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India denies violations of religious freedom

US report says the BJP-led govt allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity

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India denies violations of religious freedom

People gather at Shaheen Bagh in Delhi to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act on Feb 6. (Photo: Bijay Kumar Minj/UCA News)

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India’s government has rejected an annual report by the US government that highlighted attacks and discrimination against religious minorities in the country.

The 2019 International Religious Freedom report presented by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on June 10 details major violations of religious freedom across the world.

“The report has designated India as a country of particular concern, stating that it was engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations,” Jesuit Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights activist, told UCA News.

“The report had very scathing remarks saying that the national government allowed violence against minorities and engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.

“The report comes as a terrible slap to the Indian government, which is desperately trying to hide its subtle and direct attacks on minorities. For years and particularly in the recent past, both Muslims and Christians in India have been subject to vicious verbal and physical attacks by the regime and their cohorts who demonize minorities at every possible opportunity.”

Father Prakash said the report has put the government on the back foot and embarrassed it with hard facts.

“For the US to castigate India on such a sensitive issue is obviously putting relations in a precarious position,” he said.

“The government does not even have the courage and transparency to permit the USCIRF commissioners to visit India to engage in dialogue and ascertain facts for themselves.”

However, Foreign Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said the US has no right to comment on such matters. The report is an internal document that is published annually as part of the legal requirement to the US Congress.

Replying to a question on the report at an online media briefing, he said that “India’s vibrant democratic traditions and practices are evident to the world and have a robust public discourse. We are proud of our country’s democratic traditions.”

Srivastava said that “we have constitutionally mandated institutions that guarantee protection of religious freedom and rule of law and we see no locus standi for a foreign entity to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.”

The US report said religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault.

“After the pro Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was re-elected in May 2019, it used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims,” the report stated.

“The BJP-led government 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 referred to the revocation of the special status of Jammu and Kashmir state last August and the parliamentary passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December as major events in India last year.

Jammu and Kashmir could previously make its own rules relating to permanent residency, ownership of property and fundamental rights. It could also bar Indians from outside the state from purchasing property or settling there.

The CAA aims to grant Indian citizenship to "persecuted" minorities from Muslim-majority Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while blocking naturalization for Muslims.

Muslims see their exclusion from the law that makes religion the basis of citizenship as yet another attempt by the Narendra Modi government to marginalize them.

Mob lynching, anti-conversion laws and cow slaughter laws were also discussed in the report.

Joseph Dias, founder of the Mumbai-based Catholic Secular Forum, told UCA News it was no surprise that the government had rejected the US report.

“But there is enough evidence that is brought forth by agencies including documentation by the Catholic Secular Forum and other NGOs on minority persecution,” the lay leader said.

“The watchdog report not only highlights increased persecution but also reveals that India moves up in the list of countries of serious concern.

“If the Indian government truly cares for its minorities, it must do more to protect the lives and property of its minority citizens.”

Sajan K. George, president of the Global Council of Indian Christians, said the government has failed miserably in all core areas of governance, from management of Covid-19 to the plight of interstate migrants.

“It was an opportunity to explain to the US team the compulsions of the government and an overview of religious freedom issues in India, beginning with a brief review of US-India relations and India’s human rights setting broadly, then discussing the country’s religious demographics, religious freedom protections and conceptions of Hindu nationalism,” George said.

“It could have informed about the steps taken in specific areas of religiously motivated repression and violence, including state-level anti-conversion laws, cow protection vigilantism and perceived assaults on freedom of expression and operations by non-governmental organizations that are seen as harmful to India’s secular traditions and the US-promoted goal of interfaith tolerance.”

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