“India risks becoming one of the world’s main generators of instability, atrocities and violence, because of the massive scale and gravity of the violations and abuses targeting mainly religious and other minorities”, were the opening lines of a witness testimony at the latest USCIRF hearing on ‘Advancing Religious Freedom within the U.S. – India Bilateral Relationship’, where the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) heard rising concerns over India’s legal frameworks and policies which have in the past been viewed as being discriminatory against religious minorities. The commission basically seeks to develop policy solutions as recommendations for the bilateral relations through hearing the testimonies of various stakeholders.
The USCIRF hearing took place on 3rd October, 2023. The concern by the commission on religious freedom concerns in India follows two important bilateral meetings that took place between the country’s top leaders, the Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden. One of the meetings was the official state visit of PM Modi to Washington in June and a subsequent bilateral meeting in New Delhi in September.
After the latest Modi-Biden meetings, the USCIRF had announced that it would hold a meeting in September to address the rising issues. The panel gathered to testify before the Commission included Fernand de Varennes, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Tariq Ahmed, a foreign law specialist from the law Library of Congress, Sarah Yager, the Washington Director of Human Rights Watch, Sunita Viswanath, the executive director of Hindus for Human Rights, and Irfan Nooruddin, the Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani Professor of Indian Politics at Georgetown University.
Witnesses offered powerful fact-based testimony at the hearing and shed light on potential policy options for the United States to collaborate with India in addressing religious freedom violations and associated human rights issues within the nation. The hearing further noted that in the past ten years, the Indian government has put into effect and actively applied discriminatory measures targeting religious minorities and furthermore, these measures include laws against religious conversions, provisions that favour citizenship based on religion, and limitations on support for non-governmental organisations engaged in civil society work.
The commission also noted recent developments in the country which have seen instances of violence such as the anti-Muslim violence which erupted in Haryana earlier this year, as well as specific attacks targeting Christian communities in Manipur. It notes that these incidents emphasise the necessity for new approaches by the US to address and reduce violence against religious minority groups Hindu’s for Human Rights (HfHR), a nonprofit human rights organisation, has noted that “The severely weakened state of religious freedom in India is undeniably alarming.”
USCIRF also pointed to its public database titled Frank. R Wolf Freedom of Religion or Belief Victims List, which documents people detained in India for exercising their freedom of religion or belief. The database currently lists 37 individuals from various faiths who are incarcerated in India. Therefore, the hearing also witnessed cases of several incarcerated activists being highlighted, such as Meeran Haidar and Rupesh Singh. “…both of whom are detained for protesting religious freedom conditions. In April 2020, Haider was targeted for leading peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and was charged with offences under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA). Singh is a freelance journalist known for his reporting on state violence and discrimination against Adivasis,” noted USCIRF Vice Chair Frederick A. Davie. “Haider, targeted for leading peaceful protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), faces charges under the UAPA. Singh, a freelance journalist known for his reporting on state violence and discrimination against Adivasis, has been detained since July 2022, also under the UAPA. USCIRF urges the Indian government to review these cases and release all prisoners of conscience, as well as those detained for peacefully expressing their religion or belief.”
The hearing further witnessed detailed mention of the ongoing crisis in Manipur, with the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Fernand de Varennes, saying, “They (the situation) show a steady and alarming erosion of fundamental rights, particularly for religious and other minorities from the review of communications from 2011 to now: By 2022, almost all of them involve grave allegations of denial of fundamental rights, particularly targeting religious minorities. The most recent is perhaps symptomatic: on 4 September, myself and 18 other colleagues expressed our alarm about reports of serious human rights violations in Manipur, including alleged acts of sexual violence, extrajudicial killings, forced displacement and other ill-treatment where the victims were from the predominantly Christian Kuki minority last May.”
The USCIRF currently considers India on its list of countries of particular concern (CPC)and has persistently recommended and urged the US government to designate India as a CPC too due to the reported systematic, ongoing, and intense violations of religious freedom that continue to trouble observers.
The USCIRF is basically an “independent and bipartisan federal agency” established under the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act, as mentioned on its website. Its objectives include overseeing and “safeguarding” the fundamental right to freedom of religion or belief on a global scale and it is actively involved in formulating policy suggestions for the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. Furthermore, it states that it also monitors the execution of these recommendations and the response by the government. The commission comprises nine Commissioners, each of which are appointed by either the President or prominent leaders from both major political parties in Congress. USCIRF is further supported by a non-partisan team of professionals. This means that while the group is affiliated to the government, it can only recommend changes but does not have the power to implement them. That would be lie in the jurisdiction of the US state department.
The USCIRF is supposed to make these recommendations by submitting these annual reports to the United States’ Congress. These reports are based on initial drafts prepared by all US embassies which have information based on government records, journalist reports, academic and media reports etc, following which the Office of International Religious Freedom, based in Washington collects it through a rigorous process of verification, and consultation with various groups.
In June 2023 too the USCIRF had called upon President Biden to address pressing issues related to religious freedom and other human rights during PM Narendra Modi’s state visit. USCIRF had also further brought attention to violence against Christian tribals in Manipur through a special Spotlight Podcast episode and published an update on India’s state-level anti-conversion laws which they continue to monitor.
The Indian government has not not given any response to the most recent hearing and its press release by the USCIRF. However, the government had responded to last year’s report with Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson for India’s foreign ministry, criticising senior US officials for what he termed as “ill-informed” and “biased” remarks. Bagchi had further spoken about India’s inherent pluralism as a society and maintained that the nation was intent on its commitment to upholding religious freedom and human rights.
In its 2022 report, amongst other actions, the USCIRF had recommended US officials to openly criticise India’s discriminatory policies against religious minorities as it argued that private diplomacy is becoming insufficient and public statements are needed to highlight the grave situation. Secondly, it also recommended the US government to encourage India to implement police reforms, and to ensure fair investigation of communal violence which should have mechanisms to make it free of any influence by political parties. Thirdly, it also recommended that India be urged to hold party leaders and their supporters to be held accountable for hatred about party leaders and supporters for inciting and participating in attacks on religious minorities.