India's Refusal to Admit U.S. Religious Freedom Watchdog Seen As Attempt to Hide ‘Crimes’ Against Religious Minorities

By Patrick Goodenough | March 8, 2016 | 4:23 AM EST

President Obama meets with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the U.N. climate change conference near Paris, France on November 30, 2015. (AP Photo)

( – India’s refusal to admit a delegation from a U.S. religious freedom watchdog is an attempt to hide its “crimes” against religious minorities from the world, a Sikh advocacy group declared after the Indian government questioned the legal standing of an outside body to judge India’s record.

“India is once again trying to hide its crimes from the world,” Sikhs for Justice said on its website. “The Indians think if they refuse entry to international observers of religious freedoms, the world will never know the way they are trying to exterminate minorities.”

“But this isn’t the 80s and 90s,” the U.S.-based group continued. “Today there are a million different ways information gets out and today the Sikh nation is a lot stronger in the free world than ever before.”

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Thursday expressed disappointment about not being able to secure visas for a long-planned visit to the country, which was to have begun on Friday.

“As a pluralistic, non-sectarian, and democratic state, and a close partner of the United States, India should have the confidence to allow our visit,” said the commission’s chairman, Robert George.

Noting that even countries with some of the worst religious freedom records – such as Pakistan, China and Saudi Arabia – have allowed such visits, George said, “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.”

The Indian Embassy in Washington said in response there had been no change in the government policy regarding such visits.

“India is a vibrant pluralistic society founded on strong democratic principles,” it said in a statement. “The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens including the right to freedom of religion. We do not see the locus standi [legal standing to contest an issue] of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pass its judgment and comment on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.”

State Department spokesman John Kirby on Monday called India’s stance disappointing.

“We support the work of the commission,” he said. “More critically, we support the idea behind the commission, which is about religious freedom, the freedom to worship or to not worship, and that’s a central, underpinning principle and tenet here.”

Kirby declined to say whether the State Department approached the Indian government with a request to issue visas, saying he would not speak about private diplomatic conversations,

He also would not give an evaluation of the state of religious freedom in India today, but quoted President Obama as saying during a visit to India last year that “our nations are stronger when every person has the right to practice their faith how they choose, or to practice no faith at all, and to do so free of persecution and fear of discrimination.”

Converts targeted

India, which has the world’s second-biggest population of 1.25 billion, is predominantly Hindu, with a large Muslim minority.

Christians account for just over two percent of the population, while another two percent are Sikhs – adherents of a monotheistic religion that emerged in India in the 15th century and has an estimated 25 million followers today, most living in India’s Punjab.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is affiliated to several radical Hindu nationalist groups that stand accused of mistreatment of and violence towards converts from Hinduism to other faiths, particularly Christianity.

Modi himself has a controversial record. The worst interreligious violence in modern India occurred in 2002, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in the state of Gujarat. At the time, Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, and the State Department denied him a visa to enter the U.S. for years, only setting the restriction aside when he became prime minister in 2014.

Still, BJP governments have not been alone in barring USCIRF visits. The commission has been wanting to visit since 2001, but governments led by both BJP and the left-of-center Congress Party have prevented it from doing so.

After the Gujarat violence the USCIRF recommended that the State Department designate India a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under U.S. religious freedom law, a recommendation it continued making until 2005. (The State Department overruled the advice each year.)

The USCIRF later recommended that India be placed on a “tier two” watch list of countries needing to be closely monitored. That recommendation has now been made for seven consecutive years – most recently last May, when India’s external affairs ministry responded coldly.

Late last month the ministry again shrugged off U.S. criticism, this time coming from eight U.S. senators and 26 members of the House of Representatives who in a letter to Modi voiced concern about the treatment of Christian, Sikh and Muslim communities in India.

“We urge your government to take immediate steps to ensure that the fundamental rights of religious minorities are protected and that the perpetrators of violence are held to account,” they wrote.

“India is proud of its status as the world’s largest democracy,” the external affairs ministry said in response to the letter. “The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens, including minority communities. Aberrations, if any, are dealt with by our internal processes which include our independent judiciary, autonomous National Human Rights Commission, vigilant media, and vibrant civil society.”

Modi plans to travel to the U.S. late this month for a nuclear security conference hosted by Obama, his third visit since becoming prime minister.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow