National and International Issues

The Secular Mask Unveiled: USCIRF Listed India as ‘Country of Particular Concern’

Twenty years ago, the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998 was enacted to advance religious freedom as a higher priority in U.S. foreign policy. IRFA provides that U.S. policy includes condemning violations of religious freedom and assisting other governments in the promotion of this right. It created a range of government tools to implement this policy. The Act established an office to monitor religious persecution abroad and place sanctions on any violator country. Along with naming of violators, IRFA requires that the President, who has again delegated this power to the Secretary of State, take targeted responses to violations of religious freedom.


The USCIRF report 2019 accused Prime Minister Modi’s government of allowing violence against “minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity,” and that it also “engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.” The report further stated, “Throughout 2019, government action — including the CAA, continued enforcement of cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, and the November Supreme Court ruling on the Babri Masjid site — created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities.”



Hindu nationalism upholds one religion, one culture and one nation. Being small statistically, the upper castes needed mass support or lower-caste support to come to power in the "one man, one vote" system. In order to gain political supremacy, they played the religious card to mobilize the masses. On the one hand, they tried to homogenize the differences within Hinduism, and on the other, they declared war against Muslims and Christians. The latter were defined as the "other," enemy, outsiders, unpatriotic and were to be eliminated in order to realize the golden age of Hinduism in India. Besides the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), multiple other organizations came into being, such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal (BD), the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM) and others, under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its political organ. They all proclaimed that Hinduism was in danger.


The Congress established the Department of State’s Office of International Religious Freedom (IRF) under the IRFA. It is headed by an Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom. The President and Congressional leaders of both political parties appoint the members of U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
The office of IRF in the State Department and the USCIRF are separate entities and the latter’s recommendation are non-binding on the State Department. However, the U.S. Secretary of State, who makes the final recommendation on whether to designate a country as a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC)”, takes into account the recommendation made by the USCIRF. The Commission is required to issue its own annual report setting forth its independent recommendations for U.S. policy, issued no later than May 1 of each year. It focuses on select countries, generally those with the worst religious freedom conditions, and provides USCIRF’s assessment of the U.S. government’s international religious freedom policy.
According to USCIRF annual reports, in many other countries, it found religious freedom declining and an increased securitization and politicization of religion, and India is one of them. It said, in India, “It is increasingly difficult to separate religion and politics, a tactic that is sometimes intentional by those who seek to discriminate against and restrict the rights of certain religious communities.”


In India, the BJP government’s second term is marked by discord and demonstration, from the decision to abrogate Jammu & Kashmir’s special status and pushing through the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) to allegations of inaction during the Delhi riots, the government has repeatedly been accused of treating India’s Muslims with brutality and disdain.


Hindu nationalism upholds one religion, one culture and one nation. Being small statistically, the upper castes needed mass support or lower-caste support to come to power in the "one man, one vote" system. In order to gain political supremacy, they played the religious card to mobilize the masses. On the one hand, they tried to homogenize the differences within Hinduism, and on the other, they declared war against Muslims and Christians. The latter were defined as the "other," enemy, outsiders, unpatriotic and were to be eliminated in order to realize the golden age of Hinduism in India. Besides the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), multiple other organizations came into being, such as the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), the Bajrang Dal (BD), the Hindu Jagran Manch (HJM) and others, under the umbrella of the Sangh Parivar with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its political organ. They all proclaimed that Hinduism was in danger.
In 1997, the Hindu nationalists turned against Christians in India, particularly in Gujarat State, where nationalists were in power. There were only 50 cases of registered atrocities against Christians during the first 48 years of independence. But between 1997 and 1998 there were 500 cases, a geometrical rise in two years. Christian missionaries were accused of converting indigenous people and the lower castes by force or fraud, nevertheless, there were no such cases to substantiate the allegation. Hindu nationalists desecrated and burnt churches, disrupted their holy festivals, tore and trampled upon Bibles, and killed and raped priests and nuns.
In India, the BJP government’s second term is marked by discord and demonstration, from the decision to abrogate Jammu & Kashmir’s special status and pushing through the controversial Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) to allegations of inaction during the Delhi riots, the government has repeatedly been accused of treating India’s Muslims with brutality and disdain.


Internationally, India’s NRC process has also resulted in condemnation and apprehension. The Gulf countries strongly condemned the hate against Muslims in India. A cabinet note from Kuwait voiced concerns about the targeting of Indian Muslims. The note from Kuwait’s Council of Ministers on March 2, 2020 called on the world community and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to take steps to stop such attacks.


This year, USCIRF has downgraded India, the strategic partner of the U.S., to the lowest ranking — CPC, in its 2020 country report. The USCIRF latest report has ranked India on the lowest grade of CPC, citing the CAA passed by the Indian Parliament on December 11, 2019 and proposed National Register for Citizens (NRC), both of which were announced by the Indian government. 
The USCIRF report 2019 accused Prime Minister Modi’s government of allowing violence against “minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity,” and that it also “engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.” The report further stated, “Throughout 2019, government action — including the CAA, continued enforcement of cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, and the November Supreme Court ruling on the Babri Masjid site — created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities.”
Many quarters argue that India that has always claimed to be the oldest democracy and a secular state, but on the contrary the CAA violates its secular identity and many quarters believe that it will endanger their linguistic and cultural identity. The CAA seeks to amend the definition of illegal immigrant for Hindu, Sikh, Parsi, Buddhist and Christian immigrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh, who entered India before 2014 following the religious persecution and who have lived in India without documentation. They will be granted fast track Indian citizenship in six years, however, only Muslim immigrants will be left out. It seeks to legally establish Muslims as second-class citizens of India by providing preferential treatment to other groups. This violates the Indian constitution’s Article 14, the fundamental right to equality to all persons. This basic structure of the constitution cannot be reformed by any parliament.
With the rise of the nationalist BJP in recent years, citizenship has become one of the central issues for political mobilization. While the Assam NRC is rooted in local issues, including a history of unrest and insurgency, the BJP call for an NRC across the country reflects its efforts to revive its base around redefining citizenship.
The rhetoric of the BJP on identifying aliens in the country pivots on its forecasting of a strong state that can uphold India’s security and remove “dangerous illegal immigrants”. Both BJP President and Home Minister Amit Shah termed migrants as infiltrators and ‘termites’. It is important to mention here that the most affected due to the NRC domestically is India’s Muslim population. 


