NEW DELHI: The United States Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) criticising the crackdown by the Indian government on foreign funded organisations has noted that “Hindutva support organisations have never come under the scrutiny of the FCRA” and that under the new amendment these foreign based “radical Hindu organisations” will be able to send funds to India for “hate campaigns.”

The USCIRF has also reported at some length on cow protection related violence, and using the Dadri lynching to illustrate its point has noted that “cow protection laws are often mixed with anti-Muslim sentiment.” And points out in some detail how armed mobs search for victims, and once caught, “they strip him naked, make repeated abuses against his professed faith, beat and torture him, and upload a video of the assault to YouTube or Facebook.”

The latest report Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India comes after the controversy last March when the Indian government denied USCIRF the visas to visit the country. The powerful US Religious freedom body that exercises considerable influence on the US Senate and Administration had at that point described the situation in India as “worrisome”

The report is clear that the FCRA is being used by the Indian government to discriminate. Citing the case of Teesta Setalvad and Javed Anand specifically the report states: “The FCRA controls foreign funding for NGOs, but the government has used it to block funds to hamper the activities of NGOs that question or condemn the government or its policies. Recently, the Indian government has been accused of targeting human rights activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, for allegedly violating the FCRA and receiving funds unlawfully.”

The report then adds, “While the Indian government continues to use the FCRA to limit foreign funding for some NGOs, Hindutva supporter organizations have never come under the scrutiny of the FCRA. With the new amendment to the FCRA, these foreign-based radical Hindu organizations will be able to send funds to India, without restriction, to support hate campaigns. Under the new definition of the FCRA, so long as the foreign company’s ownership of an Indian entity is within the foreign investment limits prescribed by the government for that sector, the company will be treated as “Indian” for the purposes of the FCRA.”

The report details the protection accorded to cows in India and how the issue is often used to target religious minorities says that “cows are considered to be sacred in Hinduism. Article 48 of the Indian Constitution and most Indian states (24 out of 29, as of 2015) significantly restrict or ban cow slaughter.31 Those found guilty of cow slaughter are subject to fines, imprisonment, or both. Cow slaughter in India has remained a perpetual source of tensions between Hindu and Muslim and Dalit communities. The ban on cow slaughter is often termed as “food fascism” by the religious minorities’ activists.”

“The cow protection laws are often mixed with anti-Muslim sentiment. One of the most recent and clear examples of Muslim persecution through the politics of cow protection is the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq by Hindu mobs in September 2015. Mr. Akhlaq, age 50, was dragged from his home in the village of Bisara—45 miles from the capital of Delhi—and beaten to death by an angry Hindu mob due to rumors that his family had been eating beef and storing the meat in their home,” the report adds.

“Radical right-wing Hindu groups have started their own gangs, known as Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Front), across India. These groups are mostly armed with firearms, batons, and swords. They patrol major cities and highways, attacking people transporting cattle or possessing, consuming, or selling beef. Once the victim is caught, they strip him naked, make repeated abuses against his professed faith, beat and torture him, and upload a video of the assault to YouTube or Facebook,” it elaborates.

Another section of the report focuses on the position of Dalits. “Article 17 of the Indian Constitution officially makes the practice of “untouchability”—the imposition of social disabilities on persons by reason of their birth into “untouchable” castes—a punishable offense. Article 15 eliminated untouchability and discrimination based on caste. However, the caste system is a fundamental part of Hinduism, the majority religion of India. According to Hindu scripture, individuals are born inherently unequal into a graded, caste-based structure that defines their status and opportunities in life,” the report states.

“The practice of untouchability continues to blight the lives of millions of Dalits today. The manifestation of such oppression has taken and continues to take many forms. Age-old customs included prohibiting Dalits from walking public streets in the event they cross “upper-caste” Hindus, and requiring Dalits to mark themselves with black bracelets, string a broom around their waists so as to sweep the path they walk on, or hang an earthen pot around their necks “lest [their] spit falling on the earth should pollute a Hindu who might unknowingly happen to tread on it,” it adds.

“The policy of reservations has benefited very few Dalits in the country. Growing illiteracy and dropout rates among Dalits mean very few are able to avail themselves of constitutional rights in public sector employment and education. A number of key sectors also continue to remain outside the purview of the reservation policy, and caste-based discrimination continues to be practiced in the sectors where reservations are secured, leading to underenforcement. Segregation between Dalits and non-Dalits is routinely practiced in housing, schools, and access to public and private sector services,” the report states.

On the Freedom of Religion Act, the report states that “of the 29 states in India, seven—Gujarat (2003), Arnachal Pradesh (1978), Rajasthan (2006), Madhya Pradesh (1968), Himachal Pradesh (2006), Odisha (1967), and Chhattisgarh (1968)—have adopted a Freedom of Religion Act commonly referred to as an anti-conversion law.

