India dismisses US watchdog report on growing religious intolerance

Washington/New Delhi, May 3 (IANS) Religious freedom has been on a “negative trajectory” in India where faith-based minority groups were being subjected to growing violent threats, according to a US Congress-mandated watchdog report.

The annual report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) painted a sad picture of religious freedom across the globe and put India in “Tier 2” watchlist alongside Afghanistan, Russia, Kazakhstan, Cuba and Indonesia.

This means that India and the other countries “don’t rise to the statutory level … but require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by governments”.

But India brushed aside the report that comes months after members of the watchdog body were denied visa to travel to the country and study religious freedom in the country.

“We take no cognisance of their report,” external affairs ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup said in New Delhi.

“India is a vibrant pluralistic society founded on strong democratic principles. The Indian constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens, including the right to freedom of religion,” Swarup said.

He said the Indian “government does not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights”.

The bipartisan US government commission noted with a concern that “religious tolerance deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India in 2015”.

“Minority communities, especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups,” said the independent watchdog in its report.

It accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of tacitly supporting “these groups” by using “religiously-divisive language to further inflame tensions”.

Since the BJP assumed power, the report said, the minority communities were subjected to “derogatory comments by the politicians, numerous violent attacks and forcible conversions by affiliated Hindu nationalist groups”.

The report highlighted incidents like the killing of Akhlaq Ahmed, a Muslim man who was accused of storing beef in his home in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, and a Kashmiri truck driver, Zahid Rasool Bhat, who was burnt to death by a mob near Jammu over protests seeking ban on cow slaughter in the volatile state.

The watchdog cited a home ministry report and said the rate of communal violence increased by 17 percent in 2015 in the country compared to the previous year. Ninety-seven people were killed and 2,246 injured in the last year during such violence.

It also blamed the central and state governments of restricting religious conversion.

The report came down heavily on the Indian judiciary which it said had still not delivered justice to victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi and 2002 anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat.

“The Indian courts are still adjudicating cases stemming from large-scale Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Uttar Pradesh (2013) and Gujarat (2002), Hindu-Christian communal violence in Odisha (2007-2008),and Hindu-Sikh communal violence in Delhi (1984).”

“These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police bias and judicial inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity, where religious minority communities feel increasingly insecure, with no recourse when religiously-motivated crimes occur,” the report alleged.

The watchdog urged the US government to “integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India”.

Besides, the US should “press the Indian government to allow USCIRF to visit the country” to monitor the situation”.

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