India doesn't appreciate the US judging its religious freedom

GlobalPost
Christians in Mumbai protest against attacks on churches across India, Feb. 9, 2015.
Danish Siddiqui

NEW DELHI, India — India’s human rights record has been a checkered one. The most recent report by the United States government’s religious freedom watchdog suggests that the latest chapter is no different: It describes increasing communal violence, derogatory remarks on minorities by ruling party politicians and forced conversions at the hands of Hindu nationalists, a litany of persecution that prompted the monitors to maintain India on their list of countries that require special attention from the US government, alongside Russia, Afghanistan, Cuba and others.

India’s response: Bar the monitors from the country.

Earlier this month the Indian government denied visas to a delegation from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), who had planned to travel to India to further investigate the state of religious liberty. But they were abruptly told that they weren’t welcome.  

“The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens including the right to freedom of religion,” the Indian Embassy in Washington, DC said in a statement. “We do not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pass its judgment and comment on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.”

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The commission said it was “deeply disappointed” by the decision, pointing out that it had been allowed entry to countries considered more oppressive than India, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China. 

“One would expect that the Indian government would allow for more transparency than have these nations, and would welcome the opportunity to convey its views directly to USCIRF,” chairman Robert P. George commented.

It’s not the first time India has reacted badly to accusations of intolerance. When US President Barack Obama called on India to improve protections for religious minorities after visiting the country in January 2015, commentators here insisted that there was no country as tolerant as India — and said it was a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Prime Minister Narendra Modi nonetheless went on to promise that his administration would ensure “complete freedom of faith.” 

The commission’s concerns, however, are far from baseless. In its 2015 report, USCIRF documents a spike in religiously motivated violence over the last three years. The report describes the violence and arbitrary arrests that Indian Muslims have faced since terror attacks by Islamist extremists, as well as attacks on Christians and churches, harassment of Sikhs, and the forcible “reconversion” of non-Hindus.

“Religious minority communities frequently accuse … Hindu-nationalist groups and individuals of intolerance, discrimination, and violence against them,” states USCIRF, which also cites complaints that police fail to investigate such crimes. “Religious minority communities voice concern that high-ranking [members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party] protect or provide support to these groups.”

The Indian government’s National Commission for Minorities refused to comment on the US panel’s findings.

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The reported rise in violence coincides with the ascent of a Hindu nationalist government, which has been accused of covertly supporting a non-secular, Hindu-dominated India. Despite Modi’s pledge that his “will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions,” members of the BJP have openly made derogatory statements against Muslims and urged them to “return” to Pakistan.

Opponents say that such persecution is part of a larger crackdown on dissent that has targeted not only religious minorities but lower-caste Hindus and left-wing university students.

“The atmosphere of hate, the atmosphere of mob frenzy, the atmosphere of violence against all those people who speak for equal rights in a democratic society has not only increased, but has also been created,” said Navaid Hamid, secretary of the South Asian Council for Minorities and president of the All India Muslim Majlis-e-Mushawarat, an organization that groups together Muslim associations from all over the country.

Mob violence against Muslims has broken out in several Indian states over rumors of the desecration of Hindu shrines, the harassment of Hindu women or other purported offenses, including the lynching of a Muslim man near Delhi who was accused of eating beef. In other incidents, “cow protection committees” attacked vehicles transporting cattle and beat up farmers whom they suspected of sending cows to slaughter.

The US panel also shared frightening statistics for India’s 28 million Christians. According to USCIRF’s report, there were more than 38 reported incidents targeting the community in the last two months of 2014, including the torching of a church in New Delhi and Christmas carolers being beaten by a mob in the city of Hyderabad. 

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Samuel Jayakumar, a spokesman for the National Council of Churches in India, told GlobalPost that such violence remains limited to extremists.

“There is a tendency of violence against Christians, but not by the whole Hindu community,” he said. “It is a small element.” 

Regardless, Jayakumar believes that the US observers should have been allowed to investigate. “India is a democratic country, we should not be worried about it.”

This view also has support from a more surprising quarter: The far-right Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha, a fringe party that wants India declared a Hindu state, which even offered to petition the government to allow the USCIRF team to visit. Their reasons, however, were starkly different.

“It seems they have been misinformed; the minorities rule India,” said Chander Prakash Kaushik, the Hindu Mahasabha’s national president. “One minority individual dies and the whole country is shaken up. Hindus are murdered every day, is something ever done?”

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His party, in fact, encourages Hindus to take matters into their own hands. Its general secretary has said that attacks on churches should be legal, and offered to protect and reward Hindus who vandalize Christian temples or marry Muslim women. 

Yet Kaushik insisted that India is more tolerant than the US — an allegation which may hit home during the current chaos of America’s presidential race. It is important for the US panel to visit so they can see the comforts that India’s minorities enjoy for themselves, he said, and hear the Hindu majority’s side, too.

“If there is a heaven for minorities, it is India,” said Kaushik. “And if they still have any troubles here, Pakistan is ideal for them — and if they’d like to go, we would be happy to help them.”