India Celebrates Independence Day While Curtailing Religious Freedom

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcomed by Hindu priests while visiting Maa Kamakhya Temple

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Washington, DC – On August 15, India celebrates its 70th Independence Day, the day that marked the end of British rule in India and the birth of a new nation. As the Fundamental Rights and Directive Principles of the Constitution of India, that came into force in January 1950 enumerate, the idea was to deliver maximum freedom to the people.

But the ground reality has dramatically changed since Narendra Modi of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) took over the reins of the federal government.

In its latest annual Congress mandated report, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) stated, “Since the BJP assumed power, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by BJP politicians and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by affiliated Hindu nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).”

Mentioning the last year visit of US President Barack Obama to India, US Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom David Saperstein told journalists at a news conference, “He (President Obama) gave a major public speech in which he was very clear about the need for religious freedom in India that could be exercised without people being subject to violence, urging the government to ensure that all people were able to safely live out their religious lives.”

“We have been clear in our engagement with India about our concerns about those times that the government has been slow to react when violence has taken place. And some of those controversies over the cows are an example of that,” added the ambassador.

In its introduction, the report hinted at the Indian scenario listing “conversion from the majority religion, or restricting religious liberty under the guise of combatting violent extremism,” as focal points.

Covering the period from February 1, 2015 to February 29, 2016, the USCIRF, a government body that monitors international religious freedom, gave detailed incidents of religious intolerance against minorities in a Hindu majority country. The damning report said, “In 2015, religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India. Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups. Members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) tacitly supported these groups and used religiously-divisive language to further inflame tensions.”

Warning that India was on a negative trajectory in terms of religious freedom, the USCIRF noted that after watching for one more year, it might have to decide if India should be recommended to the US State Department for designation as a “country of particular concern,” under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom.

At the start, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken while releasing the report told journalists, “Now in the 21st century is that the true wealth of a nation can be found in the human resources of a country and their ability to freely build, invent, excel, and express themselves,” adding, “And religious freedom is a core component of maximizing that potential for people to express themselves freely to maximize their own potential.”

When a USCIRF delegation tried to visit India in March, it was denied a visa.

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