India Faces US Pressure over Treatment of Religious Minorities
By Awais Abbasi
In today’s world democratic rights and freedom has taken primary spot in global debate. A U.S. commission that monitors global religious freedom reaffirmed for the 4th consecutive time that India should join a list of countries that face U.S. sanctions or other penalties for their repression of minority faiths. The commission cited a worsening environment for religious minorities under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent body that advises the State Department and Congress, recommended for the fourth straight year that India be designated as a ‘country of particular concern’, a status reserved for the world’s worst violators of religious freedom
In 2022, religious freedom conditions in India continued to worsen. Throughout the year, the Indian government at the national, state, and local levels promoted and enforced religiously discriminatory policies, including laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of hijabs, and cow slaughter, which negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis (indigenous peoples and scheduled tribes).
The national government also continued to suppress critical voices—particularly religious minorities and those advocating on their behalf—including through surveillance, harassment, demolition of property, and detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and by targeting nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA). The Indian government invoked the UAPA and the Sedition Act throughout the year to target freedom of religion and expression, creating an increasing climate of intimidation and fear.
Authorities surveilled, harassed, detained, and prosecuted a number of journalists, lawyers, rights activists, and religious minorities advocating for religious freedom. Hundreds of cases remained pending against individuals for involvement in the 2019 peaceful protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), which provides a pathway to citizenship strictly for non-Muslims from Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh. As of 2022, only 92 of more than 700 cases had reached trial, and many of those arrested under the UAPA continued to languish in jail. During India’s fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR), United Nations (UN) member states emphasized protections for religious minorities and expressed concern over the broad application of India’s “anti-terror” laws. Additional official efforts, such as the National Register of Citizens (NRC) process in Assam, also aimed to identify “undocumented” Bengali-speaking Muslims.
The continued enforcement of discriminatory laws facilitated a culture of impunity for widespread campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups. In March, for example, Karnataka’s state government issued a hijab ban in public schools.
Despite widespread protests and instances of violence, state high court judges upheld the ban, agreeing with the government’s argument that the hijab is not essential to practicing Islam. India’s state governments also continued to pass and enforce anti-conversion laws, currently existing in 12 states, including legislation in multiple states aimed to prohibit and criminalize interfaith marriages.
Public notice requirements for interfaith marriages imposed in 10 states have, at times, resulted in violent reprisals against couples. The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) committed to enforcing harsher penalties for interfaith marriages in its 2022 election manifesto for Uttar Pradesh. Violent attacks were also perpetrated across India under the justification of protecting cows from slaughter or transport, which is illegal in 18 states. Examples of violence against Christians, Muslims, and Dalits around suspicions of cow smuggling were reported in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Delhi.
In August, BJP member Gyan Dev Ahuja was recorded publicly calling for his listeners to “kill anyone involved in cow slaughter.” Throughout the year, destruction of property—including places of worship in predominantly Muslim and Christian neighborhoods—continued. In June, local authorities demolished the homes of three Muslim families in Uttar Pradesh following protests against derogatory language used by members of the BJP. Hindu nationalists bulldozed a Catholic center near Mangalore in February and attacked, looted, and destroyed the homes of hundreds of Christians in December for their refusal to convert to Hinduism.
In addition, at least four madrasas (Islamic seminaries) were demolished following a statement in May from the Chief Minister of Assam that madrasas should be eliminated. Social media platforms continued to facilitate widespread disinformation, hate speech, and incitement of violence toward religious minorities. In February, Twitter removed a caricature shared by the verified account of Gujarat BJP depicting Muslim men hung by a noose.
India has rejected the panel's report as "prejudiced and baseless" and has refused to grant visas to panel members who wanted to visit the country to assess the situation on the ground. India has also questioned the credibility and impartiality of the panel, which does not monitor religious freedom inside the United States, where incidents of hate crimes and discrimination against minorities have been reported. Critics argue that the government led by Mr. Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party has undermined the secular ethos of the nation and fostered a climate of fear and hatred among religious minorities. Despite India's rejection of the panel's report, the USCIRF's recommendations could lead to potential diplomatic consequences for India if the State Department designates it as a Country of Particular Concern.
About the Author
The author is Islamabad based researcher and political commentator. He is currently serving as visiting fellow in University of South Asia.
*Opinions expressed in this article are the writer's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of The South Asia Times