Rights organizations worldwide urge US Commission on religious freedom to designate India as a “Country of Particular Concern”

A United States panel noted a “sharp downward turn” in religious freedom in India in 2019, flagging it as a “country of particular concern” for the first time since 2004. | Photo Courtesy: Sabrang India

In a letter sent on April 12 to USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin and the eight other Commissioners, the signees said “the behavior” of India’s federal and state governments in enabling religious freedom violations had “spectacularly worsened” since last year, when USCIRF had first recommended that India be designated as CPC.

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Dozens of international civil rights organizations and hundreds of individuals have urged the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) to recommend to the US Department of State that it designate India as a “Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) for the “rapidly escalating persecution of religious minorities and for the Indian government’s complicity in the massive violations of religious freedom.”

In a letter sent on April 12 to USCIRF Chair Gayle Manchin and the eight other Commissioners, the signees said “the behavior” of India’s federal and state governments in enabling religious freedom violations had “spectacularly worsened” since last year, when USCIRF had first recommended that India be designated as CPC.

“Indeed the reasons for designating India as a CPC are more compelling now by an order of magnitude than ever before, and the situation is set to get worse without significant international pressure,” the letter said. The letter was sent days ahead of the USCIRF’s upcoming 2021 Annual Report which is scheduled to be released on April 21.

Among others, the letter is signed by Hindus for Human Rights, International Christian Concern, Indian American Muslim Council, Church of Scientology National Affairs Office, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America, Dalit Solidarity Forum, American Muslim Institution, American Sikh Council, Center for Pluralism, Global Christian Ministers Federation, India Civil Watch International, International Organization to Preserve Human Rights, International Society for Peace and Justice, Justice For All, Just Law International Parity, Plateau State Youth Council, and Progressive India Collective Voices for Freedom.

The USCIRF had last year recommended India’s designation as CPC “for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).” Former President Donald Trump’s administration had, however, declined to designate India as CPC, claiming that India’s worsening religious freedom was due to non-state actors and not by the government.

“We hope that this letter shows that state actors are playing a central role in India’s declining religious freedom, and that the 2021 Annual Report will make this clear,” the letter said.

Citing key features of the deterioration in religious persecution in 2020, the letter mentioned the anti-Muslim violence in Delhi in February 2020 that killed over 50 people. “In its aftermath, the Delhi Police failed to arrest the Hindu perpetrators who led the violence and instead arrested hundreds of Muslims, accusing them of the anti-Muslim violence,” the letter said.

It said that investigations by Amnesty India and the Polis Project confirmed that the “Delhi Police were themselves complicit and an active participant in that violence.” Yet, the Indian Government had “refused to open any investigation” into their role. Delhi Police had also failed to arrest leaders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including two federal legislators, who had incited the violence. “When a Delhi judge ordered that he (Mishra) be charged, the judge was transferred overnight.”

The letter said India’s Christians suffered “225 incidents of religiously motivated violence” in the first ten months of 2020, many at the hands of vigilante mobs. “At least eight incidents were recorded in two weeks after the nationwide lockdown was lifted.” These included physical assaults, damage to Christian properties, and threats issued by radical Hindu nationalists. According to the Evangelical Fellowship of India, anti-Christian violence rose from 147 in 2014, when Mr. Modi became prime minister, to 328 in 2019.

The letter also mentioned 83-year-old Fr. Stan Swamy, a prominent Indian Jesuit priest who ails from Parkinson’s disease and has been imprisoned on the basis of tampered evidence. He has also been denied bail.

Elaborating further on the continued persecution of minorities, the letter highlighted the increasing criminalization of marriage between Muslim men and Hindu women, with Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh joining the list of states that had passed the so-called “love jihad” laws. It said “nearly one in four Indians” now lived under such laws. Karnataka and Assam were also legislating similar laws, while Gujarat and Haryana had announced their intention to draft similar legislation. The BJP had also added love jihad laws to its campaign slogans in Kerala and West Bengal, the letter said.

“After the Uttar Pradesh government passed a love jihad law, the state police arrested 10 Muslims in just one week and accused them of forcing their adult Hindu wives to convert to Islam,” the letter said.

The letter said 2020 started with the Modi government “intensifying its campaign of brutal repression against tens of thousands of Muslims and people of all faiths” protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA).

“We have seen similar police brutality during the ongoing farmers protests, which are being led by members of the Sikh community. Additionally, there has been a rise in anti-Sikh rhetoric, including threats of genocidal violence against the Sikh community, with Hindu nationalists calling for a need to “repeat 1984” and protesters being branded as ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-nationals’,” the letter said.

India also allowed the scapegoating of Muslims, including foreigners, accusing them of spreading coronavirus. Police across India arrested members of the Tablighi Jamaat on the false charges that they had violated government prohibition on large gatherings and concealed that some of them were infected with the SARS-CoV-2. “That this was motivated by Islamophobia became apparent as the courts rejected the prosecution’s case and acquitted the Muslim men citing a lack of evidence,” the letter said.

The letter also noted that India had built “numerous detention centers” to hold hundreds of thousands, mostly Muslims, who are being targeted under CAA-NRC “with the sole intention of turning them into foreigners in their own country. Already, the government has announced it would start the NRC soon as Covid-19 abates.”

“There can be no doubt that instead of ending the persecution of India’s religious minorities, Mr. Modi’s administration has doubled down on its resolve to move India closer to becoming a Hindu nation, as desired by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the nearly-a-century-old Hindu supremacist organization to which he belongs,” it said.

“We hope that USCIRF will continue to powerfully speak the truth on India and recommend this year, too, that the US Government designate India as a CPC,” it added.