With the rise of the nationalist BJP in recent years, citizenship has become one of the central issues for political mobilization. While the Assam NRC is rooted in local issues, including a history of unrest and insurgency, the BJP call for an NRC across the country reflects its efforts to revive its base around redefining citizenship.


Internationally, India’s NRC process has also resulted in condemnation and apprehension. The Gulf countries strongly condemned the hate against Muslims in India. A cabinet note from Kuwait voiced concerns about the targeting of Indian Muslims. The note from Kuwait’s Council of Ministers on March 2, 2020 called on the world community and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to take steps to stop such attacks.
The fifty-seven members OIC also condemned the mounting Islamophobia in India and called on the Indian government to take measures to protect Muslim minorities who are being negatively profiled and are facing discrimination and violence.
The USCIRF indicated that the NRC process was similar to a “religious test” that is meant to push out Muslims. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, called on the government to refrain from denying nationality of individuals since it would be “an enormous blow to global efforts at eradicating statelessness”.
Analysts also argue that this policy of BJP is a way to gain electoral dividends, with the NRC’s polarizing potential, they seek to establish the majority vote in its favor, while with the citizenship bill, it has sought to pledge to non-Muslims that they will not be driven out of the country.
Previously, the USCIRF identified the “overall deterioration of religious condition in 2018” in India in its 2019 report. Hence India was categorized as a “Tier 2 Country” which was the first time since 2004 that India was placed in this category and it continued to remain in “Tier 2 Country”, a list it has been unable to get off of since 2009. “Tier 2 Countries” are those in which “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government during 2018 are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of the systematic, ongoing, and egregious” CPC standard.
The 2004 report had criticized India over the government’s inadequate response to “violence against religious minorities in Gujarat and elsewhere”. In 2005, Mr. Modi, as the then Chief Minister of Gujarat was censured by the USCIRF, sanctions were recommended against him for the 2002 riots, and the U.S. government had subsequently cancelled his visa. The Commission held that the then Gujarat government led by Modi “has been widely accused of being reluctant to bring the perpetrators of the killings of Muslims to justice”. The report also accused the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of not condemning “the massacre of Muslims unequivocally until more than one year after the violence occurred”. 
This time again, the Commission recommended that the U.S. government take strict action against India. It called on the administration to “impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations”. 
The report says conditions for religious minorities in India have deteriorated over the last decade. Furthermore, it added that a multi-layered campaign by Hindu nationalist groups like the RSS, Sangh Parivar, and VHP to isolate non-Hindus and lower-caste Hindus is a significant contributor to the rise of religious violence and persecution. It calls out the role of Hindutva, India’s anti-conversion laws, cow-protection lynch mobs, concerns that millions from Assam will be incorrectly left out of the NRC, and a lack of transparency on refusing international NGOs registration and their political targeting.
Since the Hindu nationalist party, BJP’s coming into power, lynching of minorities has increased. Hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered and injured in religiously motivated attacks. Most of the victims are Muslims, the country's largest religious minority community. They comprise about fifteen percent of India's 1.3 billion people. Other targets comprise lower-caste Hindus and Christians.
The USCIRF condemned the incidents of lynching of religious minorities and termed it as the Indian government's "allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities". The Commission called on the Indian government to "take concrete actions that will prevent this kind of violence and intimidation."
The USCIRF 2020 report specifically mentions Home Minister Amit Shah for not taking sufficient action to stop cases of mob lynching in the country, and for referring to migrants as “termites”. In December 2019, the USCIRF had also asked the U.S. government to consider sanctions against Mr. Shah and “other principal leadership” over the decision to pass the CAA.
It is now to be seen whether the U.S. government follows the recommendations of the Commission or not, but the report will definitely play a crucial role in building on advocacy and momentum against state violence and practices in India, the U.S.’ closest ally. Moreover, the increasing violence, Indian government atrocities in Kashmir, abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, and the introduction of discriminatory legislation like the NRC and CAA will play a major role in challenging the Indian government’s narrative that India is the world’s largest secular democracy. 


The writer is an Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations at University of Peshawar, Pakistan. 
E-mail: [email protected]


https://www.npr.org/2019/08/21/751541321/this-is-it-im-going-to-die-indias-minorities-are-targeted-in-lynchings
https://www.uscirf.gov/reports-briefs/annual-report
https://www.huffingtonpost.in/entry/us-religious-freedom-report-india_in_5ea965c7c5b6106b8ed03574
https://www.americamagazine.org/politics-society/2000/02/19/religion-and-politics-india
https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/30/world/asia/Kashmir-lockdown-photos.html

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