In less than a month of US President Barack Obama praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dynamic leadership, the annual report of US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has damned India for growing religious intolerance against Christians and Muslims by right wing Hindu groups since 2014 elections.
Reflecting concerns, it has put India again in the Tier II group of 10 countries under its watch list, which is a shade lower than Tier I watch list of countries of particular concern like Burma, Pakistan, Sudan, Iraq etc.
Finding PM Modi’s February statement in support of religious freedom as a notable and positive development but not enough to taper down its concerns, the USCIRF has recommended the US government to intervene and take up the matter with Indian government and urge it to publicly rebuke government officials and religious leaders that make derogatory statements about religious communities.
It has also asked the US government to urge India to press its states that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally-recognised human rights standards and make clear US opposition to laws that restrict freedom of thought and association.
Other recommendations include, US government to integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India and encourage strengthening of the capacity of state and central police to effectively prohibit and punish cases of religious violence and protect victims and witnesses and urge India to boost training on human rights and religious freedom standards and practices for the police and judiciary.
The report says that incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence reportedly have increased for three consecutive years.
The states of Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan tend to have the greatest number of religiously-motivated attacks and communal violence incidents.
The report says, since 2008 and 2010 terrorist attacks, Muslim communities have reported facing undue scrutiny and arbitrary arrests and detentions, which the government justifies by the need to counter terrorism.
In addition, for several years, Indian Christians, Christian missionary groups, and Hindus who convert to Christianity or another faith have reported more frequent harassment and violence, particularly in states with anti-conversion laws.
Picking out various details of attacks on churches, Christian institutions and Evangelists during 2014-15, the report says, “Christian communities, across many denominations, report an increase of harassment and violence in the last year, including physical violence, arson, desecration of churches and Bibles, and disruption of religious services. The perpetrators are often individuals and groups associated with the RSS and VHP and operate with near impunity.”
The report further says, “The Muslim community faces significant hate campaigns perpetrated by Hindu nationalist groups and local and state politicians that include widespread media propaganda accusing Muslims of being terrorists; spying for Pakistan; forcibly kidnapping, converting, and marrying Hindu women; and disrespecting Hinduism by slaughtering cows.”
Taking notice of conversions, the report states that in December 2014, Hindu nationalist groups announced plans to forcibly “reconvert” at least 4,000 Christian families and 1,000 Muslim families to Hinduism in Uttar Pradesh on Christmas day as part of a so-called “Ghar Wapsi” (returning home) program.
“After both domestic and international criticism, the day was “postponed” according to Mohan Bhagwat, a RSS leader,” says the report.
Referring to anti-conversion laws prevalent in six states – Chhattisgarh, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Arunanchal Pradesh, and Odisha – report says that while these laws purportedly protect religious minorities from forced conversions, they are one sided, only concerned about conversions away from Hinduism but not towards Hinduism.
USCIRF’s report and recommendations are taken quite seriously by the US administration as created by the US Congress by an Act in 1998 it is an independent, bipartisan, federal government entity that monitors the status of freedom of religion or belief abroad and provides policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and the Congress.