The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has never had it so good in its 22-year-long history. And it must thank Indians for its windfall fame and sudden “relevance”.
From the year it was set up, in 1998, it has been the Commission’s fantasy to acquire some legitimacy in India, the second-most populous country and home to many religions.
For more than two decades, it remained a fantasy, but this year that dream was realised beyond the panel’s wildest expectations. Towards the end of 2019, following the adoption of India’s new Citizenship Amendment Act, the USCIRF acquired a prominent place in this country’s public discourse. Its place in the consciousness of Indians expanded in April when the USCIRF proposed in its annual report that the Donald Trump’s administration should sanction identified Indian officials and freeze their assets for severe violations of religious freedom.
In recent months, the Commission has hogged prime time television slots in this country’s English and vernacular channels. The print media has featured the USCIRF’s statements and reports on their front pages and given serious consideration to them on their op-ed pages.
For years, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had standard texts in reaction to organisations like the USCIRF and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, when they attacked Indian government policies. These texts are pulled out of MEA archives and released to the public year after year by rote. That practice underlines the irrelevance of these organisations and shows that they are inconsequential in the framing or conduct of India’s policies.
This year, the coronavirus pandemic presented the USCIRF with a new situation. The USCIRF promptly exploited it and got a lot of publicity by questioning Indian medical protocols. South Block, the MEA headquarters, exploded in rage and borrowed a stick from the Commission’s armoury to condemn the organisation.
South Block’s reaction to the USCIRF is in marked contrast to how it responds to the US State Department’s practice of putting together its annual report on international religious freedom. On June 10, the State Department released its latest report for 2019, which offers the usual homilies that the Third World is long-used to getting from developed Western nations on issues such as human rights, fair trade, religious freedom and more.
But, unlike with the USCIRF, the Indian government engages the State Department on all issues, including religious freedom, while maintaining that there is “no locus standi for a foreign government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.” The June 10 report lists seven instances of engagement by and at the instance of the State Department with the Indian government, religious groups and civil society, which went into the compilation of its chapter on India.
Furthermore, the USCIRF relies almost entirely on open sources, such as accounts in the media, for its reports on India. The Commission ascribes this to New Delhi’s consistent refusal to give its members visas to visit India.
This writer’s earliest acquaintance with the USCIRF was in the year 2000, shortly after arriving in Washington as a foreign correspondent. Ever on the vigil for publicity, the Commission’s staff reached out and was eager to plant stories portraying then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a religious bigot masquerading as a liberal.
For the foreign media in Washington, the USCIRF was a new body then, only a year in existence with a full complement of 10 commissioners appointed by the US President and Congressional leaders on a bi-partisan basis. It was an open secret in Washington that the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), the legal foundation for the USCIRF, was legislated by the US Congress in collusion with President Bill Clinton, who was then under the shadow of his sexual misconduct with White House intern Monica Lewinsky.
Sanctimonious exaltation of religion afforded Clinton one of several much-needed diversions from the scandal and it gave Congressional Democrats a cause célèbre for their re-election campaign. The IRFA was not something the Republican religious right could oppose. Two decades ago, the USCIRF was untested in its sway and correspondents in Washington were willing to give it the benefit of the doubt.
Cleverly, the Commission’s officials, proficient in the ways of Washington’s public relations machines, led many of us to believe that the reports which the USCIRF would soon issue were meant to provide the cue for US State Department’s weighty annual reports compiled by the Department’s Office of International Religious Freedom.
However, that was not to be, except in the case of America’s commonly acknowledged enemies or competitors like Iran, North Korea, Russia, China, Cuba and a few others. When it comes to “enemies of the nation,” all of America’s institutions close ranks and there are no partisan divisions.
India always gets away lightly in the State Department’s report unlike with the USCIRF. That is true of Wednesday’s report too. But the USCIRF will not give up. It has already launched a campaign to get India designated by the State Department as a Country of Particular Concern, the lowest rank in America’s religious freedom index.
The Trump administration has 90 days after the release of its annual report to take such action. It is highly unlikely to do so, but till then the USCIRF will have its three months of fame.
This article first appeared in the print edition on June 16 under the title “Much ado over a report”. The writer was a foreign correspondent based in Washington for 15 years
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