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India on US ‘watch list’ on religious freedom

By Arun Kumar, IANS,

Washington : Citing a “disturbing increase” in communal violence against religious minorities, particularly Christians in Orissa in 2008 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, a US body has placed India on its ‘watch list’ on religious freedom.

India earned the ‘watch list’ designation due to the “largely inadequate response” from the Indian government to protect the rights of religious minorities, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said in a statement.

“It is extremely disappointing that India, which has a multitude of religious communities, has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege,” said Leonard Leo, USCIRF chair.

The bipartisan federal government commission’s India chapter “was released this week to mark the first anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa”.

Other countries currently on the commission’s ‘watch list’ are Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

USCIRF said the murder of Swami Laxmananand Saraswati by Maoist rebels in Kandhamal in Orissa Aug 23 last year sparked a prolonged and destructive campaign targeting Christians, resulting in attacks against churches and individuals.

These attacks largely were carried out by individuals associated with “Hindu nationalist groups”, and resulted in at least 40 deaths and the destruction of hundreds of homes and dozens of churches, it said.

Tens of thousands were displaced and today many still remain in refugee camps, afraid to return home, it said.

“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence. More must be done to ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable,” Leo said.

Similarly, during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, India’s National Human Rights Commission found that the government not only failed to prevent the attacks against religious minorities, but that state and local officials aided and participated in the violence.

In both Orissa and Gujarat, court convictions have been infrequent, perpetrators rarely brought to justice and thousands of people remain displaced, USCIRF alleged.

The India chapter of the USCIRF said the deficiencies in investigating and prosecuting cases have resulted in a culture of impunity that gives members of vulnerable minority communities few assurances of their safety, particularly in areas with a history of communal violence, and little hope of perpetrator accountability.

The report asked the Obama administration to urge the Indian government to take new measures to promote communal harmony, protect religious minorities, and prevent communal violence.

(Arun Kumar can be contacted at [email protected])