The recent criticism from a US government panel on India’s status on religious tolerance and treatment of minorities has not gone down well with the Indian government.
The exhaustive report has cited events surrounding the citizenship law, the Babri verdict, and lynchings.
The report is especially worried by the ‘culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of hate and violence against religious minorities’ created by the new citizenship law, the National Register of Citizens and the Ayodhya judgment, among other things.
The United States Committee on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has ‘downgraded’ India’s status on the basis of metrics related to tolerance, from Tier 2, which includes countries on a ‘Special Watch List’, to the category of ‘Countries of Particular Concern’, alongside neighbours China and Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and 10 other countries.
In 2003 and 2004, in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, India had been listed among the “Countries of Particular Concern”. During that period too, the BJP had been in power at the Centre.
USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, the first of its kind in the world, dedicated to defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad. USCIRF reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress. USCIRF Commissioners are appointed by the President and the Congressional leadership of both political parties.
Allowed violence against minorities
The commission is empowered as an independent arbiter to look only at nations’ religious freedom records, apart from their relationship with the US, Vice-Chair at USCIRF Nadine Maenza said.
It called on the US to impose punitive measures, including visa bans on Indian officials, believed responsible and grant funding to civil society groups that monitor hate speech.
The commission said Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, which won a convincing election victory last year, “allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity, and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.”
The report also highlighted comments by Home Minister Amit Shah, who notoriously referred to mostly Muslim migrants as “termites,” and to a citizenship law that has triggered nationwide protests.
Beyond the controversial citizenship law, Maenza said in an interview, India has a broader “move toward clamping down on religious minorities that’s really troublesome”.
It also highlighted the revocation of the autonomy of Kashmir, which was India’s only Muslim-majority state, and allegations that Delhi police turned a blind eye to mobs who attacked Muslim neighbourhoods in February this year.
The Indian government, which has long been irritated by the commission’s comments, quickly rejected the report.
“Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said. “We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” he said in a statement.
The State Department designates nine “countries of particular concern” on religious freedom – China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
The commission asked that all nine countries remain on the list. In addition to India, it sought the inclusion of four more – Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam.
Pakistan, India’s historic rival, was added by the State Department in 2018 after years of appeals by the commission.
Citizenship law ‘tipping point’
India’s citizenship law fast-tracks naturalisation for minorities from neighbouring countries. The minorities include people of all religions except Muslims. The citizenship amendment act puts the onus on people to prove their citizenship to the country.
Tony Perkins, the commission’s chair, called the law a “tipping point” and voiced concern about a registry in the northeastern state of Assam, under which 1.9 million people failed to produce documentation to prove that they were Indian citizens before 1971 when mostly Muslim migrants flowed in during Bangladesh’s bloody war of independence.
“The intentions of the national leaders are to bring this about throughout the entire country,” Perkins told an online news conference.
“You could potentially have 100 million people, mostly Muslims, left stateless because of their religion. That would be, obviously, an international issue,” said Perkins, a conservative Christian activist known for his opposition to gay rights who is close to President Donald Trump’s administration.
Modi’s government says it is not aimed at Muslims but rather providing refuge to persecuted people and should be commended. Although the manner the act was being brought out targetted Muslims living in the country.
But critics consider it a watershed move by Modi to define the world’s largest democracy as a Hindu nation and chip away at independent India’s founding principle of secularism.
The law will also leave many poor, homeless, nomadic communities, and people of transgender communities who due to their economic situation and identities are already marginalised in the country.