulnerable to rapacious big companies and destroy their way of life.
Their victory won’t help India solve the deep inefficiencies that plague its farming sector, problems that leave people malnourished in some places even as grain in other parts is unused or exported. But it showed how a group desperate to preserve its hold on a middle-class way of life could successfully challenge a government more accustomed to squelching dissent than reckoning with it.
fast-tracked citizenship for some groups but excluded Muslims, were plagued by violence.
The effort isn’t over yet. The farmers have vowed to continue their protests until the government submits to another demand, that it guarantee a minimum price for nearly two dozen crops. Rather than retreat now, they sense an opportunity to push even harder on a prime minister who is nervously watching his party’s poll numbers dip in a string of states with elections next year. The government has said it will form a committee to consider the matter.
India’s farming system still needs to be fixed, a fact that even many of the protesting farmers acknowledge. Initiated during a time of widespread starvation in the 1960s, the system created centralized markets where farmers could sell their crops. Some of the proceeds are funneled back to farming communities though infrastructure projects, pensions and programs providing free technical advice on matters like seed and fertilizer.
in debt. With city and factory jobs hard to find in a country still struggling with poverty, many farm children emigrate to find a better life.
Mr. Modi’s laws were aimed at bringing more private money into agriculture and making it more receptive to market forces. Mr. Singh, the protest leader, said many farmers would prefer subsidies over a wider range of output.
“The root of the agricultural issue in India is that farmers are not getting the proper value of their crops,” said Mr. Singh. “There are two ways to see reforms — giving away land to the corporations, the big people, the capitalists. The other is to help the farmers increase their yields.”
The movement started in Punjab, home to a large community of Sikhs, the religious group, and some of the country’s richest agricultural land. The protest leaders leaned on both to organize and finance their yearlong demonstrations.
farmers rode tractors over police barricades into New Delhi, leading to the death of one protester. Political analysts declared the movement dead. But organizers retreated behind the barricades, and resumed their peaceful protests through the harsh winter, a devastating wave of the coronavirus, a scorching summer and into the fall.
rammed into a group of protesting farmers, resulting in the deaths of four protesters along with four other people, including a local journalist. The son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers is among those under investigation in connection with the episode.
That incident, which came after the protesters decided to shadow campaigning B.J.P. officials to draw cameras, may have been a turning point. The B.J.P.’s poll numbers soon dropped in Uttar Pradesh, where the deaths took place. Party officials began to worry that they could lose the state in elections set for early next year.
A day after Mr. Modi’s surprise announcement, the mood near Singhu, a village in the state of Haryana that borders the capital, was somber. Religious music and political speeches blared from loudspeakers across the makeshift village of bamboo huts, where people hawked T-shirts and flags that said, “No farmers, no food.”
Outside one of the huts serving free vegetarian lunch, Mr. Prakash, the farmer, described sleeping though cold weather and rain next to a busy road, leaving his farm in the care of his brothers’ children.
Mr. Prakash, who lives off his pension from 20 years in the Indian Air Force, does not need the farm to survive. Instead, holding on to the seven acres he and his siblings inherited from their parents ensures they can maintain a middle class life in a country where the vagaries of the economy often suck people back into poverty.
Mr. Prakash said that the family farm had supported his ambitions, and that he wanted the same for his children.
“To save our motherland,” he said, “we can stay here another two years.”
NEW DELHI — Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India announced Friday that his government would repeal contentious farm laws aimed at overhauling the country’s struggling agriculture sector, in a surprise concession to yearlong protests by angry farmers.
“We have decided to repeal all three farm laws, and will begin the procedure at the Parliament session that begins this month,” Mr. Modi said in a televised address. “I urge the protesting farmers to return home to their families, and let’s start afresh.”
Protest leaders greeted Mr. Modi’s turnaround with cautious optimism, with plans to meet in New Delhi to discuss next steps.
Many of the protesters come from India’s minority Sikh community, and Mr. Modi timed his announcement for Guru Nanak Jayanti, a holiday celebrated by Sikhs all over the world.
the market-friendly laws it passed last year, even as the farmers refused any compromise short of repealing them. The protesters remained in their tents through last year’s harsh winter, the summer heat and a deadly Covid-19 wave that caused havoc in New Delhi.
would bring private investment into a sector that more than 60 percent of India’s population still depends on for their livelihood — but has been lagging in its contribution to India’s economy.
rammed into a group of protesting farmers in Uttar Pradesh, killing four protesters along with four other people, including a local journalist. The son of one of Mr. Modi’s ministers is among those under investigation for murder in the episode.
