- Released on April 21, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom report assesses religious freedom violations and progress during 2020 in 26 countries, and makes independent recommendations for U.S. policy.
The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated India as a Country of Particular Concern or CPC “for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations,” in a report released on April 21. The report assesses religious freedom violations and progress during 2020 in 26 countries, and makes independent recommendations for U.S. policy. It also monitors public health measures put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and their impact on freedom of religion or beliefs. USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body, separate from the U.S. Department of State, that monitors and reports on religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, secretary of state, and Congress.
“In 2020, religious freedom conditions in India continued their negative trajectory,” the report says. Noting that the government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), “promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom,” the passage of CAA “spurred state and non-state violence, largely targeting Muslims.”
The report mentions the Delhi riots of February 2020, calling them “the worst Hindu-Muslim mob violence in more than three decades.” More than 50 people died and 200 others were injured. “Mobs sympathetic to Hindu nationalism operated with impunity, using brutal force to single out Muslims, attack mosques, and destroy homes and businesses in majority-Muslim neighborhoods,” the report notes.
The report touches upon the controversial term “Love Jihad,” that implies Muslim men prey on Hindu women to seduce them and marry them with the sole purpose of converting them to Islam. “Another set of policies raising significant concern, often resulting in violence, are the efforts to prohibit interfaith marriages or relationships using the false narrative of forced conversion.”
Highlighting the divides that were accentuated during the COVID-19 pandemic, the report says: “At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation and hateful rhetoric—including from government officials—often targeted religious minorities, continuing familiar patterns. Disinformation and intolerant content have emboldened intimidation, harassment, and mob violence in recent years, includ- ing numerous instances of violence mainly against Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, and other religious communities.”
As per the report, “government action—including the acquittal of all individuals accused of demolishing the Babri Masjid mosque—as well as government inaction to address religious violence contributed to a culture of impunity for those promulgating hate and violence toward religious minorities. At the same time, the government cracked down on those expressing dissent, including detaining and even accusing individuals of sedition for their actual or perceived criticism of the CAA and other governmental (in)actions.”
The report notes that throughout last year, “members of civil society, including human rights advocates and media reporting on religious freedom violations, faced intimidation and harassment. Government officials used the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and other statutes to detain advocates, media, and academics, including religious minorities.
Talking about the U.S.-India relations in 2020, the report says that the two countries “strengthened their relationship, especially in security and defense.” In February, then President Donald J. Trump visited India, highlighting the growing relationship. In October, then Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo traveled to India for the third U.S.-India 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue, where the two governments signed the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement.
However, the report notes that “several members of Congress have expressed concern about the CAA and other human rights-related issues in India.” It gives the example of Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who urged the administration to “engage the Indian government at the highest levels on these concerns, press for a swift reversal of these policies and practices, and ensure protection of the human rights of all persons in India regardless of their religion.”
The report on India also carries individual comments by USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore. “Of all the countries in the world, India should not be a “country of particular concern,” or CPC. It is the world’s largest democracy and it is governed by a pristine constitution. It is diversity personified and its religious life has been its greatest historic blessing.
Yet, India does seem to be at a crossroads. Its democracy—still young and freewheeling—is creating through the ballot box difficult challenges for itself. The answer, of course, is for India’s institutions to draw upon their rich history to protect their values. India must always resist allowing political and inter-communal conflict to be exacerbated by religious tensions. India’s government and people have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose from preserving social harmony and protecting the rights of everyone. India can. India must.
The report recommends that the U.S. Government “impose 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 U.S.; advance human rights of all religious communities in India and promote religious freedom and dignity and interfaith dialogue through bilateral and multilateral forums and agreements; condemn ongoing religious freedom violations and support religious organizations and human rights groups being targeted for their advocacy of religious freedom. It notes that the U.S. should “continue to raise religious freedom concerns in the U.S.-India bilateral relationship and highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters, and congressional delegations.”
Meanwhile, the The Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America (FIACONA) has applauded the USCIRF report. “India has been going through tumultuous upheavals caused by the rise of Hindu nationalism in recent years,” read a statement issued by the group. Adding that the BJP-led government “has seriously jeopardized the fundamental constitutional rights of a vast majority of Christians and other religious minorities in modern India,” the report noted that “the Hindu nationalist cadre are given unofficial protection from the administration for their vigilantism against the Christian population. Meanwhile, India based organizations have reported that the attacks on churches and prayer meetings have dramatically gone up from even last year.”
FIACONA says that “the justice system has often failed to defend the rights of persecuted Christians and other minority religions,” and noted that incidents of anti-Christian violence rose from 147 in 2014,” and Modi became prime minister, to 328 in 2019. “India’s Christians suffered 225 incidents of religiously motivated violence in just the first ten months of 2020, many at the hands of vigilante mobs,” FIACONA said.