New Delhi: A month before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, the US State Department on Monday highlighted “continued targeted attacks” against minorities and noted that the US holocaust museum considers India as having “potential for mass killing”. India dismissed the report as “misinformation” and the remarks of US officials as “motivated and biased commentary”.
At an event in Washington, the 2022 International Religious Freedom Report, compiled by the State Department, was released by the US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken.
Today I joined @IRF_Ambassador Hussain to launch the International Religious Freedom Report: a key part of our efforts to advance freedom of religion or belief, a core American value and a fundamental freedom enshrined in international law. pic.twitter.com/xEJPLQJfGu
— Secretary Antony Blinken (@SecBlinken) May 15, 2023
There was no mention of India in Blinken’s official speech. But at a background briefing for reporters, there were unusually strong and detailed remarks on the state of India’s minorities.
“What we outline in today’s report is a targeted – continued targeted attacks against religious communities, including Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindu Dalits, and indigenous communities; dehumanizing rhetoric, including open calls for genocide against Muslims; lynching and other hate-fueled violence, attacks on houses of worship and home demolitions, and in some cases impunity and even clemency for those who’ve engaged in attacks on religious minorities – we’re also continuing to see, at the state level, some restrictions on religious attire,” said the unnamed senior state department official, as per the transcript uploaded on the website.
He was likely referring to the restrictions on wearing of hijab in educational institutions in Karnataka, which was legally challenged, but later upheld by the Supreme Court.
The State Department official noted that there had been “significant attention” from the international community in India, including from human rights groups.
“The U.S. Holocaust Museum continues to draw considerable attention to the human rights situation in India and lists it as one of its top countries of concern – with regards to the potential for mass killings there”.
India is currently ranked at eighth among 162 countries for the highest risk of mass killing by the US holocaust museum’s early warning project.
Stating that the US has directly engaged with India on these concerns, he said, “We’re continuing to encourage the government to condemn violence and hold accountable and protect all groups who engage in rhetoric that’s dehumanizing towards religious minorities and all groups who engage in violence against religious communities and other communities in India”.
The senior diplomat reiterated that the US will “continue to work very closely with our civil society colleagues on the ground, with courageous journalists that are working every day to document some of these abuses, and we’ll continue speaking directly with our counterparts in India to address these issues”.
Prime Minister Modi will be travelling to Washington next month for his first State visit, which will include a state dinner at the White House. He has already visited the US five times, but they have usually been classified as ‘working visits’.
In a response issued on Tuesday night, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi expressed regret that the reports “continue to be based on misinformation and flawed understanding”.
About the remarks made in the background briefing, he said, “Motivated and biased commentary by some U.S. officials only serves to undermine further the credibility of these reports”.
He added that India continued to “value our partnership with the U.S. and will continue to have frank exchanges on issues of concern to us”.
While India was not mentioned in Blinken’s speech this time, the South Asian country had been singled out by the secretary of state at the launch function of the annual report in June last year.
Along with perennial concerns about the rights of minorities in countries like China, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, Blinken had referred to “rising attacks on people and places of worship” in India.
This had then led to a furious response from the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, accusing Washington of practising “vote bank politics” in “international relations”.
The MEA spokesperson had also claimed that India had brought up issues related to gun violence with the United States. “In our discussions with the US, we have regularly highlighted issues of concern there, including racially and ethnically motivated attacks, hate crimes and gun violence,” said MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi in June 2022.
While the State Department’s own report criticises the situation in India, it has also refused to accept the recommendation of the bipartisan US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for putting the South Asian nation on the list of “country of particular concern” since 2020.
Note: This article, first published at 8.49 am on May 16 has been republished at 10.38 pm on the same day, with an update on India’s reaction.