Religious freedom conditions in India on a downward trend in 2018: US Commission Report

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released an annual report that examines the state of religious freedom in several countries around the world, including India. The countries are categorised into two tiers, with India once again being placed in Tier 2, “for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard for designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA),” the report states. In its key findings, it notes that India saw religious freedom conditions continued on a downward trend in 2018, noting that last year, “approximately one-third of state governments increasingly enforced anti-con- version and/or anti-cow slaughter laws discriminatorily against non-Hindus and Dalits alike.”

The report adds that, in 2018, “approximately one-third of state governments increasingly enforced anti-con- version and/or anti-cow slaughter laws discriminatorily against non-Hindus and Dalits alike,” and notes that Christians were also the targets were mob violence “under accusations of forced or induced religious conversion.” Moreover, the report notes that in cases involving mob violence against a person over false accusations of forced conversion of cow slaughter, “police investigations and prosecutions often were not adequately pursued.”

In its key findings for India, the report takes note of the Supreme Court of India’s highlighting of “deteriorating conditions for religious freedom in some states” in 2018, stating that the court concluded that “certain state governments were not doing enough to stop violence against religious minorities, and in some extreme cases, impunity was being granted to criminals engaging in violence.” The report also highlights Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s silence on these issues, saying he “seldom made statements decrying mob violence,” and noting that “certain members of his political party have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and used inflammatory language about religious minorities publicly.” These were some of the points the report notes to explain why India was once again termed a Tier 2 country.

The report outlines recommendations to the United States’ government, saying that it should “press the Indian government to allow a USCIRF delegation to visit the country and meet with stakeholders to evaluate conditions for freedom of religion or belief in India”. It calls for working with the Indian government to formulate a years-long strategy to curb religion-driven hate crimes by “pressing state governments” to prosecute public figures, including government officials, “who incite violence against religious minority groups through public speeches or articles.” The recommendations for this strategy also include bolstering the training and capacity of state and central police forces to prevent and punish instances of religious violence, encouraging the passage of the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2018, and assisting the law ministry to work with states to increase prosecution of hate crimes and hate speech targeting religious minorities, among others.

The report says that the conditions for religious freedom have declined in the last decade, stating, “A multifaceted campaign by Hindu nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus is a significant contributor to the rise of religious violence and persecution.” It notes that in 2017, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) “reported that communal violence increased significantly during 2016,” highlighting that human rights organisations criticised the NCRB last year not adequately including data on mob violence or lynching. Given this, “the NCRB delayed its 2018 report to collect data on nearly 30 new crime categories, which will include hate crimes, lynching, and crimes based on fake news,” the report states.

The report notes that in 2018, Minister of State at the Ministry of Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir told Parliament that 111 people were killed and 2,384 people were wounded in 822 communal clashes in 2017. By contrast, in 2016, 86 people were killed and 2,321 were injured in 703 clashes, the report offers, later adding that independent organisations that monitor hate crimes found that 2018 saw more than 90 religion-based hate crimes that resulted in 30 deaths and many more injuries. However, the report also notes that in December 2018, Home Minister Rajnath Singh said that communal attacks had declined 12%, compared to the peak in 2017.

The report also notes how “institutional challenges” have contributed to religious freedom concerns, with “the police and courts overwhelmed,” and highlighting how “worsening income inequality has left more Indians suffering from poverty and has exacerbated his- torical conditions of inequality for certain religious and social minorities.”

The report takes note of anti-conversion laws that are in force in seven states in India, noting that the fundamental right to freedom of religion “includes the ability to manifest one’s beliefs through expression intended to persuade another individual to change his or her religious beliefs or affiliation voluntarily.” The report outlines that in 2018, anti-conversion laws were primarily enforced against Christians and Muslims who were proselytising, and says that religious minority leaders and others were also arrested under these laws. It highlights the case of Hadiya, whose marriage had been embroiled in accusations of ‘love jihad’. The report does not mention this phrase, but takes note of “inflammatory allegations of an organized campaign to coerce Hindu women to marry Muslim men and convert to Islam,” stating that the National Investigation Agency investigated this alleged campaign and eventually concluded that there was no evidence for it. Meanwhile, the report mentions ‘ghar wapsi’ ceremonies, in which those born as Hindus who converted to another religion are converted back, stating that “In some cases, these conversion ceremonies reportedly involve force or coercion,” but noting that it is difficult to determine if such conversions are voluntary or not.

Notably, the report, while discussing the role of Hindutva/Hindu extremist groups, highlights that “moderate and extreme forces within the Hindutva movement point to the rise in the Muslim population from constituting 10 percent of the national population in 1951 to 14 percent in 2011, which in their view necessitates “mitigation” against the growing Muslim community.” It later takes note of the fact that numerous cities have been renamed, such as Allahabad and Faizabad, abandoning the names that had been given during the Mughal period, stating that this “has been perceived as an effort to erase or downplay the influence of non-Hindus in Indian his- tory and as an attack on Muslims within India today.”

The report also discusses cow vigilantism, noting that “cow protection” mobs, “a new phenomenon,” have engaged in more than 100 attacks since May 2015 that have led to 44 deaths and around 300 people being injured. “In 2018 alone, cow protection lynch mobs killed at least 13 people and injured 57 in 31 incidents.” It also takes note of hate crimes against religious minorities, including anti-Muslim rhetoric in West Bengal in April 2018, threats against Christians in Tamil Nadu in October 2018.

