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SUKUMAR MURALIDHARAN | 1 MAY, 2015

US Religious Freedom Report: Too Close to The Bone


NEW DELHI: The Indian government reacted in offended hauteur to the latest annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF). “The report appears to be based on limited understanding of India, its Constitution and its society.. (and) we take no cognisance of (it)”, said official spokesperson Vikas Swarup.

India features among “tier 2” countries in the report, where special attention is warranted since governments were seen to “engage in or tolerate violations” of religious freedom.

There are grounds to believe that the government has been more than usually prickly this year, since India has featured in tier 2 since 2009 with nobody seeming to know. And the company that India keeps tells its own story. Among the tier 2 countries are Afghanistan, Cuba, Indonesia, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey, all of which inhabit rather diverse corners in the U.S. geopolitical map, from client states, to close allies, to recently estranged friends, to longtime adversaries.

Within this rather complex geometry of U.S. interests intersecting with a mandate to safeguard religious freedom, the preferred option clearly would be inaction. Created by a 1998 act of the U.S. Congress, the USCIRF has no more than advisory powers. And if a consistent course of action fails to emerge that does not involve sacrificing other U.S. interests, its recommendations are most likely to be consigned to oblivion.

That impression is reinforced by a summary glance at Tier 1, reserved for “countries of particular concern … where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are perpetrated or tolerated”. Egypt, a vital ally in a region the U.S. regards as crucial to the sustenance of its global hegemony, has been on this list since 2005. And making its debut this year is Saudi Arabia, just at the time that it is going through a delicate power transition and actually deploying long idle armed forces to bring a rapidly unravelling neighbourhood into some semblance of order.

Clearly, the injury done to India is moral rather than substantive. There is a particular sense of indignation over the report having named close affiliates of the ruling party, such as the RSS and the VHP, among the organisations fomenting violence against religious minorities. And despite the characterisation of India as a “deeply religious, pluralistic society”, there are sufficient observations in the report that cut close to the bone.

There are references to police bias against religious minorities and specific instances of large-scale violence listed from Uttar Pradesh in 2013, Orissa in 2007, Gujarat in 2002 and Delhi in 1984. In what could be construed as a direct indictment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his administration, the environment in 2013 is described as troubled with the following year being perhaps worse. And with a reference to the riots that broke out in Azizpur in Muzaffarpur district of Bihar in January this year, there is a strong hint that if anything, the situation is deteriorating.

Sensitivities are also undoubtedly bruised by what seems to be a pattern of hectoring behaviour, at just the time Modi was imagining a new dawn in relations between the U.S. and India. U.S. President Barack Obama rounded off his Republic Day visit to India with a townhall meeting in which he warned against splintering on lines of religious faith. At a prayer breakfast in Washington DC the following month, he spoke of his distress at the “magnificent diversity” of India being threatened by “acts of intolerance that would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi”.

The USCIRF report mentions these monitoring warnings and also notes with satisfaction that Modi chose to respond in February 2015 with an assurance that all religious minorities would be assured of complete safety and freedom. This was particularly significant it observes, in the light of allegations that Modi was “complicit” in the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat. But the verbal rhetoric against minorities from members and affiliates of the ruling party continued to be a cause of worry, the report concludes, as it suggests a number of action points for U.S. foreign policy, including the integration of religious freedom into the strategic engagement.

The strictures on religious freedom come just a week since the U.S. administration expressed its concern over the Indian government’s decision to put the international donor agency, the Ford Foundation, on a watch-list. Though the U.S. State Department did not elaborate, there was little possibility of the signals being misread. The Ford Foundation was specifically targeted because it had supported two organisations, Sabrang Communications and Citizens for Justice and Peace, in their long running campaign for justice and accountability for the 2002 Gujarat riots. It remains a partial success, but convictions handed down in two particularly egregious incidents, the Best Bakery and Naroda Patiya killings, go some way towards establishing the forgotten principle that the institutions of justice should work for everybody alike.

By cutting off this manner of engagement – indeed with its recent campaign of intimidation against civil society organisations -- the government risks being seen as defending a patently unjust status quo. What this means was painfully evident recently, in the March 21 acquittal of sixteen police personnel brought to trial for what was by all accounts, the cold-blooded killing of forty-two men of a certain faith in Hashimpura in Meerut district in May 1987. That conformed to a depressing tale of impunity for acts of communal violence, with few exceptions the settled pattern since independence.

Clearly, the government would rather brush these troubling questions off the table than address them in anything like a realistic fashion. Aside from rendering their full-throated support to “ghar vaapsi” or coercive drive to bring citizens of the Christian faith into a loosely constructed “Hindu” fold, allies of the BJP have in recent weeks called for the denial of the franchise to all citizens of the Muslim faith, since their presence in the voter rolls allegedly leads to the unhealthy politics of pandering.

Addressing opposition concerns over these verbal excesses, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh chose the path of denial. Recent attacks on churches, he argued, were part of a general pattern in which various religious sites were targeted. But he would not table the relevant statistics since he was averse to seeking political mileage from hurt religious sensibilities. Neither was there any pattern in the mounting violence or the political rhetoric against minorities. Indeed, no other country he said, could quite match India’s record of religious tolerance.

The religious freedom report falls short of being a wake-up call, since it may not really pinch where it hurts. But the aura is clearly wearing off. As the Modi government approaches the one-year point, its vulnerability is evident, both in its disorientation in addressing domestic policy challenges and its petulance in international relations.

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