Stressing that religious freedom conditions in India experienced a “drastic turn downward” with religious minorities under “increasing assault” in 2019, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Tuesday asked the US government to classify India as a “country of particular concern”, along with other countries like Pakistan, North Korea, China and Saudi Arabia.
This is the first time since 2004 – which was in the backdrop of the Gujarat riots of 2002 – that USCIRF has recommended that India be designated as a “Country of Particular Concern”.
The Indian government, as expected, rejected the observations in the report and said that its “biased and tendentious” comments against India are “not new”, but on this occasion “its misrepresentation has reached new levels”.
The USCIRF, an advisory body to the US Congress, released its 2020 annual report, where it recommended that the Trump administration “impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/ or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations”.
It also named Home Minister Amit Shah twice in the report, once recalling that Shah referred to migrants as “termites” to be eradicated.
It recommended that the US administration “designate India as a ‘country of particular concern’, or CPC, for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)”.
It cited the CAA-NRC issue, revoking of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir and Delhi riots in February this year (which took place outside the reporting period of USCIRF’s annual report) as reasons for the downgrade of India.
Earlier, India was in the Tier-2 category (States under watch list), and now it has been moved to the Tier-1 category (Countries of particular concern). The USCIRF has done away with the Tier 1 & Tier-2 nomenclature this year, and renamed them as “countries of particular concern” and “states under watchlist”.
Responding to the report, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Anurag Srivastava said, “We reject the observations on India in the USCIRF Annual Report. Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. It has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavour. We regard it as an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”
Three out of nine commissioners at the USCIRF dissented or made separate qualifying notes to the report on India.
The report said, “Following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) re-election in May, the national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. The national 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.”
It said that the BJP-led government enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and approved a National Population Register (NPR) as a first step toward a nationwide National Register of Citizens (NRC). In its wake, it said, BJP leaders have continued to advocate a nationwide NRC; the citizenship of millions would be placed under question, but, with the CAA in place, Muslims alone would bear the indignities and consequences of potential statelessness.
Throughout 2019, government action – including the CAA, continued enforcement of cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, and the November Supreme Court ruling on the Babri Masjid site – created a “culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities”, it said.
“In August, the government also revoked the autonomy of Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir and imposed restrictions that negatively impacted religious freedom. Mob lynchings of persons suspected of cow slaughter or consuming beef continued, with most attacks occurring within BJP-ruled states,” the report said.
One of the USCIRF commissioners, Gary L. Bauer, said, “I must dissent from the decision of my fellow Commissioners to recommend India, the world’s largest democracy, for designation as a ‘country of particular concern’, or CPC, placing India in a gallery of rogue nations in which it does not belong. The trend line on religious freedom in India is not reassuring. But India is not the equivalent of communist China, which wages war on all faiths; nor of North Korea, a prison masquerading as a country; nor of Iran, whose Islamic extremist leaders regularly threaten to unleash a second Holocaust. India is our ally.”