Per the report, impunity for large-scale incidents of communal violence persists in India, “without proper accountability or recompense.” Probes and prosecution of those allegedly responsible have been “ineffective” or “absent,” and victims have said that the government has not adequately helped in rebuilding “destroyed neighborhoods, homes, and places of worship.” The report emphasises that while the Supreme Court and fact-finding commissions “have noted common characteristics and causes of such violence, including incitement to violence against religious minorities by politicians or religious leaders,” the failure “to address those common characteristics and causes or to hold perpetrators accountable have contributed to a culture of impunity for such violence.”

Other than incidents and threats that are communal, the report also discusses the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA), 1976, and details how it has been used to target non-governmental organisations “with missionary and human rights portfolios,” who have been banned from operating in India. It notes that in November 2018, the government “demanded that 1,775 organizations provide further explanation for their failure to submit use of foreign funds over the last six years; these organizations included many non-Hindu religious groups, some Hindu trusts managing major temples, and secular human rights groups.” The report explains that some Hindus, including some “Hindutva extremists,” “perceive Christian missionaries converting Dalits to be particularly threatening, as there are nearly 200 million Dalits in India,” adding, “Many observers assert that it was this fear of mass conversion that led to the 2017 shutdown of Com- passion International, a U.S.-based Christian charity, which provided services to nearly 150,000 Indian children.”

The report also has a section on Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC), which has jeopardized the Indian citizenship of more than four million people. “Widespread concerns have been raised that the NRC update is an intentional effort to discriminate and/ or has the effect of discriminating against Muslims, and that the discretion given to local authorities in the verification process and in identifying perceived foreigners to be excluded from the draft list will be abused,” it notes. It also highlights the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill, saying that “concerns about the targeting of Muslims through the citizenship process were separately exacerbated” by its introduction and passage in the Lok Sabha; the bill, which would have provided citizenship to migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan “as long as they were not Muslim,” was dropped in the Rajya Sabha in February 2019, after the reporting period.

The report also discusses religious freedom for women, highlighting the Kathua case, in which an eight-year-old child was “abducted, gang-raped, and murdered as a message and threat to her Muslim nomadic community in Kashmir.” It notes that a priest, his son and a special police officer were charged in the case, and other police officials were charged with covering up the crimes. The report notes that while many protested the incident, “several others organized in support of the men charged, including members of the BJP.” It also highlights the Sabarimala Temple case, saying that following the Supreme Court’s ruling that adult women be permitted to enter the temple, “women attempting to enter the temple were physically attacked and others who publicly stated that they would try to enter the temple received hate mes- sages including death threats both online and in-person.”

The report also mentions a handful of positive developments with regards to religious freedom in India, such as the decline in communal violence in 2018, and the Supreme Court’s directive to the state and central governments to tackle mob violence, asking them to “pursue an 11-point plan, including compensation to hate crime victims, fast-tracking prosecutions, assigning senior police officers to deal with communal issues, and other provisions.” The report also mentions some progress in mob violence cases, citing June 2017’s Alimuddin Ansari lynching case, in which 11 accused were sentenced to life imprisonment in March 2018. Per the report, the Ministry of Minority Affairs was also granted a 12% increase in its budget.

Separately, Tenzin Dorjee, chair of the USCIRF, wrote a note in which he disagreed that religious freedom in India was deteriorating, stating, “While India must address issues related to religious freedom, I respectfully dissent on the views that India’s religious freedom conditions continued on a downward trend, the government allowed and encouraged mob violence against religious minorities, and some states are involved in ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.’” He notes that in the 30+ years he spent living in India as Tibetan refugee, he “mostly witnessed the best of India and sometimes worst due to intractable interreligious conflicts.” He acknowledges that “religious divides and power struggles” resulted in the Partition of India and Pakistan, and also “contribute to egregious violations of religious freedom and tragedies,” but says that in spite of these concerns, “India exists as a multifaith and secular country.” Dorjee says that as a Tibetan refugee, “the most vulnerable minority among all minorities” in Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh, where he lived, he “experienced full religious freedom,” citing China’s systematic attacks on the Tibetan community in comparison. Dorjee also highlighted isolated incidents of religious harmony, such as a Muslim village donating land and money to build a Hindu temple, and a Hindu head priest carrying a Dalit youth on his shoulders into the Chilkur Balaji Temple’s inner sanctum amid cheers from a huge crowd. He takes note of Nathowal village in Punjab, where Hindu and Sikh communities helped rebuild an old mosque, and Muslims and Hindus helped work at a Sikh gurudwara. “People in this village reported to the Times of India that they celebrated together annual multifaith festivals such as Diwali, Dusshera, Rakhi, Eid, and Gurupurab,” Dorjee writes, opining that such “stories speak for India’s multi- faith civilization, religious freedom, and interreligious harmony.” He ends with an appeal to the Indian government “to continuously respect religious freedom and strive to promote India as a vibrant country of and for the multifaith people.”

The complete report may be read here. The section on India is on pages 174-181.
https://www.uscirf.gov/sites/default/files/2019USCIRFAnnualReport.pdf

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