New Delhi: A US government body monitoring international religious freedom has recommended that the state department include India in the list of “countries of special concern,” joining a group of 13 other countries that include China, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Unveiling the 2020 annual report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, the chairman of the bipartisan body said that overall, there had an improvement in the global environment on religious freedom, but it singled out India as having shown a “sharp downward turn” last year.
“Though other countries deteriorated, particularly India, we see international religious freedom on an upward trajectory overall,” said USCIRF chairman Tony Perkins.
Countries of Particular Concern in #USCIRFAnnualReport2020: Burma, China, Eritrea, India, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam
— USCIRF (@USCIRF) April 28, 2020
This is the first time that USCIRF has proposed to include India in the special list since 2004.
Three out of the nine commissioners appended their dissent note in the annual report, expressing their opposition to the recommendation.
The recommendations of the Commission were to redesignate nine countries – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan – in the list of “countries of special concern”. Besides, it proposed that five other countries, India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam, should also join this group.
The commission’s annual report claimed that the Indian government “used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims”.
The annual report pointed to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act in December 2019, which is supposed to provide fast-track citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. “According to the government officials’ statements, this law is meant to provide protection for listed non-Muslim religious communities — but not for Muslims — against exclusion from a nationwide National Register of Citizens and the resulting detention, deportation, and potential statelessness,” it said.
Further, the Commission noted that there was impunity for non-state actors in their violence against minorities. “The national and various state governments also allowed nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities to continue with impunity, and engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence against them. Based on these developments, in this report USCIRF recommends CPC designation for India”.
The US government designates nations as “Countries of Particular Concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, for having “engaged in or tolerated systematic, ongoing, [and] egregious violations of religious freedom”.
As per the Act, the recommendations of the Commission are taken in consideration when the US secretary of state will transmit to Congress an annual report on international religious freedom on May 1.
Besides designating India in the special list, the Commission also suggested targeted sanctions on government agencies and individuals, freezing their assets and barring their entry into the United States.
The annual report mentioned that Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath had pledged “revenge” against anti-CAA protesters.
On the issue of lynchings, the report observed that despite directions from the Supreme Court to enact stricter laws, home minister Amit Shah said that current legislation was sufficient. Shah had figured also in the report, over a line in which he called migrants “termites”.
The Commission also urged the US Congress to continue to hold hearings that highlight religious freedom conditions in India and US policy towards India.
However, at the end of the India chapter, “individual views” from three Commissioners were appended, expressing dissent against the decision to recommend India to the list.
In his dissent note, Gary L. Bauer, who had served in the Reagan White House, wrote that while he hoped that US raised concerns on restrictions on religious liberty with India at all fora, “I am deeply concerned that this public denunciation risks exactly the opposite outcome than the one we all desire”.
Bauer’s observations made it explicitly clear that he viewed India as a bulwark against “communist China”.
Outgoing Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee that while he was not oblivious to interreligious conflict, but added that “even during the violence over the CAA, Sikhs, Muslims, and Hindus protected each other’s homes and places of worship from mob violence and held interfaith ceremonies”
He added that as Tibetan refugees, “we enjoyed complete religious freedom in India that is non-existent in Tibet and China”.
“Recently, I was on a personal pilgrimage to major Buddhist holy sites in India and saw Hindus, Muslims, and other faiths enjoying religious freedom at their places of worship, shops, and homes. India and the United States are vital strategic partners. As I exit USCIRF as a Commissioner, I highly recommend constructive engagement among India, the U.S. government, and USCIRF to advance mutual interests including religious freedom and human rights.
Another Commissioner, Johnnie Moore said, “I am gravely concerned that political and inter-communal strife will be further exacerbated by religious tensions, yet I am also heartened that India remains the world’s largest democracy, governed by a pristine constitution, and I am also encouraged that this great nation is a tremendous friend and ally of the United States”.
Just like Dorjee, Moore, founder of a public relations consultancy, cited personal impressions during travel in India for not going with the majority. “It is a country I love because of its pluralism and because of the transformative impact it has had on my own life through my many visits (and visits to vibrantly religious places in Varanasi, Old Delhi, Amritsar, Dharamshala, Agra, Ajmer, Hyderabad, Kolkata, throughout Kerala, and many other places)”.
The response from the Indian government dismissed the report and highlighted the dissension within the Commission.
“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,” said the MEA spokesperson.
Earlier this month, the USCIRF’s Twitter account had expressed concern about a media report that stated that Hindus and Muslim patients suffering from COVID-19 were being segregated in a Gujarat hospital. This report has been, so far, vehemently denied by the government.
In the official rebuttal, MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava accused the Commission of adding “religious colour” to India’s fight against coronavirus. “As if its peremptory commentary on religious freedom in India is not enough, the USCIRF is now spreading misguided reports on the professional medical protocols followed to deal with spread of COVID19 in India,” he said on April 15.