United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres's maiden visit to India opened up a Pandora's box for a government accused of violating religious and ethnic minority rights. During the Oct. 1-3 visit
, U.N. collaboration to combat terrorism dominated the official agenda, but for many this aspect was overshadowed by the issue of communal strife. Guterres met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi
, the external affairs minister, Sushma Swaraj, and the speaker of the Indian parliament's lower house, Sumitra Mahajan. On Oct. 3, some 250 rights activists wrote to him stating that religious and political freedoms
have been eroded since the government of prime minister Modi came to power four years ago, dominated by the pro-Hindu Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). Their joint open letter to Guterres highlighted abuses faced by the country's Muslims, Christians and socially poor Dalit people, formerly known as untouchables. Many of the nation's constitutional freedoms, and democratic rights – along with a sense of social coexistence and a national consensus on the need to achieve greater equality – had been undermined, it said. This was despite these things having been nurtured since the country's independence in 1947, the activists complained. They maintained that at least 62 people were killed in 17 states in sectarian strife since 2014, mostly Muslims lynched by cow-protecting vigilante groups. Media outlets reported cases of Hindu groups attacking Muslims accused of transporting cows for slaughtering or storing the meat of the animals, which are revered in orthodox Hinduism. "Christians have similarly been targeted, the letter said, adding that 2017 has been one of the most traumatic years for Indian Christians in a decade. There were 351 verified incidents of hate crimes against Christians recoded in the year, up from 147 in 2014, the letter added. It also mentioned the killings of rationalists such as Govind Pansare and Narendra Dhabolkar, as well as journalist Gauri Lankesh, who were critical of Hindu fanaticism based on upper caste supremacy. The activists wanted Antonio Guterres to raise such concerns with government representatives in order to help protect India's democracy. Separatists from the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir, who want to end Indian rule, also wrote to Guterres, accusing Indian security forces of violating the rights of Muslims in the state. An amalgam of separatist organizations wrote to the UN chief seeking his intervention to find a solution to the seven decade-old India-Pakistan dispute over Kashmir, which both nation's claim in full but now control only partially.
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"We would like to urge you to advocate that New Delhi engage with us in Kashmir and with Pakistan, with whom India's relations are also deteriorating by the day," they said. Sheikh Saqeeb, a political commentator based in the capital. New Delhi, told ucanews.com that the visit by Guterres to India, his first, seemed to have been counter-productive for the government. Though the UN chief would not act immediately on issues raised with him, his presence had helped to expose government wrongdoing internationally, Saqeeb said. Praeen Mishra, a Mumbai based rights activist, said the visit had drawn attention to India's loss of rights and protections, including though a lack of concerted action against extremist vigilantes.