Religious freedom in India was on a negative trajectory in 2015 as tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased. This is what the US Commission for International Religious Freedom says in its annual report out this week.
Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups, the USCIRF reported, pressing the Indian government to discipline officials and religious leaders inciting hatred.
The commission is also clear as to where responsibility for this state of affairs lies, noting that the ruling BJP has tacitly supported Hindu extremists and used religiously divisive language to inflame sectarian tensions: While Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, and other communities recognize that religious freedom issues in India predate the current government, (their) targeting has increased under the BJP government.
Muslims, it says, have particularly been facing increased harassment, violence, and targeted campaigns: Muslims are often accused of being terrorists; spying for Pakistan; forcibly kidnapping, converting, and marrying Hindu women and disrespecting Hinduism by slaughtering cows.
There were at least 365 major attacks on Christians and their institutions during 2015, compared to 120 in 2014. According to the USCIRF, these issues, combined with longstanding police bias and judicial inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity where religious minority communities feel increasingly insecure, with no recourse when religiously-motivated crimes occur.
The US body, which has kept India in the Tier-2 Countries on religious freedom since 2009, intends to monitor the situation closely in the year ahead to see if India should be designated a country of particular concern. This is significant considering it was on the basis of the USCIRF recommendation following the 2002 Gujarat pogrom that the US government had imposed visa curbs on the then Gujarat chief minister, which were lifted only ahead of the 2014 elections.
Understandably, the scathing USCIRF observations havent gone down too well in Delhi. The External Affairs Ministry has rejected the report saying it lacks proper understanding of India. New Delhi has questioned the very right and locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to comment on the Indian citizens rights.
Using the same argument of jurisdiction, the Modi government had denied visas to members of the US commission earlier this year. Indeed, India stopped entertaining the US body since 2009 claiming religious freedom is enshrined in the Indian constitution and that a foreign third party has no business probing or commenting on it. Nonetheless, the US Commission has gone ahead and probed India, jurisdiction or no jurisdiction.
Of course, no one likes any outside interference in their affairs. Its as true of sovereign states as it is of individuals. However, just as perpetually squabbling couples attract the unwanted attention of neighbours, countries that cannot set their houses in order are bound to invite the scrutiny and more of the world.
In todays globalised times, no nation can pretend to be an island. And when it comes to upholding universally recognised rights, rule of law and ensuring justice, equality and dignity for all citizens, no nation can claim to be above board and beyond scrutiny. Indeed, it is the duty and responsibility of the world community to raise its voice against persecution and organised violence wherever it occurs, especially against minorities and vulnerable communities.
Of course, the US is hardly a paragon of virtue. Given its own stellar record, it is in no position to lecture anyone on rights or anything else. The US report on religious freedom is also far from perfect. It has often been accused of targeting Americas adversaries and condoning the excesses of its allies. Nonetheless, prepared by independent experts and researchers, it is considered balanced and is taken seriously around the world, even by those who pretend otherwise.
India is surely entitled to its view that it does not take cognizance of the US report or that no foreign entity has the right to comment on a country whose constitution promises religious freedom to all. That doesnt change the facts on the ground though.
Over the past couple of years, there has been a sharp and visible surge in intolerance and violence against religious minorities since the BJP government took charge in Delhi. And this is supported by the report issued by its own home ministry, which has been quoted by the US commission as well.
The coldblooded killing of Dadris Mohammed Akhlaq over beef-eating rumours last year shocked India and the world. There have been many such incidents of lynching and attacks on Muslims since, the most recent one being the torture and hanging of two cattle-herders from Jharkhand. Christians and Dalits have also been increasingly targeted by Hindu extremists across the country. It is this climate of rising intolerance and all-pervasive hate coupled with a culture of impunity that forced hundreds of celebrated writers, intellectuals and academics to return their awards last year.
US President Barack Obama, the chief guest at the Republic Day celebrations last year, mustered the courage to raise the issue with his hosts despite his much rejoiced bromance with Modi, eloquently arguing, No society is immune from the darkest impulses of men. India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith. The peace we seek in the world begins in human hearts; it finds its glorious expression when we look beyond any differences in religion or tribe and rejoice in the beauty of every soul. Its when all Indians go to the movies and applaud actors like Shah Rukh Khan or celebrate athletes like Milkha Singh and Mary Kom.
Obama followed it up with a warning that the acts of intolerance in India would have shocked Gandhi, the person who helped to liberate that nation.
Prime Minister Modi has repeatedly asserted that his government remains committed to the agenda of sab ka saath, sab ka vikas (Inclusion and Progress of All). During a rare appearance in a Catholic Church event, he promised to ensure there is complete freedom of faith and that everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence. He echoed the message of peace during the recent Sufi Conference in New Delhi saying like a Sufis heart, India has place for every faith and everyone. He also lauded the diversity of Islamic civilization that stands on the solid bedrock of a great religion.
This was certainly a much-needed note of reconciliation from Modi, given his political and ideological baggage. But mere words and fine speeches are not enough. They have to be backed by credible, concrete steps.
His outreach to Muslims and other minorities and endless chanting of the sab ka saath mantra would remain hollow if the government doesnt rein in the purveyors of hate within the BJP and its numerous Hindutva allies who have an agenda of their own. Love and hate cannot go together.
Also, if the government is indeed sincere in its approach, why are its numerous agencies still targeting innocent Muslim youth? This practice of rounding up innocents and putting them away as terrorists for years has wrecked hundreds of lives. A case in point is the recent acquittal of nine Muslims in the Malegaon blasts case after spending 10 years in prison. This continuing victimisation of a voiceless minority is a blot on the countrys image. India cannot get rid of it by shooting the messenger.
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