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Religious Freedom Clash between US Panel and South Asia’s Claimed Secular Nation

Religious Freedom Clash between US Panel and South Asia’s Claimed Secular Nation

By Anum Iqbal

A United States government panel has recommended that India be placed on a blacklist of countries that severely violate religious freedom, amid growing concerns over the rights of minorities in the world's most populous democracy.

 

The panel, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, is a bipartisan advisory body that reports to Congress and the State Department. It said India should join 13 other countries, including China, Iran and Saudi Arabia, on a list of "Countries of Particular Concern" that are subject to sanctions or other diplomatic actions for infringing on the right to belief.

 

The panel said India had committed "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom" in 2020, by enacting a citizenship law that discriminates against Muslims seeking fast-track naturalization, by failing to prevent or prosecute communal violence in Delhi that killed more than 50 people, mostly Muslims, and by cracking down on peaceful protests against the law.

 

The panel also cited anti-conversion laws in some states that restrict the right to change one's religion, especially for Hindus who convert to Christianity or Islam, and the harassment and intimidation of religious minorities and human rights activists by state and non-state actors, such as vigilante groups and mobs. The panel's recommendation is not binding on the State Department, which makes the final decision on whether to designate a country as a Country of Particular Concern and what actions to take.

 

The State Department has not followed the panel's advice on India in previous years, despite mounting criticism of the Hindu nationalist policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government. India has rejected the panel's report as "prejudiced and baseless" and said it does not need any external endorsement of its commitment to pluralism and tolerance.

 

India has a long tradition of hosting diverse religious communities and protecting their rights under its constitution, but critics say 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. India also accused the panel of being ignorant of India's diversity and democratic ethos, and of having an agenda against India. India 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.

 

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has accused India of committing "systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom" in 2020. The USCIRF cited India's Citizenship Amendment Act, which discriminates against Muslims seeking fast-track naturalization, and its failure to prevent or prosecute communal violence in Delhi that killed more than 50 people, mostly Muslims. Additionally, the panel pointed out that some Indian states have anti-conversion laws that restrict the right to change one's religion, especially for Hindus who convert to Christianity or Islam. The panel also expressed concern over the harassment and intimidation of religious minorities and human rights activists by state and non-state actors, such as vigilante groups and mobs.

 

Despite mounting criticism of the Hindu nationalist policies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government, the State Department has not followed the panel's advice on India in previous years. India has rejected the panel's report as "prejudiced and baseless" and in retaliation, it 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.

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