‘Laws passed without effective consultation creates a sense of disempowerment; at times, of alienation.’
Listing several reported attacks on minorities in India, US has asked New Delhi to engage with them on controversial laws like the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA).
The Congressionally mandated 2020 International Religious Freedom Report released by Secretary of State Antony Blinken Wednesday did did not grade India or deliver an overall verdict on the state of religious freedom in the country.
“Our promise to the world is that the Biden-Harris administration will protect and defend religious freedom around the world. We will maintain America’s longstanding leadership on this issue,” Blinken said.
He acknowledged that “anti-Muslim hatred is still widespread in many countries, and this, too, is a serious problem for the US”.
On India, the report simply listed several incidents reported by the media and said US “officials had engaged with the majority and opposition parties, civil society representatives, religious freedom activists, and leaders of various faith communities.”
“US government officials discussed the importance of religious freedom and pluralism, the value of interfaith dialogue, the Muslim community’s concerns about the CAA, and difficulties faced by faith-based and human rights-focused NGOs following the FCRA amendments and allegations that Muslims spread the Covid virus.”
However, at a media briefing on the report Daniel Nadel, senior official of the Office of International Religious Freedom said the US encourages the Government of India to engage with minority communities in direct discourse.
“We do regularly engage with Indian Government officials at all levels, encouraging them to uphold human rights obligations and commitments, including the protection of minorities, in keeping with India’s long tradition of democratic values and its history of tolerance,” he said in response to a question about CAA and FCRA.
“We also meet continuously with civil society organizations, local religious communities to hear their views and understand challenges and opportunities that they see.”
“When it comes to our overall encouragement to the Government of India, it is to engage these communities, these outside actors in direct discourse,” Nadel said when asked about what it expected India to do about the two controversial laws.”
“Because when laws are passed, when initiatives are undertaken that are done without effective consultation with these communities, it creates a sense of disempowerment; at times, of alienation,” he said.
“And the best way to address that is to engage in that direct dialogue between government and civil society, including religious communities.”
READ: USCIRF says India’s CAA represents a downward turn in religious freedom (February 21, 2020)
“So with respect to India, I think there’s genuine opportunities there for the government to address some of the concerns they hear from Indian civil society through greater dialogue and engagement,” Nadel said.
The official said US also frequently raises the issues of respect for the rights of Hindu, Christian, Baha’i, Sikh and other religious minorities with governments in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan.
“Sometimes we’re encouraging governments to do the same thing that I mentioned for India: engage in direct discourse with these communities, make sure you understand their needs, what opportunities exist to bring them into conversations, and empower them as co-equal citizens.”
The report itself mentioned that throughout the year, the US Ambassador to India “met with religious communities, including representatives of the Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh faiths to discuss their perspectives and concerns.”
“In May, the Ambassador organized a virtual interfaith dialogue during Ramadan in which he emphasized the US government’s commitment to religious freedom,” it said.
In January, a senior official from the Department of State Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs held a roundtable with civil society members in New Delhi to discuss interfaith harmony and promoting tolerance.
In January, the US Consul General in Hyderabad hosted an interfaith event to discuss the importance of mutual respect and combating religious intolerance, the report said.
Among the incidents listed were the anti CAA protests in February 2020 which “became violent in New Delhi after counterprotestors attacked demonstrators. According to reports, religiously motivated attacks resulted in the deaths of 53 persons, most of whom were Muslim, and two security officials.”
The report cited the Human Rights Watch as saying “Witnesses accounts and video evidence showed police complicity in the violence.”
“Muslim academics, human rights activists, former police officers, and journalists alleged anti-Muslim bias in the investigation of the riots by New Delhi police,” the report said.
“The investigations were still ongoing at year’s end, with the New Delhi police stating it arrested almost equal numbers of Hindus and Muslims.”
The government and media initially attributed some of the spread of Covid-19 in India to a conference held in New Delhi in March by the Islamic Tablighi Jamaat organization after media reported that six of the conference’s attendees tested positive for the virus.
The Ministry of Home Affairs initially claimed a majority of the country’s early Covid-19 cases were linked to that event, the report said.
Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) said conference attendees spread Covid-19 “like terrorism,” which politicians and some media outlets described as “Corona Jihad,” it said.
Courts across the country, however, dismissed numerous charges filed against Tablighi Jamaat members, the report noted.
The report cited NGOs as saying that “the government sometimes failed to prevent or stop attacks on religious minorities. Political party leaders made inflammatory public remarks or social media posts about religious minorities.”
“Attacks on members of religious minority communities, based on allegations of cow slaughter or trade in beef, occurred throughout the year,” it said.
Such “cow vigilantism” included killings, assaults, and intimidation. Uttar Pradesh police filed charges in 1,716 cases of cow slaughter and made more than 4,000 arrests under the Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act as of August.
In October, the Allahabad High Court in Uttar Pradesh ruled that the state Prevention of Cow Slaughter Act “was being misused against innocent persons” and granted bail to a Muslim individual arrested under the act.
NGOs, including faith-based organizations, criticized amendments passed in September to FCRA as constraining civil society by reducing the amount of foreign funding that NGOs, including religious organizations, could use for administrative purposes and adding onerous oversight and certification requirements, according to the report.
The Indian government said the law strengthened oversight and accountability of foreign NGO funding in the country. In February, the government cancelled the FCRA licenses of five Christian-linked NGOs, cutting off their foreign funding, the report said.
In September, the NGO Amnesty International India ceased operations in the country after the government froze its bank accounts in response to a FCRA investigation that the NGO says was motivated by its critical reporting against the government.
It also took note of “reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs.”