NEW DELHI: Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in talks over a working lunch with US President Barack Obama in Washington, the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission commenced a hearing on religious intolerance in India, away from the spotlights but important nevertheless.More so as in the run up to the visit the issue had found an echo in US State Department briefings and had led to US Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia being grilled by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the alleged attack on the minorities in India, along with trafficking and ‘slavery.’

In a related development development, eighteen members of the United States Congress led by Representative Trent Franks and Representative Betty McCollum wrote a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan urging him to take up the issue of rapidly eroding religious freedom in India. They requested Speaker Ryan “that during your meetings with the Prime Minister, the shared value of the fundamental right to religious freedom will be a priority in your conversation.” The letter mentioned how “In February of this year, 34 Members of the House of Senate wrote to Prime Minister Modi urging him to take steps to ensure the fundamental rights of religious minorities are protected and perpetrators of such violence are held accountable.”

This was just before PM Modi’s scheduled address to the joint session of the US Congress where he received thunderous applause and standing ovations later. Media reports suggested that the issue of religious intolerance was raised in discussions between PM Modi and President Obama but Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar was quick to reject the claim.

“No, I do not believe the subject came up today” he said when questioned about it by the media. It remains to be seen whether the value of the discussion at the commission materializes in any form of acknowledgement by the Indian side. That possibility for now seems an improbability as PM Modi concludes his foreign visit with a trip to Mexico, today.

On June 7, a day before PM Modi was to address the joint session of the US Congress, the commission conducted a hearing examining the current state of human rights in India, challenges to fundamental freedoms, and opportunities for advancement. The commission had two panels of witnesses that included Ajit Sahi, Human Rights Activist & Journalist; Musaddique Thange, Communications Director, Indian American Muslim Council; Raj Cherukonda, Representative, Dalit American Federation alongside advocacy directors from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

The commission, formed in 2008, is a bipartisan institution charged with promoting, defending and advocating for international human rights as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other relevant human rights instruments. The commission has recently looked into human rights related issues from Western Sahara, Sudan and Iraq among others.

The commission quoted a 2015 report by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as forming a basis for the present hearing. The report had mentioned, “In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India. Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups.”

In his opening remarks to the commission, Congressman Jim McGovern who also serves as the Democrat co-chair to the Commission said, “As U.S-Indian ties strengthen and our partnership deepens, our two democracies must continue to engage on issues of accountability, rule of law and human rights. Our purpose today is to learn about the human rights challenges and opportunities in India, and to ask how U.S. policymakers can support India in complying with its human rights obligations.”

While praising the Indian constitution for providing important human rights protection he noted that “Unfortunately, as happens in many countries, there is a gap between the promise of the constitution and other laws, and the practice on the ground.”

Sahi was particularly critical of the BJP government in his testimony. He highlighted extrajudicial killings, discrimination by those in the bureaucracy, and persecution by both State and non-state actors of dissidents, whistle-blowers and activists as primary ways in which human rights in India are violated. While highlighting the issues of custodial killings, violence in Kashmir and judicial incompetence, he vociferously argued against the workings of the RSS which he said has “emerged as the biggest challenge for India’s Constitution” in the written testimony he submitted to the commission. He highlighted instances related to cow slaughter, love jihad and the Dadri lynching as evidence of the “issues exploited by the RSS and its partners to commit atrocities on Indian Muslims.”

Sahi noted that, “Since Mr. Modi assumed power in 2014 there has been a sharp uptick in attacks on religious minorities by vigilantes suspected to be connected with the RSS. Adding insult to injury, not only has the prime minister not weighed in to admonish the culprits, his administration has refused to act.” He added, “It was feared that with the victory of Mr. Modi’s BJP and his ascension as prime minister, violations of human rights would gain fresh momentum. Those fears have been proved right. In the last two years, there has been a systematic attempt by both the State and non-state actors to silence the opponents of human rights abuses. Such attempts are now boldly targeting nationally and internationally renowned personalities, including top lawyers and activists, as well as NGOs.”

Musaddique Thange from the Indian American Muslim Council remarked, “The rapid growth of the Hindu nationalist militias, the inadequate representation of minorities in law enforcement, and a steady stream of incendiary rhetoric by individuals in positions of power and influence, has created a volatile situation in which anti-minority violence is breeding. A broken and paralyzed judiciary, having the largest backlog of cases in the world, leaves virtually no recourse to the victims of religiously motivated violence.” He argued that the US-India Strategic Dialogue should be used by the US “[to] impress upon Indian officials the need to strengthen protection for religious minorities, to uphold freedom of religion by ensuring justice is done in cases of religious violence, and to enact laws that protect whistleblowers and activists from official retribution.”