Jagdeep Singh, whose father, Nakshatra Singh, 54, was among those killed, said the decision to repeal the laws served as homage to those who had died in the difficult conditions of a year of protests — whether from exposure to extreme temperatures, heart attacks, Covid or more. According to one farm leader, some 750 protesters have died. (The government says it does not have data on this.)
“This is a win for all those farmers who laid down their lives to save hundreds of thousands of poor farmers of this country from corporate greed,” Mr. Singh said. “They must be smiling from wherever they are.”
Karan Deep Singh and Sameer Yasir contributed reporting.
NEW DELHI — A thick blanket of noxious haze has settled over the Indian capital of New Delhi, burning eyes and lungs, forcing schools to close and prompting ardent calls from residents for action.
India’s leaders have responded with what has become an annual tradition: by pointing fingers at one another.
The central government, run by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is accusing city officials of inaction, and vice versa. The country’s Supreme Court has stepped in to shut down factories and order farmers to stop burning fields. But the court’s other efforts, which last year included ordering the installation of a pair of air-scrubbing filter towers, have been derided as ineffectual.
The airborne murk and the towers stand as symbols of India’s deep political dysfunction. The choking pollution has become an annual phenomenon, and the country’s scientists can accurately predict the worst days. But deep partisanship and official intransigence have hindered steps that could help clear the air.
by major wildfires. It criticized officials for what it called their “don’t take any step” position.
India was home to 15 of the 20 cities with the most hazardous air globally, and health experts have detailed how such conditions can lead to brain damage, respiratory problems and early death.
Weaning the country off coal and other dirty fuels will be difficult, a reality underscored by climate negotiations that took place in Glasgow, Scotland, this month. India already struggles to meet its basic power needs. During the Scotland talks, India and China teamed up to insist upon a last-minute amendment to the language of the accord, to “phase down” coal rather than ease it out.
Mr. Modi argues that India’s increasing use of coal and other fossil fuels is helping build an economy that is lifting millions out of poverty. But emissions from burning coal make the pollution problem worse for city dwellers, particularly the poor, who cannot afford air purifier machines or the electricity to run them.
Adesh Gupta, the Delhi president of Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, said that Delhi’s top elected official, Arvind Kejriwal, should resign.
“Instead of making Delhi a world-class city as he claimed, Kejriwal has made it a smog city,” Mr. Gupta said.
clearing their fields with fires.
“Farmers in neighboring states are compelled to burn stubble as their governments are doing nothing for them,” Mr. Kejriwal said.
The Supreme Court stepped in last year, too, ordering the two sides to take steps like enforcing a ban on farm fires and capturing power plant emissions. It also ordered Delhi early last year to build the two experimental smog towers, despite experts’ doubts about their impact. A study last year in the peer-reviewed journal Atmosphere called the approach unscientific.
“Can we vacuum our air pollution problem using smog towers? The short answer is no,” the researchers said.
Still, they are a tempting refuge for people desperate to escape the city’s bad air.
As a coppery sun set behind smoky skies, Jasmer Singh rested under a smog tower in central Delhi as it sucked in polluted air. A monitor measuring the levels of dangerous particulate matter showed that the air it spit out was slightly cleaner, but far from what the World Health Organization considers safe.
Still, Mr. Singh, a volunteer at a nearby Sikh temple, said, “around here, the air is good, lighter and better.”
Some members of both Mr. Modi’s party and the opposition say they want to take a serious, nonpartisan look at the problem.
“The blame game will be always there,” said Vikas Mahatme, a lawmaker with the B.J.P. Summing up the attitudes of many politicians, he said, “Why one should bother about other states? They are not voters to consider.”
Still, getting all sides to work together will be difficult, he acknowledged. “We are not very active,” he said. “I tell you freely.”
NEW DELHI — The mob rampaged for days, burning homes, breaking into temples and clashing with police, leaving several dead.
The victims were minority Hindus living in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim nation grappling with increasing extremism, and the violence drew an outcry from politicians in neighboring India. As the region’s traditional center of gravity, India has a history of promoting tolerance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also positioned himself as the champion of Hindus against a history of victimhood.
