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‘Severe lack of understanding of India’: Govt response to US body sharp, and now, familiar

The USCIRF, a US federal government commission appointed by the President, designated India as a “country of particular concern for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)”.

Written by Vidhatri Rao | New Delhi |
Updated: July 4, 2022 10:21:07 am
Ministry of External affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi. (File)

The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on Saturday slammed the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) for its report that put India, along with China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and 11 other nations, in the list of “countries of particular concern” over religious freedom.

The USCIRF, a US federal government commission appointed by the President and the leadership of both parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives, designated India as a “country of particular concern for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)”.

Hitting out at the USCIRF, the MEA’s spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said “these comments reflect a severe lack of understanding of India and its constitutional framework, its plurality and its democratic ethos… Such actions only serve to strengthen concerns about the credibility and objectivity of the organisation”.

Similar criticism from international organisations, including government entities and NGOs, has drawn quick, and caustic, responses from the Modi government earlier too.

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On June 29, the MEA had hit back at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for its criticism of the arrests of activist-journalist Teesta Setalvad and ex-DGP RB Sreekumar after a Supreme Court order upheld a Special Investigation Team (SIT)’s clean chit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others in the 2002 Gujarat riots. “We are very concerned by the arrest and detention of #WHRD @TeestaSetalvad and two ex police officers and call for their immediate release. They must not be persecuted for their activism and solidarity with the victims of the 2002 #GujaratRiots,” the UN human rights body said.

Joining the issue with the OHCHR, Bagchi said its remarks “constitute an interference in India’s independent judicial system,” adding that “Indian authorities act against violations of law in accordance with established judicial processes. Labelling such legal actions as persecution for activism is misleading and unacceptable”.

A New York Times article on April 18, headlined “India Is Stalling the WHO’s Efforts to Make Global Covid Death Toll Public” drew sharp reaction from India. The article said India was objecting to make the data of WHO (World Health Organisation)’s study on Covid-19 mortalities public as the latter estimated 4.7 million deaths, directly or indirectly attributable to Covid, during 2020-21 as against the country’s official Covid death count of just 481,486. In a statement, the Union Health Ministry questioned the WHO’s methodology, saying: “Despite India’s objection to the process, methodology and outcome of this modelling exercise, WHO has released the excess mortality estimates without adequately addressing India’s concern.”

Last year, on December 2, the MEA responded to the OHCHR’s criticism of the arrest of human rights activist Khurram Parvez on charges of alleged terrorism, claiming that the UN human rights body’s statement — against “crackdown on civil society actors”, use of “sweeping counter-terrorism measures” and killings of civilians — made “baseless and unfounded allegations against law enforcement authorities and security forces of India” and that Parvez’s “arrest and… detention” was “entirely as per provisions of law”.

At an India Today conclave on March 14, 2021, External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar was asked about India’s downgrading by two of the leading democracy- rating agencies — the US-based Freedom House, which classified India as “partly free”, down from “free” earlier, and a Swedish organisation, Varieties of Democracy, which categorised India as an “electoral autocracy”.

Jaishankar responded by questioning the criteria that the organisations use. “It is hypocrisy. We have a set of self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, and is not willing to play the game they want to play. So they invent their rules, their parameters, pass their judgments and make it look as if it is some kind of global exercise,” he said.

During the year-long farmer protests against the three now-repealed farm laws, the Narendra Modi-led government drew widespread criticism from various international quarters.

In February 2021, singer Rihanna and climate activist Greta Thunberg voiced their support for the protesting farmers. While Rihanna shared an article about internet shutdowns during the farm protests, Thunberg shared a toolkit for those supporting the farmers, which prompted a police investigation. Subsequently, former adult film star Mia Khalifa also extended her support to the farmers.

Reacting to such criticism, the MEA had then said, “The Parliament of India, after a full debate and discussion, passed reformist legislation relating to the agricultural sector,” which have “expanded market access and provided greater flexibility to farmers.” It claimed that only “a very small section of farmers in parts of India” had “some reservations about these reforms and that “respecting the sentiments of the protestors, the Government of India has initiated a series of talks with their representatives… Yet, it is unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them. This was egregiously witnessed on January 26, India’s Republic Day.”

Echoing the ministry, several BJP leaders also came down heavily on Rihanna and Thunberg. “We stand together. We stand United against all attempts to malign India through propaganda and fake narratives,” BJP president J P Nadda tweeted. At a press conference, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra alleged that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi was responsible for the row, charging that “He (Rahul) goes abroad to hatch conspiracy with anti-India elements as to how to defame India and drag the country into controversies”.

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A few months later, on July 21, 2021, when a consortium of news organisations and human rights bodies including NGO Amnesty international broke the news about the government having allegedly deployed a spyware Pegasus to snoop on phones and devices of rival leaders, journalists and others, the BJP’s Assam Chief Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma demanded Amnesty’s banning, alleging that it was part of a “long history of hatching conspiracies against India’s democratic fabric and its leadership”.

In January 2019, US Department of state report, which expressed concern over the plight of minorities in India, upset the government, which said the former did not have any “locus standi” to “pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights”.

In July 2019, the UN Human Rights body’s report on the situation in Jammu and Kashmir, which was an updated version of its 2018 report on the same issue, also drew criticism from the MEA, which dismissed it as a “false” and violative of “India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity”. The then MEA spokesperson Raveesh Kumar said the report was “merely a continuation of the earlier false and motivated narrative” on the J&K situation.

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First published on: 03-07-2022 at 09:34:00 pm

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