(CNSNews.com) – Just three months after President Obama made a precedent-setting visit to New Delhi, the Indian government is sharply rejecting a U.S. statutory watchdog’s criticism of its religious freedom record, suggesting it reflects ignorance of how India works.
“We take no cognizance of this report,” External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said in response to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) document released late last week.
“It appears to be based on limited understanding of India, its constitution and its society,” he added.
That society is a predominantly Hindu one, with a large Muslim minority. Christians account for just two percent of the world’s second-biggest population of 1.2 billion.
In its annual report the USCIRF recommended that India be on a watchlist of countries which, while not reaching the level of the world’s worst religious persecutors, should be closely monitored and pressurized to improve.
Although it was the seventh consecutive year the commission has recommended India’s designation on the so-called “tier two” list, the report also characterized the situation as having deteriorated. It singled out for criticism radical Hindu groups affiliated with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which took power just over a year ago.
The report highlighted persecution of Indian converts from Hinduism to other faiths, allegedly at the hands of radical Hindu groups associated with the BJP – the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).
“Religious minority communities frequently accuse the RSS, VHP and other Hindu-nationalist groups and individuals of intolerance, discrimination, and violence against them,” it stated. “In addition, they cite police bias in failing to investigate sufficiently and arrest perpetrators of violence. Moreover, religious minority communities voice concern that high-ranking BJP members protect or provide support to these groups.”
The report cited anti-conversion laws enforced in several states, a Hindu campaign of forced “reconversion” of Christians and Muslims, attacks on churches, and mob assaults.
The commission recommended the U.S. government urge India “to publicly rebuke government officials and religious leaders that make derogatory statements about religious communities.”
India’s minister for minorities affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, told the New Delhi Economic Times that the USCIRF report was “based on stereotypical narratives or isolated incidents.”
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told media attacks on churches were instances of common crime, and that portraying them as religiously-motivated was an attempt to malign the government.
Even more scathing was the editor-in-chief of Indian news site Firstpost, R. Jagannathan, who called the USCIRF “little more than a U.S. busybody created to appease the U.S. evangelical fundamentalist lobby.”
Under U.S. law the USCIRF – comprising unpaid commissioners nominated by the White House and congressional leaders – advises the executive and legislative branches on promoting religious freedom in the pursuit of foreign policy.
It’s not the first time the independent watchdog’s outspoken criticism of a U.S. ally has ruffled feathers. The USCIRF’s criticism of Turkey caused headaches for the State Department, which in 2012 intervened in an unsuccessful bid to fend off a recommendation that Ankara be added to the list of worst offenders – “countries of particular concern” (CPCs).
The commission’s recommendations on CPC designations have long fallen short of what the State Department ultimately decides: Of 17 countries the USCIRF believes should be listed as CPCs, only eight are currently designated, with Pakistan the most conspicuous omission.
This is a source of frustration for religious freedom advocates in and outside of Congress, and legislative efforts are underway to strengthen the USCIRF’s work.
Spotlight on Modi
The worst inter-religious violence in modern India occurred in 2002, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in Hindu-Muslim clashes in the state of Gujarat. At the time, Modi was chief minister of the state, and the State Department three years later denied him a visa to enter the U.S. on the grounds of religious freedom violations.
The block was set aside after Modi became prime minister last May, and he paid a high-profile visit to Washington last fall. Obama reciprocated in January, becoming the first U.S. president to visit India more than once while in office.
During last year’s Indian election campaign, USCIRF Vice Chairman Katrina Lantos Swett told U.S. lawmakers that religious minority communities were concerned about the possibility of a BJP/Modi victory. She said the commission hoped religious freedom would not be jeopardized in such an event, and called for religious freedom concerns to be elevated in the U.S.-India relationship.
In its new report the USCIRF did describe as “notable” a public statement by Modi last February, to the effect 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.”
The most deadly violence in India targeting Christians took place in 2008, when more than 100 Christians were killed in Odisha state by Hindu mobs angered by the murder of a local VHP leader.
Radicals accuse Christians of luring poor Hindus, especially those low down in the hierarchical caste system, to convert by offering them incentives like food and schooling.
Church leaders deny acting in an underhand manner.
“Conversion is a personal response of a person to God. Nobody can force or coerce a person,” Catholic Cardinal George Alenchery was quoted as saying at the weekend. “The church witnesses the charity of Christ and proclaims Christian values – truth, justice, love and harmony – to others. This attracts people.”
This year’s USCIRF report recommends CPC status for 17 countries, nine of which (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan) are already designated as such by the State Department.
It calls for another eight countries not currently designated as CPCs to be added – Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Syria, Tajikistan and Vietnam.
For countries with records that are troubling but do not rise the CPC levels, it recommended “tier two” listing for Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia, Russia and Turkey.