Calls for targeted sanctions against individuals and entities for severe violations of religious freedom.
Suggesting religious freedom conditions in India continued their negative trajectory in 2020, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has designated India with 13 other nations as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC.
In its annual report to the State Department released in Washington Wednesday, the bipartisan body established by the US Congress, added India’s name to the list of top violators “for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations” along with Russia, Syria, and Vietnam.
It also recommended imposition of targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for severe violations of religious freedom in India by freezing their assets and/or barring their entry into the United States.
For 2021, based on religious freedom conditions in 2020, USCIRF asked the State Department to re-designate ten other countries as CPCs: Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
“In order to maintain the crucial momentum of international religious freedom as a US foreign policy priority, USCIRF strongly urges the Biden administration to take a unique action for each country designated as a CPC to provide accountability for religious freedom abuses,” USCIRF Vice Chair Tony Perkins stated.
“We urge the Biden administration and Congress to champion religious freedom and to center the safety and dignity of religious communities as foreign policy priorities,” USCIRF Vice Chair Anurima Bhargava added.
USCIRF also recommended to the US government that it advance human rights of all religious communities in India and promote religious freedom and dignity and interfaith dialogue through bilateral and multilateral forums and agreements, such as the ministerial of the Quadrilateral.
It asked the US government to condemn ongoing religious freedom violations and support religious organizations and human rights groups being targeted for their advocacy of religious freedom in India.
The US Congress, it said should continue to raise religious freedom concerns in the US-India bilateral relationship and highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters, and congressional delegations.
Among its key findings about India, USCIRF concluded that the government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promoted Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.
“In early 2020, the passage of the religiously discriminatory Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA)—a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan residing in India—led to nationwide protests against the CAA and spurred state and non-state violence, largely targeting Muslims,” it noted.
In February, the worst Hindu-Muslim mob violence in more than three decades erupted in Delhi. More than 50 people died and 200 others were injured, mostly Muslims, the report said.
“Mobs sympathetic to Hindu nationalism operated with impunity, using brutal force to single out Muslims, attack mosques, and destroy homes and businesses in majority-Muslim neighborhoods.”
The report cited the Delhi Minorities Commission’s finding that the violence and allegations of police brutality and complicity were “seemingly planned and directed to teach a lesson to a certain community which dared to protest against a discriminatory law.”
RELATED: What the 2020 USCIRF annual report says about India (April 28, 2020)
“Citing Covid-19 concerns, in March police cleared the Shaheen Bagh protest in Delhi—a peaceful sit-in that had lasted more than 100 days and was led by Muslim and non-Muslim women protesting the CAA,” the report noted.
In conjunction with a proposed National Register of Citizens (NRC) requiring all residents to provide documentation of citizenship, the CAA could subject Muslims, in particular, to “statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention,” the report suggested.
“The northeastern state of Assam provides a chilling example,” the report said noting, “in 2019, a statewide NRC was implemented in Assam that ultimately excluded 1.9 million res- idents (both Muslims and Hindus) from the citizenship register.”
“In some cases, families who had resided in India for generations were excluded; in other cases, a family member was included on the citizenship register while another was not.”
“The consequences of exclusion—as exemplified by a large detention camp being built in Assam—are potentially devastating and underscore concerns about the impact such laws may have if extended to other states or nationwide,” the report said.
USCIRF, it said, highlighted this weaponization of citizenship laws and the potential for atrocities in a March hearing.
Another set of policies raising significant concerns—and too often resulting in violence—are the efforts to prohibit interfaith marriages or relationships using the false narrative of “forced conversion,” the report said.
In late 2020, Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, passed an ordinance voiding any marriage conducted for the “sole purpose of unlawful conversion or vice-versa.”
Similar legislation was approved in Madhya Pradesh and is being pushed in several states, including Haryana, Assam, and Karnataka, the report noted.
“Hindu nationalist groups also launched inflammatory campaigns decrying interfaith relationships or engagements, including calling for boycotts and censorship of media depictions of interfaith relationships,” it said.
These efforts targeting and delegitimizing interfaith relationships have led to attacks and arrests of non-Hindus and to innuendo, suspicion, and violence toward any interfaith interaction, the report said.
READ: USCIRF says India’s CAA represents a downward turn in religious freedom (February 21, 2020)
In September, the Indian Parliament amended the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) to increase restrictions on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), further stifling civil society and forcing religious organizations and human rights organizations, including those advocating for religious freedom, to shut down.
Amnesty International India closed operations in October after authorities froze its bank account, the report noted.
At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, disinformation and hateful rhetoric—including from government officials—often targeted religious minorities, continuing familiar patterns, it suggested.
“Disinformation and intolerant content have emboldened intimidation, harassment, and mob violence in recent years, including numerous instances of violence mainly against Dalits, Muslims, Christians, Adivasis, and other religious communities,” the report said.
“Government action—including the acquittal of all individuals accused of demolishing the Babri Masjid mosque—as well as government inaction to address religious violence contributed to a culture of impunity for those promulgating hate and violence toward religious minorities.”
“At the same time, the government cracked down on those expressing dissent, including detaining and even accusing individuals of sedition for their actual or perceived criticism of the CAA and other governmental (in)actions.”
UN officials expressed concern over the government’s repression of criticism, the report said.