These anti-conversion laws generally ban religious conversion by use of force, inducement, or any fraudulent means; aiding any person in such a conversion is also banned. However, these laws have resulted in inequitable practices against minorities. One of the debated points linked with freedom of religion for many years in India is whether the “right to freedom of conversion” is associated with the “right to freedom of religion” envisaged in Article 25 of the constitution. Dissimilar with some other countries’ constitutions, which recognize freedom of conversion, there is no clear provision referring to “conversion” in the constitution of India.6 Hence, Article 25 is usually cited with a perception that the “freedom of conversion” emerges from “freedom of conscience.””

“Although the anti-conversion laws do not explicitly ban conversions, in practice these laws “both by their design and implementation, infringe upon the individual’s right to convert, favor Hinduism over minority religions, and represent a significant challenge to Indian secularism,” it adds.

The report points out that “Muslims and Christians in various parts of India have long protested against these acts. The protests are based on the argument that although it was specified that the acts were meant to forbid conversion by objectionable means, it is clear in the Odisha Freedom of Religion Act that conversion itself is regarded as objectionable since it is said to undermine another faith.

So, it is quite clear that despite the government’s claims that there are no objections to “genuine conversion,” the acts were intended to control or limit not only conversion done by undesirable means, but also conversion in general. Christians argue the meanings of the terms used in the acts have been exposed to misinterpretation, which leads to serious fears within their community. They regarded conversion as a personal matter, but it comes under the inspection of government officials without adequate protections against the misuse of legislation.”

Similarly, “The Special Marriage Act of 1954 includes provisions that deny converts to non-Hindu religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) of certain rights and privileges. For instance, under the act, if either parent of a Hindu child converts to Christianity or Islam, that parent loses the right to guardianship over the child. The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956 disqualifies converts from Hinduism to be the guardians of their own children.17 Similarly, under the law, a Hindu wife who converts to Christianity or Islam loses her right to marital support from her husband. Conversion from Hinduism can even be a basis for divorce.18 Article 19 of the Indian Constitution protects freedom of speech, expression, and association.”

It adds “however, the Indian government has not allowed new resident foreign missionaries since the mid-1960s. Ironically, the Freedom of Religion Acts are not enforced when the religious minorities are converted to Hinduism, which instead is interpreted as “reconversion.” The terminology of Ghar Wapsi (homecoming) is widely used by fundamentalist Hindu groups to refer to “reconversion” to Hinduism. However, this term is “not included in the purview of any anti-conversion law.”19 Such exclusion of reconversion from the purview of the freedom of religion acts unavoidably suggests reconversion by use of force, fraud, or allurement is not punishable under the provisions of these acts.”

Further, it examines the position of religious minorities and personal status laws in India. “The Hindu Marriage Act of 1955 serves to modify and categorize the laws relating to marital relationships among Hindus. Under this act, the ceremonial marriage is mandatory. However, because Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist communities are deemed Hindu per Article 25 sub-clause (B), they are issued marriage certificates under the Hindu personal status laws. Muslims, Christians, and Parsis have been given the benefit of being governed by their own matrimonial laws,” the report states.

“The Indian Divorce Act of 2001, which restricts inheritance, alimony payments, and property ownership of people from interfaith marriages, is problematic for religious minority communities in India. The act also interferes in the personal lives of Christians by not allowing marriage ceremonies to be conducted in a church if one of the partners is non-Christian,” it notes.

The report notes that “India’s constitution encompasses provisions that emphasize complete legal equality of its citizens regardless of their religion or creed, and prohibits any kind of religion-based discrimination. It also provides safeguards—albeit limited ones—to religious minority communities. However, the report demonstrates that there are constitutional provisions and state and national laws in India that do not comply with international standards of freedom of religion or belief, including Article 18 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.”

It adds that “under Congress Party and BJP-led governments, religious minority communities and Dalits, both have faced discrimination and persecution due to a combination of overly broad or ill-defined laws, an inefficient criminal justice system, and a lack of jurisprudential consistency. In particular, since 2014, hate crimes, social boycotts, assaults, and forced conversion have escalated dramatically.”

“India is a religiously diverse and democratic society with a constitution that provides legal equality for its citizens irrespective of their religion and prohibits religion-based discrimination,” said USCIRF Chair Thomas J. Reese, S.J. “However, the reality is far different. In fact, India’s pluralistic tradition faces serious challenges in a number of its states. During the past few years, religious tolerance has deteriorated and religious freedom violations have increased in some areas of India. To reverse this negative trajectory, the Indian and state governments must align theirs laws with both the country’s constitutional commitments and international human rights standards.”

The report concludes with a number of recommendations for both the Indian government and the US government. It can be read in its entirety here.