Top US Senators voice concern over religious freedom in India

Top US Senators voice concern over religious freedom in India

Washington DC: Ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit, top US Senators have expressed deep concern over religious freedom, increasing attack on civil society and human rights in India with the Obama Administration saying it was having a dialogue with the country on these issues.

“The situation does raise concern about religious freedom in India,” Colorado Senator Cory Gardner said during a Congressional hearing on India convened by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, while expressing his concern on recent incidents of religious intolerance when artists returned their awards, said he is hoping to raise this issue with Prime Minister Modi when he travels to Washington DC next month.

Describing the anti-conversion laws in some states as problematic, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, a Ranking Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed concern over religious freedom in India.  Some of the members also raised the issue of denying visas to the members of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Agreeing with the concerns of the Senators, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Nisha Desai Biswal said while the Obama Administration has been raising these issues and concerns at the highest level and is having a dialogue with India on this issue, it is the vibrant civil society of India which is itself the most robust and strong voice on this.

“There has been fairly vigorous and vociferous debate within India with respect to religious freedom and religious tolerance,” Biswal said. “But there is a long way to go. It would be increasingly incumbent upon India to advance the rule of law to all aspect of the society,” she added.

Senator Kaine said the heartening aspect of India today has a vibrant civil society that is not shy at all raising these issues. Citing a recent report of the International Religious Freedom, the Republican Senator said the situation of religious freedom has deteriorated in India.

Gardner alleged that foreign non-governmental organisations are being harassed by the Indian government, citing the example of Colorado-based Compassion International. “In India Compassion International has been sued by the Income Tax four times. Their assets have been seized. They have had their employees and church pastors interrogated for hours by intelligence bureau. Twelve separate visa applications have been denied,” Gardner said.

“We are concerned about the attack on civil society within India. They have to be effectively be able to speak. (But) it does not relieve us from developing and working with leaders in India that recognise that these are not western values, these are universal issues that India needs to make progress on,” Cardin said.

Cardin alleged that India has inconsistent record in the manner in which they treat women and girls. In a massive country like India it is a huge challenge to deal with issues of uniform capacity and capability to address the rights of every individual citizen, said Biswal in response to concerns being expressed by the Senators.

Responding to a question on denying visa to members of USCIRF, Biswal said the US Administration has tried to impress the Indian government to provide them with visas. She also noted that the successive Indian governments have denied the visa.

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