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US panel downgrades India in religious freedom rating

Some commission members wrote dissenting notes against ranking India with North Korea and China

Nirendra Dev

Nirendra Dev

Updated: April 29, 2020 07:34 AM GMT
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US panel downgrades India in religious freedom rating

A firefighter vehicle is parked near burnt-out premises following clashes between people supporting and opposing a contentious amendment to India's citizenship law in New Delhi on Feb. 26.  (Photo: Sajjad Hussain/AFP)

The influential US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has downgraded India to its lowest category of "countries of particular concern" in terms of freedom to exercise a religious faith.

"India took a sharp downward turn in 2019," the commission said in its 2020 report released online on April 28.

The national government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi "used its strengthened parliamentary majority [after the 2019 general election] to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims," it said.

India's government, led by the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), criticized the "biased and tendentious comments" in the report.

Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for India's external affairs minister, said the USCIRF is "an organization of particular concern and we will treat it accordingly."
Since 2010 the commission has listed India in the Tier 2 category of countries, which show at least one of the elements of the "systematic, ongoing and egregious" standard in criteria the commission uses to gauge violations of religious freedom.

Christian and Muslim leaders say that ever since Modi became prime minister in 2014 in a landslide win for his BJP, Hindu groups have attacked minorities in their attempt to make India a Hindu-only nation.

"We see impunity for violence by non-state actors committed against religious minorities," Tony Perkins, the commission's chairman, said during the release of the report.

He said most commission members believe India "is trending in a very negative direction."

One of the "tipping points" was the National Register of Citizenship implemented in Assam state, with a plan to extend it to all over India. The Assam list left out 1.9 million people in the state, mostly Muslim, leaving them stateless.

Perkins specifically spoke about the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) that the Modi government passed on Dec. 11. It aimed to grant citizenship to migrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan living in India, provided they are not Muslims.

If the moves are implemented nationally, "you could potentially have 100 million people, mostly Muslims, left stateless because of their religion," Perkins said.

The anti-conversion laws existing in several cities are a continued incitement to violence against religious minorities by government officials. The impunity enjoyed by non-state actors is egregious, he said. 

Ranked with worst performers

India, which boasts about its strong parliamentary democratic roots, has been ranked alongside 13 religiously intolerant countries including its belligerent neighbors Pakistan and China. This is the first time since 2004 that India has been placed in this category.

While categorizing India as a Tier 2 country in its 2019 report, the USCIRF noted an "overall deterioration of religious freedom conditions in 2018."

Parliamentary elections in April-May 2019 returned Modi's BJP to power with an enhanced mandate.

Categorizing India among "countries of particular concern" this year lists India alongside communist countries such as China and North Korea, notorious for violations of religious freedom.

The commission said India was categorized this way because "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."

However, some members of the commission wrote dissenting notes against clubbing India with North Korea and China.

"India does not belong to the same category as authoritarian regimes like China and North Korea. India is the largest democratic nation in the world, where the CAA has been challenged openly by the opposition Congress party and lawmakers, civil society and various groups," wrote commissioner Tenzin Dorjee.

Commissioner Gary Bauer wrote that he was "confident that India will reject any authoritarian temptation and stand with the United States and other free nations in defence of liberty, including religious liberty."

The other 13 countries with India in the adverse grouping are Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam.

India's national capital Delhi witnessed Hindu-Muslim riots from Feb. 23-27 this year, coinciding with US President Donald Trump's visit. Mobs shouted slogans such as "Hinduon ka Hindustan" (India only belongs to Hindus).

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