NEW DELHI: The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, backed by the US administration, has in its 2016 Annual Report included India in its Tier 2 list of countries whose “governments engage in or tolerate at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing and egregious” standard but do not fully meet the those countries whose government engages in or tolerates at least one of the elements of the "systematic, ongoing, and egregious" standard, but do not fully meet the Countries of Particular Concern standard.” India shares the honours with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia, and Turkey.

The Indian government has, of course rejected this report that names the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Vikas Sarup said, “We take no cognizance of the report." But the issue is whether the US administration takes cognizance of it, and to what extent, given the fact that the USCIRF has been gathering strength and influence in Washington, determining policy towards the countries under its scanner. And raising issues from time to time. It has also recommended that the State Department add the following eight countries to its list of “countries of particular concern,” defined under law as countries where particularly severe violations of religious freedom are tolerated or perpetrated:Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan, and Vietnam. And that the following nine countries be re-designated as “countries of particular concern,”or CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan.

Although India is in the august company of US allies like Saudi Arabia, its religious freedom record has been strongly criticised. It might be recalled that during his visit US President Barack Obama, just before leaving for the US, had raised the issue of religious freedom at his speech at the Siri Fort auditorium in what many had interpreted here as a ‘parting shot’ of criticism for the attacks on religious minorities at the time.

The USCIRF report is a castigating indictment of India’s religious freedom record in 2015-2016. Some excerpts from its key findings:

“ 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. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tacitly supported these groups and used religiously-divisive language to further inflame tensions. These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police bias and judicial inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity, where religious minority communities feel increasingly insecure, with no recourse when religiously-motivated crimes occur.”

In the last year, “higher caste” individuals and local political leaders also prevented Hindus considered part of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dalits) from entering religious temples. Additionally, the national government or state governments applied several laws to restrict religious conversion, cow slaughter, and foreign funding

Since the BJP assumed power, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by BJP politicians and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by affiliated Hindu nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP). The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party that was founded in collaboration with the RSS, and the two maintain close ties at the highest levels.

During the past year, the Muslim community in India reported increased harassment, violence, and targeted hate campaigns. Muslims often are accused of being terrorists; spying for Pakistan; forcibly kidnapping, converting, and marrying Hindu women; and disrespecting Hinduism by slaughtering cows. The Muslim community reports that these abuses come from Hindu nationalists, including local and state politicians, and the national government has failed to address these problems and, at times, contributes to them. Members of the BJP and RSS have stoked religious tensions by claiming that Muslim population growth is an attempt to diminish the Hindu majority. For example, high-ranking BJP parliamentarians, such as Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj, reportedly called for laws to control the Muslim population.

Christian communities, across many denominations, reported numerous, and increased, incidents of harassment and attacks in the last year, which they attribute to Hindu nationalist groups with the BJP’s tacit support. In early 2016, an advocacy group reported there were at least 365 major attacks on Christians and their institutions during 2015, compared to 120 in 2014.

In September 2015, in Bisahra village, Uttar Pradesh, a mob of nearly 1,000 people killed Mohammad Akhlaq for allegedly killing a cow, and seriously injured his son. Eight people were arrested and charged with murder and rioting, but no additional information was available by the end of the reporting period. In October 2015, in Indian-administered Kashmir, Zahid Rasool Bhat was set ablaze and later died of his injuries for allegedly transporting cows to be slaughtered. Five people were arrested for murder, rioting, conspiracy, and the use of explosives.

In January 2016, Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, the UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, reported that crimes against Dalits in India appeared to have increased in 2015. Hindu Dalits also faced religious discrimination in 2015. In several cases, Hindu Dalits were prohibited from entering temples, by “higher caste” individuals or local political leaders. For example, in seven villages in Tirupur district, Tamil Nadu state, Dalits reportedly were not permitted to enter or worship at temples because their entrance would “unsanctify” the temples. A district court case challenging this prohibition is pending. As of June 2015, reportedly there were 13 cases in eight districts in the state of Gujarat over the last five years where Dalits were forbidden from entering temples.

The states of Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Odisha, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan tend to have the greatest number of incidents of religiously-motivated attacks and communal violence, as well as the largest religious minority populations. According to India’s Union Home Ministry, in 2015, India experienced a 17% increase in communal violence, when compared to the previous year. In 2015, there were 751 reported incidents of communal violence, up from 644 in 2014.

The Report has noted that during his 2015 visit, and again in February 2015 at the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast, President Obama made “notable remarks on India’s religious freedom concerns. In his speech at a town hall event in New Delhi, and again a few weeks later at the Prayer Breakfast, President Obama underscored the importance of religious freedom to India’s success, urging the country not to be “splintered along the lines of religious faith” and stated that India is a place where “. . .religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other people of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs - acts of intolerance that would have shocked [Mahatma] Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”

“In mid-February 2015, at an event honoring Indian Catholic saints, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stated publicly, for the first time, that his government “will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence.” This statement is notable given longstanding allegations that, as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, he was complicit in anti-Muslim riots that occurred in that state.”

The report further notes that : “In March 2016, USCIRF sought to visit India due to longstanding and increasing concerns about religious freedom conditions in the country. USCIRF had the full support of the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi. The Indian government, however, failed to issue visas to the USCIRF delegation, in effect a denial. State Department Spokesman, John Kirby, in response to a reporter’s question, stated that the Department was “disappointed by this news.” The Indian government also failed to issue visas to USCIRF in 2001 and 2009.”

In its recommendations the Commission sees a more proactive role for the US government maintaining that it should

Since 2004, the United States and India have pursued a strategic relationship based on shared concerns about energy, security, and the growing threat of terrorism, as well as shared values of democracy and the rule of law. As part of this important relationship, USCIRF recommends that the U.S. government should: “ Integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India, including the framework of future Strategic Dialogues, at both the federal and provincial level, and encourage the strengthening of the capacity of state and central police to implement effective measures to prohibit and punish cases of religious violence and protect victims and witnesses;

• Increase the U.S. Embassy’s attention to issues of religious freedom and related human rights, including through visits by the Ambassador and other officials to areas where communal and religiously-motivated violence has occurred or is likely to occur and meetings with religious communities, local governmental leaders, and police;

• Press the Indian government to allow USCIRF to visit the country, and urge the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Religious Freedom or Belief to visit India;

• Urge India to boost training on human rights and religious freedom standards and practices for the police and judiciary, particularly in states and areas with a history or likelihood of religious and communal violence;

• Urge the central Indian government to press states that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally-recognized human rights standards; make clear U.S. opposition to laws that restrict freedom of thought and association; and

• Urge the Indian government to publicly rebuke government officials and religious leaders that make derogatory statements about religious communities.