(CNSNews.com) – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is visiting India Wednesday, just days after his department, in a major annual report, highlighted serious incidents of religious persecution there, including “an increase in attacks against religious minorities and the perceived diminishing space for religious freedom.”
In an assessment that raised the ire of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, the State Department report released by Pompeo on Friday pointed to instances of Hindu mob violence against religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians, in 2018.
It cited non-governmental organization (NGO) reports charging that “the government sometimes failed to act on mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalized communities, and critics of the government.”
Moreover, “some senior officials” in the BJP “made inflammatory speeches against minority communities,” it said.
The report identified as major triggers for mob violence accusations that non-Hindus are killing cows, which Hindus consider sacred, and accusations that Christians and others are converting Hindus, using inducements or coercion to do so.
“Mob attacks by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef,” it said. “According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution.”
Nine of India’s 29 states have laws that restrict or criminalize religious conversion, and Christians accused of “forced conversions” faced criminal charges in several states.
Religious freedom is not the only potential irritant in the relationship between the world’s two biggest democracies, but it is a particularly sensitive issue.
“We see no locus standi [legal standing] for a foreign entity/government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights,” foreign minister spokesman Raveesh Kumar said in response to the report.
“India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion,” Kumar said.
“The Indian constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens, including its minority communities. It is widely acknowledged that India is a vibrant democracy where the constitution provides protection of religious freedom, and where democratic governance and rule of law further promote and protect the fundamental rights.”
The national spokesperson of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling BJP, Anil Baluni, said the U.S. report “shows clear bias against the Modi government and the BJP.”
“The basic presumption in this report that there is some grand design behind anti-minority violence is simply false,” he said. “On the contrary, in most of such cases, these instances are carried out as a result of local disputes and by criminal mindsets.”
India has slowly been edging up the Open Doors USA annual watch list of “countries where it is most dangerous to follow Jesus.” In 2012, it was in 32nd place, but by 2016 – two years after Modi’s BJP came to power – it had climbed to number 17. Last year it was in 11th place, and this year India is at number ten.
The BJP is closely affiliated to radical Hindu nationalist groups accused of violence against converts from Hinduism to other faiths.
Modi’s own record is controversial too. He was chief minister of Gujarat state during the worst episode of interreligious violence in modern Indian history, when more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in 2002.
After Muslims attacked a train carrying Hindu pilgrims, Hindus carried out retaliatory attacks against Muslims across the state. Modi was accused of doing nothing to stop the carnage.
The State Department subsequently charged that there was “a comprehensive failure on the part of the state government to control the persistent violation of rights of life, liberty, equality, and dignity of the people of the state.” Modi was consequently denied a visa to enter the U.S., a restriction only lifted when he became prime minister in 2014.
Pompeo met with Modi on Wednesday.
Other difficult issues in the bilateral relationship include trade tariffs, U.S. visas for Indian nationals, and Indian arms sales from Russia, a longstanding ally.
Still, the partnership is an important one, the State Department stressed in a statement on Tuesday.
“As vibrant democracies rooted in shared values, with fast-growing economies, cultures of entrepreneurship, and leadership positions on the global stage, the United States and India are natural strategic partners,” it said.
“President Trump and Prime Minister Modi are firmly committed to accelerating the upward trajectory of this partnership.”
The statement also focused on economic ties, noting that the U.S. is India’s most important trading partner and number one overseas market, while India is the fastest growing major market for U.S. goods.
“Two-way bilateral goods and services trade with India totaled $142 billion in 2018, up 12.6 percent, or almost $16 billion, over the prior year,” it said. “The United States exported nearly 50 million barrels of crude to India in 2018, compared to less than 10 million barrels in 2017, and is on pace to export even greater volumes in 2019.”