But the erosion of human rights in India has weakened its moral high ground in a region where ethnic and sectarian tensions are worsening. Sheikh Hasina — Bangladesh’s prime minister and a close ally, who had just sent Mr. Modi 71 red roses on his birthday — had pointed words for India, even as she promised to hunt the culprits.
“We expect that nothing happens there,” Ms. Hasina said, “which could influence any situation in Bangladesh affecting our Hindu community here.”
into a Hindu state. In marginalizing and maligning its minority Muslims at home, Mr. Modi’s government has weakened India’s traditional leadership role of encouraging harmony in a region of many fault lines.
The shift could also open opportunities for China, which has used the promise of investment and access to its hard-charging economy to cultivate stronger relations with its rival’s neighbors.
“The openly partisan approach to communal issues has created a very peculiar situation for us as far as that moral high ground in neighborhood policy is concerned,” said Yashwant Sinha, who was India’s foreign minister when Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party was last in power in the early 2000s. “We can’t say ‘you stop it, this should not happen,’ because we ourselves are guilty of it.”
prosperity to the neighborhood.”
seen as discriminating against Muslims.
But such violence and the abuse of minorities is nothing new in South Asia, a region of deep ethnic and religious fault lines that is home to a quarter of the world’s population.
The traumatic partition of India and Pakistan in 1947, and the later war-driven split of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971, left sizable ethnic and religious minorities in each country. The domestic policies of one nation inevitably affect the population of another.
Hindutva politics, and they are trying to exploit it,” said Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, a professor of international relations at Dhaka University, referring to the B.J.P.’s Hindu nationalist ideology. “And at the same time, the Hindutva politics of India is empowering the B.J.P.-type politics in Bangladesh.”
The violence last month in Bangladesh was set off by rumors that a Quran, the Muslim holy book, had been disrespected in a Hindu temple. Seven people have been killed, the police said.
That violence has further deepened sectarian tension in India. In recent weeks, a right-wing Hindu group has been organizing large protests in the Indian state of Tripura, just over the border from Bangladesh, against the anti-Hindu violence there. Police have had to deploy heavy security to protect mosques, after members of the group vandalized at least one mosque and burned shops. A group of lawyers and activists who went to Tripura to document the damage found themselves charged with violating a draconian antiterror law.
While some B.J.P. officials criticized the violence, Mr. Modi himself has been largely silent. In contrast to Pakistan, where tensions with India sometimes break out into open conflict, Mr. Modi has cultivated good relations with Bangladesh, and harsh words could sour diplomatic ties between New Delhi and Dhaka.
Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.
some of the deadliest communal violence in India in 2002 in Gujarat, where Mr. Modi was the state’s chief minister. He said such violence did not affect India’s standing because the country’s prime minister at the time, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, made clear that the episodes were both unacceptable and isolated.
These days, Mr. Sinha said: “The interlocutor can turn back and say ‘Why don’t you practice at home what you preach to us?’”
Saif Hasnat in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Zia ur-Rehman in Karachi, Pakistan, and Aanya Wipulasena in Colombo, Sri Lanka, contributed reporting.
On Feb. 4, 2019, a Facebook researcher created a new user account to see what it was like to experience the social media site as a person living in Kerala, India.
For the next three weeks, the account operated by a simple rule: Follow all the recommendations generated by Facebook’s algorithms to join groups, watch videos and explore new pages on the site.
The result was an inundation of hate speech, misinformation and celebrations of violence, which were documented in an internal Facebook report published later that month.
bots and fake accounts tied to the country’s ruling party and opposition figures were wreaking havoc on national elections. They also detail how a plan championed by Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, to focus on “meaningful social interactions,” or exchanges between friends and family, was leading to more misinformation in India, particularly during the pandemic.
a violent coup in the country. Facebook said that after the coup, it implemented a special policy to remove praise and support of violence in the country, and later banned the Myanmar military from Facebook and Instagram.
In Sri Lanka, people were able to automatically add hundreds of thousands of users to Facebook groups, exposing them to violence-inducing and hateful content. In Ethiopia, a nationalist youth militia group successfully coordinated calls for violence on Facebook and posted other inflammatory content.
Facebook has invested significantly in technology to find hate speech in various languages, including Hindi and Bengali, two of the most widely used languages, Mr. Stone said. He added that Facebook reduced the amount of hate speech that people see globally by half this year.
suicide bombing in the disputed border region of Kashmir set off a round of violence and a spike in accusations, misinformation and conspiracies between Indian and Pakistani nationals.
After the attack, anti-Pakistan content began to circulate in the Facebook-recommended groups that the researcher had joined. Many of the groups, she noted, had tens of thousands of users. A different report by Facebook, published in December 2019, found Indian Facebook users tended to join large groups, with the country’s median group size at 140,000 members.
Graphic posts, including a meme showing the beheading of a Pakistani national and dead bodies wrapped in white sheets on the ground, circulated in the groups she joined.
After the researcher shared her case study with co-workers, her colleagues commented on the posted report that they were concerned about misinformation about the upcoming elections in India.
Two months later, after India’s national elections had begun, Facebook put in place a series of steps to stem the flow of misinformation and hate speech in the country, according to an internal document called Indian Election Case Study.
The case study painted an optimistic picture of Facebook’s efforts, including adding more fact-checking partners — the third-party network of outlets with which Facebook works to outsource fact-checking — and increasing the amount of misinformation it removed. It also noted how Facebook had created a “political white list to limit P.R. risk,” essentially a list of politicians who received a special exemption from fact-checking.
The study did not note the immense problem the company faced with bots in India, nor issues like voter suppression. During the election, Facebook saw a spike in bots — or fake accounts — linked to various political groups, as well as efforts to spread misinformation that could have affected people’s understanding of the voting process.
In a separate report produced after the elections, Facebook found that over 40 percent of top views, or impressions, in the Indian state of West Bengal were “fake/inauthentic.” One inauthentic account had amassed more than 30 million impressions.
A report published in March 2021 showed that many of the problems cited during the 2019 elections persisted.
In the internal document, called Adversarial Harmful Networks: India Case Study, Facebook researchers wrote that there were groups and pages “replete with inflammatory and misleading anti-Muslim content” on Facebook.
The report said there were a number of dehumanizing posts comparing Muslims to “pigs” and “dogs,” and misinformation claiming that the Quran, the holy book of Islam, calls for men to rape their female family members.
Much of the material circulated around Facebook groups promoting Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an Indian right-wing and nationalist group with close ties to India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P. The groups took issue with an expanding Muslim minority population in West Bengal and near the Pakistani border, and published posts on Facebook calling for the ouster of Muslim populations from India and promoting a Muslim population control law.
Facebook knew that such harmful posts proliferated on its platform, the report indicated, and it needed to improve its “classifiers,” which are automated systems that can detect and remove posts containing violent and inciting language. Facebook also hesitated to designate R.S.S. as a dangerous organization because of “political sensitivities” that could affect the social network’s operation in the country.
Of India’s 22 officially recognized languages, Facebook said it has trained its A.I. systems on five. (It said it had human reviewers for some others.) But in Hindi and Bengali, it still did not have enough data to adequately police the content, and much of the content targeting Muslims “is never flagged or actioned,” the Facebook report said.
Five months ago, Facebook was still struggling to efficiently remove hate speech against Muslims. Another company report detailed efforts by Bajrang Dal, an extremist group linked with the B.J.P., to publish posts containing anti-Muslim narratives on the platform.
Facebook is considering designating the group as a dangerous organization because it is “inciting religious violence” on the platform, the document showed. But it has not yet done so.
“Join the group and help to run the group; increase the number of members of the group, friends,” said one post seeking recruits on Facebook to spread Bajrang Dal’s messages. “Fight for truth and justice until the unjust are destroyed.”
Ryan Mac, Cecilia Kang and Mike Isaac contributed reporting.
SRINAGAR, Kashmir — Manmeet Kour Bali had to defend her marriage in court.
A Sikh by birth, Ms. Bali converted to Islam to marry a Muslim man. Her parents objected to a marriage outside their community and filed a police complaint against her new husband.
In court last month, she testified that she had married for love, not because she was coerced, according to a copy of her statement reviewed by The New York Times. Days later, she ended up in India’s capital of New Delhi, married to a Sikh man.
Religious diversity has defined India for centuries, recognized and protected in the country’s Constitution. But interfaith unions remain rare, taboo and increasingly illegal.
A spate of new laws across India, in states ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, or B.J.P., are seeking to banish such unions altogether.
the idea that Muslim men marry women of other faiths to spread Islam. Critics contend that such laws fan anti-Muslim sentiment under a government promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda.
Last year, lawmakers in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh passed legislation that makes religious conversion by marriage an offense punishable by up to 10 years in prison. So far, 162 people there have been arrested under the new law, although few have been convicted.
Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu monk and the top elected official of Uttar Pradesh, said shortly before that state’s Unlawful Religious Conversion Ordinance was passed.
Four other states ruled by the B.J.P. have either passed or introduced similar legislation.
In Kashmir, where Ms. Bali and Mr. Bhat lived, members of the Sikh community have disputed the legitimacy of the marriage, calling it “love jihad.” They are pushing for similar anti-conversion rules.
interrupted a wedding ceremony in December. The couple were taken into custody, and released the following day when both proved they were Muslim, according to regional police, who blamed “antisocial elements” for spreading false rumors.
A Pew Research Center study found that most Indians are opposed to anyone, but particularly women, marrying outside their religion. The majority of Indian marriages — four out of five — are arranged.
The backlash against interfaith marriages is so widespread that in 2018, India’s Supreme Court ordered state authorities to provide security and safe houses to those who wed against the will of their communities.
In its ruling, the court said outsiders “cannot create a situation whereby such couples are placed in a hostile environment.”
The country’s constitutional right to privacy has also been interpreted to protect couples from pressure, harassment and violence from families and religious communities.
Muhabit Khan, a Muslim, and Reema Singh, a Hindu, kept their courtship secret from their families, meeting for years in dark alleyways, abandoned houses and desolate graveyards. Ms. Singh said her father threatened to burn her alive if she stayed with Mr. Khan.
In 2019, they married in a small ceremony with four guests, thinking their families would eventually accept their decision. They never did, and the couple left the central Indian city of Bhopal to start a new life together in a new city.
“The hate has triumphed over love in India,” Mr. Khan said, “And it doesn’t seem it will go anywhere soon.”
In Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh state, the B.J.P.-led government passed a bill in March modeled after the Uttar Pradesh law, stiffening penalties for religious conversion through marriage and making annulments easier to obtain.
The government is not “averse to love,” said the state’s home minister, Narottam Mishra, “but is against jihad.”
Members of Kashmir’s Sikh community are using Ms. Bali’s marriage to a Muslim man, Shahid Nazir Bhat, to press for a similar law in Jammu and Kashmir.
“We immediately need a law banning interfaith marriage here,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, a Sikh activist based in Srinagar. “It will help save our daughters, both Muslims and Sikhs.”
At a mosque in northern Kashmir in early June, Ms. Bali, 19, and Mr. Bhat, 29, performed Nikah, a commitment to follow Islamic law during their marriage, according to their notarized marriage agreement.
Afterward, Ms. Bali returned to her parents’ home, where she said she was repeatedly beaten over the relationship.
“Now my family is torturing me. If anything happens to me or to my husband, I will kill myself,” she said in a video posted to social media.
The day after she recorded the video, Ms. Bali left home and reunited with Mr. Bhat.
Even though a religious ceremony between people of the same faith — as Mr. Bhat and Ms. Bali were after her conversion — is recognized as legally valid, the couple had a civil ceremony and got a marriage license to bolster their legal protections. The marriage agreement noted that the union “has been contracted by the parties against the wish, will and consent of their respective parents.
“Like thousands of other couples who don’t share same the religious belief but respect each other’s faith, we thought we will create a small world of our own where love will triumph over everything else,” Mr. Bhat said. “But that very religion became the reason of our separation.”
Ms. Bali’s father filed a police complaint against Mr. Bhat, accusing him of kidnapping his daughter and forcing her to convert.
On June 24, the couple turned themselves into the police in Srinagar, where both were detained.
At the court, Ms. Bali recorded her testimony before a judicial magistrate, attesting that it was her will to convert to Islam and marry Mr. Bhat, according to her statement. Outside, her parents and dozens of Sikh protesters protested, demanding that she be returned to them.
It is unclear how the court ruled. The judicial magistrate declined requests for a transcript or an interview. Her parents declined an interview request.
The day after the hearing, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the head of the largest Sikh gurudwara in New Delhi, flew to Srinagar. He picked up Ms. Bali, with her parents, and helped organize her marriage to another man, a Sikh. Following the ceremony, Mr. Sirsa flew with the couple to Delhi.
“It would be wrong to say that I convinced her,” Mr. Sirsa said in an interview. “If anything adverse was happening, she should have said.”
A written request for an interview with Ms. Bali was sent via Mr. Sirsa. He said she did not want to talk.
“She had a real breakdown,” he said, repeating Ms. Bali’s parents’ claims that their daughter was kidnapped and forced to marry Mr. Bhat.
Mr. Bhat was released from police custody four days after Ms. Bali left for Delhi.
At his home in Srinagar, he is fighting the kidnapping charges. He said he was preparing a legal battle to win her back, but he feared the Sikh community’s disapproval would make their separation permanent.
“If she comes back and tells a judge she is happy with that man, I will accept my fate,” he said.
Sameer Yasir and Iqbal Kirmani reported from Srinagar, Kashmir, and Emily Schmall reported from New Delhi.
SAN FRANCISCO — WhatsApp sued the Indian government on Wednesday to stop what it said were oppressive new internet rules that would require it to make people’s messages “traceable” to outside parties for the first time.
The lawsuit, filed by WhatsApp in the Delhi High Court, seeks to block the enforceability of the rules that were handed down by the government this year. WhatsApp, a service owned by Facebook that sends encrypted messages, claimed in its suit that the rules, which were set to go into effect on Wednesday, were unconstitutional.
Suing India’s government is a highly unusual step by WhatsApp, which has rarely engaged with national governments in court. But the service said that making its messages traceable “would severely undermine the privacy of billions of people who communicate digitally” and effectively impair its security.
“Civil society and technical experts around the world have consistently argued that a requirement to ‘trace’ private messages would break end-to-end encryption and lead to real abuse,” a WhatsApp spokesman said. “WhatsApp is committed to protecting the privacy of people’s personal messages and we will continue to do all we can within the laws of India to do so.”
a broadening battle between the biggest tech companies and governments around the world over which of them has the upper hand. Australia and the European Union have drafted or passed laws to limit the power of Google, Facebook and other companies over online speech, while other countries are trying to rein in the companies’ services to stifle dissent and squash protests. China has recently warned some of its biggest internet companies against engaging in anticompetitive practices.
In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party have worked for several years to corral the power of the tech companies and more strictly police what is said online. In 2019, the government proposed giving itself vast new powers to suppress internet content, igniting a heated battle with the companies.
The rules that WhatsApp is objecting to were proposed in February by Ravi Shankar Prasad, India’s law and information technology minister. Under the rules, the government could require tech companies to take down social media posts it deemed unlawful. WhatsApp, Signal and other messaging companies would also be required to create “traceable” databases of all messages sent using the service, while attaching identifiable “fingerprints” to private messages sent between users.
WhatsApp has long maintained that it does not have insight into user data and has said it does not store messages sent between users. That is because the service is end-to-end encrypted, which allows for two or more users to communicate securely and privately without allowing others to access the messages.
More than a billion people rely on WhatsApp to communicate with friends, family and businesses around the world. Many users are in India.
ordered to take down dozens of social media posts that were critical of Mr. Modi’s government and its response to the coronavirus pandemic, which has ravaged the country. Government officials said the posts should be removed because they could incite panic and could hinder its response to the pandemic.
The social media companies complied with many of the requests by making the posts invisible inside India, though they were still visible to people outside the country. In the past, Twitter and Facebook have reposted some content after determining that it didn’t break the law.
Tensions between tech companies and the Indian government escalated this week when the police descended on the New Delhi offices of Twitter to contest labels affixed to certain tweets from senior members of the government. While Twitter’s offices were empty, the visit symbolized the mounting pressure on social media companies to rein in speech seen as critical of the ruling party.
Facebook and WhatsApp have long maintained working relationships with the authorities in dozens of countries, including India. Typically, WhatsApp has said it will respond to lawful requests for information and has a team that assists law enforcement officials with emergencies involving imminent harm.
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Only rarely has WhatsApp pushed back. The service has been shut down many times in Brazil after the company resisted requests for user data from the government. And it has skirmished with U.S. officials who have sought to install “back doors” in encrypted messaging services to monitor for criminal activity.
But WhatsApp argued that even if it tried enacting India’s new “traceability” rules, the technology would not work. Such a practice is “ineffective and highly susceptible to abuse,” the company said.
Other technology firms and digital rights groups like Mozilla and the Electronic Frontier Foundation said this week that they supported WhatsApp’s fight against “traceability.”
“The threat that anything someone writes can be traced back to them takes away people’s privacy and would have a chilling effect on what people say even in private settings, violating universally recognized principles of free expression and human rights,” WhatsApp said.