Hindu Human Rights in Saudi Arabia: Excerpts from HAF's 2011 Report
Saudi Arabia continues to be one of the most authoritarian and repressive nations in the world. In the wake of the Arab spring of 2011, the Saudi kingdom remained relatively impervious to the mass protests and rebellions affecting much of the Arab world. While the Saudi government felt threatened by events in the region, they managed to avoid dealing with any serious internal democracy movements. According to Prince Nayef bin Abdel Aziz, the Saudi interior minister, Saudi Arabia was immune to the protests and wider turmoil in the region because it was “guided by religious law that its citizens will not question.”
Saudi Arabia did intervene, however, in neighboring Bahrain where they helped to prevent the minority Sunni king from being deposed by the majority Shia population, which faced widespread persecution and marginalizion. The Saudi government also experienced heightened tensions with the U.S. over how to handle the protests and democracy movements in other countries in the region, including Egypt. Despite tensions, however, the U.S. failed to put serious pressure on Saudi Arabia to carry out democratic reforms and the on the ground situation remained largely unchanged. For instance, women continue to be denied voting rights and are banned from driving.
The modern state of Saudi Arabia was established in 1932 by King Abd-al-Aziz, who took over the Hijaz (encompasses the western region of the country) from the Hashemite dynasty and united the country under his family's rule. The country is an Islamic monarchy with a legal system based on the Koran and Islamic Sharia law. As an Islamic state, religious clerics and authorities play a leading role in all aspects of the government.
Saudi law mandates all citizens to be Muslims and does not provide any constitutional protections or rights for religious minorities. In addition, public practice of other religions is prohibited and proselytizing by non-Muslims is illegal. Religious vigilantes and police frequently harass, assault, and batter non-Muslims. Moreover, intolerance of other religions is embedded in the kingdom’s educational institutions and schools teach Islamic law. Saudi Arabia also exports extreme forms of Wahabbi Islam to other countries through the construction of mosques, provision of educational materials, and support for Islamists.
Furthermore, visitors and non-residents to the Gulf kingdom often complain that the police and customs authorities routinely confiscate private religious material, including books and symbols, upon entry in the country. As a result, all major human rights organizations, along with the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), have severely criticized Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. And since 2000, USCIRF has continuously repeatedly labeled Saudi Arabia as a “country of particular concern.”
While all non-Muslims face restrictions on religious freedom in Saudi Arabia, Islamic law characterizes Hindus as polytheists and consequently places them in the same category as those who practice “black magic” or “sorcery.” There are an estimated 165,000 to 300,000 Hindus living in Saudi Arabia, many working as poor laborers. Nearly 70% of Indian workers in Saudi Arabia are semi-skilled or unskilled workers and are the victims of a variety of human rights abuses. And according to a new report, these poor workers are treated inhumanely and managed like “cattle.” In 2011, nearly 50,000 workers were deported to India for either having overstayed their haj visit or for not having valid work permits.
A recent case emblematic of the human rights violations faced by non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia was the imprisonment of a Hindu female doctor, Shalini Chawla, on false allegations of murder. Chawla, 36, was accused of murdering her husband, Ashish Chawla, and jailed by Saudi authorities for ten months before being released. Shalini was put in prison after being accused by her husband’s Muslim colleagues of poisoning him after he allegedly converted to Islam. Shalini, however, said that her husband never discussed his intention to embrace Islam.
Despite medical reports and autopies confirming that Ashish died in his sleep, Shalini remained in prison, where she was forced to care for her newborn baby. She was finally released and sent back to India after intervention from the Indian Consulate and signing an agreement to bury her husband according to Islamic rites. The incident symbolized the institutional animus towards non-Muslims prevalent in Saudi Arabia and the arbitrary nature of the kingdom’s justice system.