'Religious Freedom Worsened': US Body Names India as 'Country of Particular Concern'

This is the third consecutive year when United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated India as such.

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New Delhi: For the third consecutive year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has recommended to the US State Department to designate India as a “Country of Particular Concern”.

India is among 15 countries to have been accorded the dubious honour. The other countries under this category are Afghanistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The USCIRF Annual Report 2022, released on Monday, April 25, states that the 15 countries are designated as such “because their governments engage in or tolerate systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations”.

On India particularly, the report states, “In 2021, religious freedom conditions in India significantly worsened. During the year, the Indian government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies—including those promoting a Hindu-nationalist agenda—that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities.

The government continued to systemise its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.”

However, the recommendations of USCIRF, which is an independent and bipartisan federal government entity to monitor, analyse and report on threats to religious freedom around the world, are not binding on the US State Department. 

From 2020, India has continued to figure under the category of ‘Country of Particular Concern’. However, the US State Department rejected the recommendation on India both in 2020 and 2021.

Also read: For Second Year, US Religious Freedom Body Sees India as ‘Country of Particular Concern’

In 2021, India voiced strong opposition to USCIRF observations. “We reject the observations on India in the USCIRF Annual Report. Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. It has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavour. We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson had said.

‘Emboldened Hindu-nationalist groups’

The latest report, in a section devoted to India, has accused the Narendra Modi government of muzzling dissenting voices, misusing UAPA and sedition laws, allowing illegal arrests of rights’ activists, carrying out violent attacks against Muslims and Christians and creating “hurdles” for NGOs to receive funds from abroad for charity work.

It has also prominently discussed the arrest and custodial death of Father Stan Swamy. “Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest and longtime human rights defender of Adivasis, Dalits, and other marginalised communities, was arrested on dubious UAPA charges in October 2020 and never tried. He died in custody in July 2021 despite repeated concerns raised about his health,” the report notes.

Coming down heavily on the Modi government, the report states, “The BJP-led government, leaders at the national, state, and local levels, and increasingly emboldened Hindu-nationalist groups have advocated, instituted, and enforced sectarian policies seeking to establish India as an overtly Hindu state, contrary to India’s secular foundation and at grave danger to India’s religious minorities.”

In a slew of recommendations to the US government on India, the USCIRF has called for “[imposition of] targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ or entities’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States”.

The USCIRF has also appealed to the US Congress to “raise religious freedom issues in the US-India bilateral relationship and highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters, and congressional delegations”.