Concerns About Religious Freedom Aired on Capitol Hill As India's Elections Begin

By Patrick Goodenough | April 8, 2014 | 4:19 AM EDT

Indian voters wait in line to cast their votes during the first phase of elections in the northeastern state of Assam on Monday, April 7, 2014. (AP Photo/Altaf Qadri)

( – As India’s massive general election process gets underway, the powerful Hindu nationalist BJP party has stoked new religious freedom concerns with a pledge to build a Hindu temple at a site where the 1992 destruction of a mosque sparked deadly interreligious violence.

“BJP reiterates its stand to explore all possibilities within the framework of the constitution to facilitate the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya,” said the manifesto released on Monday, the first day of the world’s largest election, which runs over the next five weeks.

The mosque at Ayodhya was destroyed by Hindu radicals whose controversial ultra-nationalist organizations have been linked over the ensuing years to violence against both Muslim and Christian minorities.

Among the worst such episodes were Hindu-Muslim clashes in 2002 in the state of Gujarat which killed more than 1,000 mostly Muslim people; and violence in 2008 in Odisha (formerly Orissa) state, where more than 100 Christians were killed by Hindu mobs and dozens of churches and thousands of homes were torched.

Now the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), which is associated with the ultra-nationalist Hindu groups, hopes to win India’s general election. Its candidate for prime minister is Narendra Modi, chief minister of Gujarat state at the time of the 2002 violence, who was denied a visa to enter the U.S. three years later on the grounds of religious freedom violations.

Concerns about the implications of a BJP/Modi victory were voiced Friday during a Capitol Hill hearing of the bipartisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, entitled “The Plight of Religious Minorities in India.”

Testifying before the panel, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) Vice Chairman Katrina Lantos Swett said it was a critical time for India.

Many religious minority communities feel that religious freedom will be jeopardized if the BJP wins and the Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi becomes prime minister,” she said. “We hope that is not the case.”

“USCIRF has a long concern about the BJP and Modi’s association with Hindu ultra-nationalist groups as well as allegations of his complicity in the Gujarat riots.”

Lantos Swett urged Congress to encourage the State Department to “elevate religious freedom concerns” in the very important U.S. relationship with India.

She also urged support for H.Res. 417, legislation introduced last November by Rep. Joseph Pitts (R-Pa.) focusing on the need to promote and protect the rights and freedoms of religious minorities in India.

Among other things, the legislation commends the U.S. government for denying Modi a visa in 2005 and “encourages it to review the applications of any individuals implicated in such violations under the same standard.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the first Hindu to be elected to the U.S. Congress, questioned the timing of the hearing, charging that it was designed to affect the election outcome.

“I feel that the goal of this hearing ultimately is to influence the outcome of this election, which is something that I don’t feel is appropriate for us here in the United States Congress to do,” she told the panel. (Although Hindu, Gabbard is not from India. She was born in the U.S. territory of American Samoa.)

The U.S. India Political Action Committee, which opposes H.Res 417, also voiced concern about the commission hearing, with Chairman Sanjay Puri saying in a statement that “misleading information” had been aired.

“We look forward to continuing to work with Congress on important issues that will be fast approaching with the Indian elections already in full swing this week and believe that members of U.S. Congress should allow the people of India to decide their next prime minister,” Puri said.

‘Anti-conversion’ drive

Although Modi has been most associated with the Gujarat violence targeting Muslims, the radical Hindu groups associated with the BJP – Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) – have also targeted Christians, who account for just 2.3 per cent of India’s population.

RSS and VHP radicals frequently accuse Christians of forcing or inducing poor Hindus, including Dalits, the “untouchables” at the bottom of the hierarchical caste system, to convert to Christianity by offering them food, education or other incentives.

At the urging of the RSS and VHP, a number of Indian states have passed “anti-conversion” laws, and in 2011 a senior VHP leader called for a new constitution under which anyone who converts Hindus should be beheaded.

The anti-Christian violence in Odisha in 2008 occurred after a prominent local VHP leader, Laxmanananda Saraswati, was murdered. Even though Maoist terrorists active in eastern India claimed responsibility for the killing, radical Hindus directed their anger at Christians in the state, killing more than 100 and leaving tens of thousands displaced.

Last October seven Christians, who had already been incarcerated for five years, were sentenced to life imprisonment after being convicted of involvement in Saraswati’s murder. A Maoist leader was also convicted in a separate hearing.

Christian leaders at the time called the sentences imposed on the seven a travesty, and some claimed the judiciary was influenced by powerful Hindu extremist elements.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow