India Denies Visas to US Religious Freedom Panel

India Denies Visas to US Religious Freedom Panel

India has declined to give visas to teams from a US government body monitoring international religious freedom, as it has no locus standi to make pronouncements on Indian citizens’ “constitutional-protected rights”, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has stated.

The visa snub to the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Wednesday came as the US Congress released its own religious freedom report while a top Trump administration official said he was “very concerned” about the South Asian country’s situation.

The contents of the letter were reported by Indian media, including PTI, on Wednesday – just a few hours before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo released the 2019 International Religious Freedom Report in Washington.

As per the PTI report, Jaishankar had conveyed the Ministry of External Affairs’ position to BJP MP Nishikant Dubey who had raised the issue concerning the USCIRF seeking sanctions against home minister Amit Shah in case the Citizenship Amendment Act was passed, during the winter session of Lok Sabha last year.

“We have also denied visa to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom, as we do not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens constitutionally protected rights,” he wrote, after stating that the US government body was known to make “prejudiced” observations about India.

“We do not take cognizance of these pronouncements and have repudiated such attempts to misrepresent information related to India,” the minister wrote.

 This is not the first time that the USCIRF has claimed that its teams have been denied visas. In its 2019 annual report, USCIRF had reported that it has been unable to visit India since 2001. “…on three different occasions—in 2001, 2009, and 2016—the government of India refused to grant visas for a USCIRF delegation despite requests being supported by the State Department,” it said.

After the citizenship amendment bill was passed in the Lok Sabha, the USCIRF had recommended, on December 9, 2019, that the “United States government should consider sanctions against the Home Minister and other principal leadership”.

The MEA spokesperson had retorted that the USCIRF had “chosen to be guided only by its prejudices and biases on a matter on which it had little knowledge and no locus standi“.

India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the government firmly repudiated the surveys of the USCIRF, which had little knowledge of the rights of Indian citizens, describing it as biased and prejudiced.

“We have also denied visas to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom,” he told a legislator from Modi’s governing party in a June 1 letter.

The step was taken because the government saw no grounds for a foreign entity such as the USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights, he said, adding that India would not accept any foreign interference or judgement on matters related to its sovereignty.

Reuters news agency said it has reviewed a copy of the letter to Nishikant Dubey, an MP who had raised the issue of the panel’s report in parliament.

The US embassy in New Delhi referred all queries to the commission based in Washington, DC, which was not immediately available to respond.

Since taking power in 2014, India’s Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has faced criticism for attacks on Muslims and other minorities.

In its report in April, the USCIRF had called for the world’s biggest democracy to be designated a “country of particular concern”, along with China, Iran, Russia and Syria

The panel had urged sanctions against officials in Modi’s government after it excluded Muslims from the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) passed in December last year.

“In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault,” the report said.

The USCIRF is a bipartisan US government advisory body that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes non-binding policy recommendations.

This April, USCIRF had recommended that the state department include India on the list of “countries of special concern,” alongside 13 other countries which included China, Pakistan, North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Russia. This was the first time that the USCIRF had proposed the inclusion of India on the special list since 2004.

In the official rebuttal, MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava had highlighted the dissension within the commission. “We reject the observations on India in the USCIRF Annual Report. Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. It has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavour. We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” he stated.

In his speech on Wednesday, Pompeo referred to China, Nigeria, Nicaragua as countries which had special issues over religious freedom. However, there was no mention of India.

Hours later, Samuel Brownback, US ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom told foreign journalists that the US was very concerned about what was happening in India in terms of religious freedom.

In response to the 2019 International Religious Freedom Report that listed out incidents of atrocities against minorities and passage of controversial CAA, MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava on Thursday again dismissed it.

“The report is published annually by the department of state as part of its legal requirement to the US Congress and is an internal document of the US government. India’s vibrant democratic traditions and practices are evident to the world. The people and government of India are proud of our country’s democratic traditions. We have a robust public discourse in India and constitutionally mandated institutions that guarantee protection of religious freedom and rule of law,” he claimed

Srivastava added that India’s position “remains that we see no locus standi for a foreign entity to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights”.

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