Modi Faces Criticism Over Shrinking Religious Freedom

Dr. Katrina Lantos speaking at the Religious Freedom In India Briefing at the Capitol Hill

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Washington, DC – The silence of the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on rising violence against religious minorities and his tacit support to Hindutva extremist groups was the focus of an event on Capitol Hill, the seat of US lawmakers here.

“Religious Freedom in India: A Briefing on Capitol Hill”, was organized by the Indian American Muslim Council (IAMC). The speakers minced no words in raising vehement voices against the policies of the Modi-led, right-wing nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India.

Addressing a select audience of religious freedom activists, US State Department officials, civil society movers and shakers, Congressional staff members and the representatives of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, former Chair of the USCIRF said, “The failure of Prime Minister Modi to definitively condemn and to definitively distance himself from the extreme elements of his party has played a substantial and significant role in bringing about the situation that we see today.” USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan, federal commission created in 1998 through the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

Lantos Swett, daughter of Tom Lantos, the only Holocaust survivor to have ever been elected to US Congress and who founded the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, told the audience that India’s religious freedom violation had a “long-standing pattern of impunity and immunity.”

Mentioning the well-documented violence against minorities in different parts of India, she said, ”We see it in the lack of accountability for large-scale communal violence such as the horrors we know took place in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, and in the more individualized crimes committed against members of minorities faiths.”


Pawan Singh, a Sikh representing the Organization for Minorities of India, said the “fascist ideology” of the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) that “a small group of people are born superior to others… needs to be checked.” He said: “There is the curtain of democracy that they use, and then go on with their business of killing individuals of dissenting opinion, or because they do not like them.”

Singh said the “pseudo institutions” connected with the RSS, such as the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh, the Bajrang Dal and the Hindu American Foundation “were a threat to our freedom”.

Citing the World Hindu Congress organized in Chicago in September, Singh said the spread of Hindutva was “not just India’s problem any more… That is what gives me the shivers: these right-wing saffron terrorists [are] roaming in the free world, threatening our free institutions.”

He criticized the US government for giving a visa to RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who, he said, “should be tried for crimes against humanity”, and slammed Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamurthy for speaking at the Hindu Congress. “These people are wearing facades, while they carry big knives to kill us, to kill the dissenting opinion, to kill anybody and everybody who will speak for equality, for justice and freedom for all.”

Vishavjit Singh, a cartoonist and performance artist from New York, and a survivor of the mass violence against Sikhs in the aftermath of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984, said that violence targeting Sikhs “set the stage for the powers to be – doesn’t matter, BJP, Congress, anybody else – to know [that] you can kill with impunity, as many people as you like, in a democracy, and get away with it.”

Right-Wing Hindutva

Sunita Viswanath, Co-founder of Sadhana: Coalition of Progressive Hindus, a New York-based nonprofit, said the “chilling repression of open debate and political expression” in India and the violence against Muslims and Christians was alarming. “This repression and violence is taking place in the name of Hinduism, one that we do not recognize and cannot accept,” she said.

Viswanath noted that the police had named the Sanatan Sanstha, an extremist right-wing Hindutva organization, for the September 2017 killing of Gauri Lankesh, a Bangalore-based activist and journalist. “The Sanatan Sanstha was also involved in the killing of other activists,” she said. “Despite this, it has not yet been banned or classified as a terrorist organization.”

Discrimination Against Christians

Jeff King, President of International Christian Concern (ICC), quoted a survey saying 82% of Indian Christians were “very concerned” for their safety, 73% experienced discrimination “at least once” last year, 85% saw an “increase in aggression” by Hindu nationalists, and 84% said minorities were “less protected” under Modi.

“If the prime minister were to condemn acts of aggression and violence and push for prosecution, this [violence] would fairly quickly dry up,” King said. “But it’s not happening.” He asked Modi to “use the bully pulpit and condemn acts of aggression and violence.” King urged the Indian Government to allow a team of USCIRF to visit India on a fact-finding mission.

Rev. Sarah C. Anderson-Rajarigam, a Dalit Christian Lutheran church priest from Philadelphia, said the status of Dalits had worsened under the Modi government. “Modi’s government has deliberately and openly made violence against Dalits a non-issue by offering impunity.”

The perpetrators of violence against Dalits were not only free but “elevated to the status of a hero”, she said, adding: “The patter of violence continues unabated… But there is no shame experienced either by the perpetrators or by Prime Minister Modi and other ministers.”

Human Rights – Muslims

Matthew Bulger, Legislative Director of the American Humanist Association, a US organization promoting theism and agnosticism since 1941, said that compared to global religious freedom standards, “India is failing”. Several Indian laws and policies “restrict religious freedom rights” and have led to arrests and prosecution of individuals, “which is just unacceptable”.

He criticized Section 295A of the Indian Penal Code as a “relic” of British colonial law and “essentially a blasphemy and anti-religious incitement law “inconsistent with the pluralistic and democratic values India publicly accepts. Laws which restrict religious freedom can serve as a catalyst for vigilante violence, such as that seen in India recently regarding the lynchings by Hindu nationalists of people, most often Muslims, suspected of smuggling or killing cows.”

Bulger noted that although Pehlu Khan, a Muslim dairy farmer murdered by cow vigilantes in April 2017, named six suspects in his “death-bed statement” criminal charges against them were dismissed. “Sadly, this is not an isolated case, as over a dozen similar murders have happened in the last two years alone.”

India’s Conspicuous Absence from World Stage

Earlier this year, the US had confirmed to IAT that there was “no attendance from Government of India at the highest level” at the religious freedom events hosted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

India, which is under a cloud of religious divisions and rise of Hindu fanatics since the Narendra Modi led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came to power, was absent from the first-ever Ministerial to Advance Religious Freedom (July 24–26) at the US Department of State. The Ministerial convened leaders from around the world to discuss the challenges facing religious freedom, identify concrete means to address persecution of and discrimination against religious groups, and promote greater respect for religious liberty for all.

The International Religious Freedom Ministerial was the first-ever of its kind. It convened more than 80 delegations, including dozens of minister-level representatives from around the world who have a demonstrated record for advancing religious freedom, and a commitment to promoting Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Survivors or close relatives of those who suffered persecution due to their religious beliefs shared their stories. As Secretary Pompeo emphasized in his remarks, “When religious freedom flourishes, a country flourishes.”

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