- In an update released this week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom designated India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ for religious freedom violations and noted during 2021 and 2022, the religious freedom conditions in the country have "remained poor.”
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is urging that the U.S. Department of State to designate India as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, “for engaging in or tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations,” as set forth by the International Religious Freedom Act. “Such a designation would reinforce the United States’ concern regarding the conditions discussed in this country update and would encourage the Indian government to diverge from policies that violate religious freedom and promote communal divides,” the commission says in its Nov. 22 report on religious freedom in India.“Country Update: India” released here on Tuesday (November 22) detailing the persecutions in the calendar year 2022. This is the fourth consecutive time that the country has received the designation.
The detailed report, which provides a broad overview of religious freedom conditions in the country in 2021 and 2022, notes that during that period, the “religious freedom conditions in India remained poor.” It also examines how various policies adopted and implemented by the Government of India have “cultivated an environment that is increasingly hostile toward religious minority communities.” These conditions, “alongside an escalating government crackdown on civil society and dissent, is deeply alarming in a diverse, secular, and democratic country whose constitution is intended to protect religious freedom,” it adds.
Attacks on Religious Minorities
Since it has come to power, the BJP has “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,” the report states. “Such actions have eroded the secular principles of the Indian constitution and India’s pluralistic democracy by promoting and implementing its Hindutva ideology through government policy.” It cites the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), “an organization closely affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP,” as “aggressively advocating for a pure Hindu state.”
Government officials and non-state actors continue to use social media platforms and other forms of communication to intimidate and spread hatred and disinformation against minority communities. The quick spread of misinformation online has at times led to violent attacks.
Citing incidents of violations of religious freedom, the report highlight how during the past year, the Indian government, at the national, state, and local levels “continued to promote and enforce policies.” These include laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, and cow slaughter, “that negatively affect Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis.” These include anti-conversion laws, anti-cow slaughter laws, the Karnataka hijab ban, the CAA and the NRC.
Earlier this year, authorities in several states destroyed people’s homes, alleging that the demolished buildings lacked proper permits and were illegal structures. However, the report states that “the demolitions primarily targeted Muslims, some of whom were accused of participating in riots, including the Ram Navani procession incident in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, and the Hanuman Jayanti procession in Delhi.”
Although India’s Supreme Court said that demolitions “cannot be retaliatory,” the practice has continued, the report observes. Among those who “faced retaliatory demolition of their property,” were Muslims “who protested against derogatory remarks made by then BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma about the Prophet Muhammad.” The report also mentions Javed Mohammed, a Muslim community later, whose home was demolished a day after police in Uttar Pradesh arrested him, accusing him of organizing protests.
Despite facing criticism for jailing “activists and voices of dissent,” the report says that the Indian government has “pardoned Hindu nationalists who have actively sought to harm religious minorities.”
This August, coinciding with the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence Day, the government pardoned 11 convicts serving life sentences for the gang rape of Muslim woman Bilkis Bano and the murder of 14 members of her family including her infant daughter during the 2002 Gujarat riots. Protests were held throughout India condemning the decision to pardon Bano’s rapists. India’s Supreme Court challenged the state’s decision and is awaiting a response.
Earlier in March, bail was granted to the creators of the Sulli Deals and Bulli Bai app which were created to harass Muslim women, including journalists, social workers, and students, listed hundreds of Muslim women for “auction” accompanied by derogatory and sexual content.
Crackdown on Civil Society and Dissent
Those who stood up for these marginalized communities, and advocated on their behalf, haven’t been spared either The government has gone all out to suppress these critical voices through surveillance, harassment, demolition of property, arbitrary travel bans, and detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). They have also targeted nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) under the Financial Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA).
“Taken together, the manner in which government officials have enforced these policies has enabled intolerance of religious minorities and exacerbated communal divides, resulting in violence, deaths, injuries, sexual assault, destruction of property including houses of worship, arbitrary detentions, harassment including online harassment, and social boycotting of religious, scheduled caste, and tribal communities.”
A number of journalists, lawyers, rights activists, academics, political leaders, religious minorities, and others critical of the government’s policies were surveilled, harassed, detained, and prosecuted through the use of various laws, including the UAPA and other statutes. They include several Muslim journalists for reporting on communal violence, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, and for reporting on human rights violations in the Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir.
Delhi police arrested Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of Indian fact-checking website Alt News, in June 2022, for a 2018 tweet perceived to insult Hindu religious beliefs. Zubair, however, had flagged derogatory remarks made by then BJP spokesperson Nupur Sharma about the Prophet Muhammad, which led to widespread protests across the country. He was released in July 2022.
However, journalist Siddique Kappan remains in jail despite the Supreme Court granting him bail in September 2022. He was arrested in Uttar Pradesh in October 2020 while on his way to cover a rape case of a Dalit girl that sparked nationwide protests.
In June 2022, an antiterrorism squad arrested Teesta Setalvad, a human rights activist, for allegedly fabricating evidence implicating Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2002 Gujarat riots. Setalvad was released on bail in September 2022.
Indian prisons have delayed and at times denied access to medical treatment to religious minority rights defenders, particularly those with pre-existing health conditions, the USCIR notes in the report. These include Father Stan Swamy, an 84-year-old Jesuit priest who died in pre-trial detention in Mumbai in July 2021; Vernon Gonsalvez, a Dalit rights activist arrested in the same case as Father Stan Swamy; Atikur Rahman, a Muslim student activist; and Adivasi-Dalit rights activist GN Saibaba.
Also affected are numerous organizations “that document religious freedom violations in India or aid marginalized religious communities” which have been “forced to shut down their operations in the country under the FCRA, legislation that regulates access to foreign funds and prohibits their receipt for any activities purportedly detrimental to the national interest.”
Over the past two years, the Indian government has reportedly suspended the funding of several Christian and Islamic organizations under the FCRA due to alleged conversion activity. In June 2021, the operations of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, an NGO in New Delhi reporting on the arbitrary use of laws and security forces on ethnic and religious minorities in northeast Indian states, such as Assam and Tripura, were suspended under the FCRA, and in April 2022 the government canceled the organization’s license.
Meanwhile, the American Muslim Council (IAMC) has welcomed USCIRF’s designation. The U.S. failure to designate India as CPC for two years in a row has emboldened India and exponentially increased violence against minorities, especially Muslims,” executive director Rasheed Ahmed said in an IAMC press release. “As India’s Muslims face a genocide, the U.S. Government cannot anymore pretend it bears no responsibility for that fate.”