US report identifies discrimination against minorities in India

WASHINGTON: In India, hate crimes against religious minorities, their social boycotts and forced conversions have escalated dramatically since 2014, says a US government report.

The report — “Constitutional and Legal Challenges Faced by Religious Minorities in India” — examines the country’s constitution and national and state laws that discriminate against religious minorities and Dalits.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which sponsored the study released on Wednesday, is a US federal government agency and its reports are issued by the US State Department as an official document.

The USCIRF urges the US government to put this issue at the heart of trade and diplomatic interactions with India.

“India is a religiously diverse and democratic society with a constitution that provides legal equality for its citizens irrespective of their religion and prohibits religion-based discrimination,” said USCIRF Chair Thomas J. Reese.

“However, the reality is far different. In fact, India’s pluralistic tradition faces serious challenges … (and) during the past few years, religious tolerance has deteriorated and religious freedom violations have increased in some areas of India.”

To reverse this negative trajectory, Dr Reese urged the Indian and state governments to align their laws with both the country’s constitutional commitments and international human rights standards.

The study notes that of India’s 1.2 billion people nearly 80 per cent are Hindus, with an estimated 172.2 million Muslims, 27.8 million Christians, 20.8 million Sikhs, and 4.5 million Jains. The Muslim population makes India the third largest Muslim country in the world, after Indonesia and Pakistan.

The study notes that of the 29 states in India, seven — Gujarat, Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, and Chhattisgarh — have adopted anti-conversion laws that encourage inequitable practices against minorities.

The report claims that “both by their design and implementation”, anti-conversion laws “infringe upon the individual’s right to convert, favour Hinduism over minority religions, and represent a significant challenge to Indian secularism”.

State governments have used these laws to prevent Christian missions from providing humanitarian and development aid to certain communities, arguing that such assistance encourages “improper and unethical conversions”.

The report claims that since the inception of India in 1947, various efforts were made by the central government to pass nationwide legislation to control religious conversions in India.

The Special Marriage Act of 1954 includes provisions that deny converts to non-Hindu religions (e.g., Judaism, Islam, and Christianity) of certain rights and privileges. For instance, if either parent of a Hindu child converts to Christianity or Islam, that parent loses the right to guardianship over the child.

The Hindu Minority and Guardianship Act of 1956 disqualifies converts from Hinduism to be the guardians of their own children. Similarly, under the law, a Hindu wife who converts to Christianity or Islam loses her right to marital support from her husband. Conversion from Hinduism can even be a basis for divorce.

But the Freedom of Religion Acts, which are used to justify these practices, are not enforced when the religious minorities are converted to Hinduism, which instead is interpreted as Ghar Wapsi or homecoming.

This encourages reconversion by “use of force, fraud, or allurement is not punishable under the provisions of these acts”, the report alleged.

The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), passed in 1976 and amended in 2010, is used consistently against civil society organisations, charities, and other nongovernmental organisations (NGOs). Under this legislation, missionaries and foreign religious organisations must comply with the FCRA, which limits overseas assistance to certain NGOs, including ones with religious affiliation.

Recently, the Indian government has been accused of targeting human rights activist Teesta Setalvad and her husband, Javed Anand, for allegedly violating the FCRA and receiving funds unlawfully. Mrs Setalvad is renowned for her supportive endeavours for victims of the 2002 anti-Muslim Gujarat riots.

The report also examines India’s cow protection laws, which, it says, are often mixed with anti-Muslim sentiment.

One of the most recent and clear examples of Muslim persecution through the politics of cow protection is the killing of Mohammad Akhlaq by Hindu mobs in September 2015.

Mr Akhlaq, 50, was dragged from his home in the village of Bisara — 72 kilometres from Delhi — and beaten to death by an angry Hindu mob due to rumours that his family had been eating beef and storing the meat in their home.

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