Obama Administration Seeks Further Clarification on USCIRF Religious Freedom Report

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Washington, DC – The United States is seeking further clarifications from the Government of India after the annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which was released on Thursday, came down heavily on the RSS and VHP for the Ghar Wapsi campaign. The report asked the US government to weigh in on New Delhi to “press states that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally recognized human rights standards.”

Asked to comment on the report, a State Department Spokesperson told Indian American Times, “We recently discussed this issue in meetings with senior Indian officials in New Delhi and are seeking further clarification.” The spokesperson further added, “We promote civil society throughout the world. A vibrant civil society strengthens democratic culture and gives voice for all to express their views in both the public and private sectors.”

The USCIRF, a federal government panel that makes policy recommendations to the US President and the Congress, said in its latest report that religious minorities in India were exposed to “derogatory” comments by leaders of the ruling BJP as well as “violent attacks and forced conversions by the RSS and VHP” since the Modi government took over last year.

But as the report welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s February 17 statement assuring protection to the minorities as a “positive development”, it added a accusing finger sting to the compliment.

The panel said his assurance was notable “given the long-standing allegations that, as chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, Modi was complicit in anti-Muslim riots in that state”. Recalling how Modi’s tourist visa was revoked by the US for “severe violations of religious freedom”, the USCIRF underlined that the Indian PM “remains the only person known to have been denied a visa based on this provision”.

The report slammed the “ghar wapsi” campaign and accused “Hindu nationalist groups” of offering monetary inducements to Muslims and Christians for converting to Hinduism but also to Hindus who carried out such “forced” conversions.

The findings in the USCIRF annual report- 2015, largely based on the accounts of minority leaders and NGOs based in India, have led it to place India on its Tier 2 list of countries for the seventh year in a row.

“In December 2014, Hindu nationalist groups announced plans to forcibly reconvert at least 4,000 Christian families and 1,000 Muslim families to Hinduism in UP on Christmas Day… the Hindu groups sought to raise money… noting that it cost nearly Rs 2 lakh (nearly $3,200) per Christian and Rs 5 lakh ($8,000) per Muslim,” the report said.

The report also referred to the alleged mass ceremony held in Agra in December last year to forcibly reconvert Muslims to Hinduism.While noting that nearly half-a-dozen states in India had laws against forced conversions, the US panel alleged these were “one-sided, only concerned about conversions away from Hinduism but not towards Hinduism”.

Also faulting India on protection of Muslims, the USCIRF report said the community had to face significant hate campaigns by Hindu nationalist groups and local and state politicians, “that includes widespread media propaganda accusing Muslims of being terrorists, spying for Pakistan, forcibly kidnapping, converting and marrying Hindu women, and disrespecting Hinduism by slaughtering cows”. The panel noted that the minority community also complained about some Indian states violating their religious freedom by banning cow slaughter, “which is required for Eid-al-Adha”. This, however, may not be true as the animal traditionally sacrificed for Eid-al-Adha in India is the goat.

Regarding the religious freedom of Sikhs, the USCIRF report claimed that Sikhs were being denied benefit of reservation available to other religious minorities and Scheduled Castes. It also alleged that Sikhs were harassed and pressured to reject religious practices such as unshorn hair and carrying of kirpan. Indian commentators, however, refute these allegations saying the Scheduled Castes among Sikhs are eligible for reservation benefit and free to follow their religious preferences.

The panel noted that prosecution and trial of communal cases was slow in India. “The Indian courts are still adjudicating cases stemming from large-scale Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 and in Gujarat in 2002,” it said.

India, however was quick to dump the report and its significance. The Indian foreign ministry spokesperson said: “Our attention has been drawn to a report of the USCIRF which has passed judgement on religious freedom in India. It appears to be based on limited understanding of India, its constitution and its society. We take no cognizance of this report.”

“It would not be proper on the part of those who are ignorant of India’s culture, society, customs and constitution to give a certificate about the country’s social harmony and religious freedom,” Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi said. “Our Constitution, culture and government are committed to ensuring the security and freedom of minorities in India. Please do not judge our religious freedom through the issue of NGO licenses,” he said.

India recently cancelled the licenses to operate for nearly 9000 NGOs including Green Peace citing discrepancies in reporting foreign aid. Ford Foundation, one of the major US organizations, has been put on an alert so its fundings need governmental clearance.

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