US Govt Body Places India On Watchlist For Violation Of Religious Freedoms
According to Annual Report by US Commission on International Religious Freedom, India took a ‘sharp downward turn in 2019.’ The central government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. The national and various state governments also allowed nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities to continue with impunity, and engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence against them. Based on these developments, in this report USCIRF recommended the CPC – Country of Particular Concern -designation for India.
The report further recommends: ‘Impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/ or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations.’ The report suggests that the US Congress should continue to hold hearings ‘highlighting religious freedom conditions in India and U.S. policy toward India.’
We are reproducing excerpts from the USCIRF annual report below.
In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault. Following the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) re-election in May, the national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. The national government allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity, and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.
Significantly, the BJP-led government enacted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA)—a fast track to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan already residing in India—and approved a National Population Register (NPR) as a first step toward a nation-wide National Register of Citizens (NRC). The border state of Assam, under mandate of the Supreme Court, implemented a statewide NRC to identify illegal migrants within Assam. When the statewide NRC was released in August, 1.9 million residents—both Muslims and Hindus—were excluded. Those excluded live in fear of the consequences: three United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteurs warned that exclusion from the NRC could result in “statelessness, deportation, or prolonged detention.” Indeed, Home Minister Amit Shah referred to migrants as “termites” to be eradicated. Troubled that Hindus were excluded from Assam’s NRC, he and other BJP officials advocated for the CAA as a corrective measure to protect Hindus. The CAA provides listed non-Muslim religious communities a path to restore their citizenship and avoid detention or deportation. In its wake, BJP leaders have continued to advocate for a nation-wide NRC; the citizenship of millions would be placed under question, but, with the CAA in place, Muslims alone would bear the indignities and consequences of potential statelessness.
The CAA’s passage in December sparked nationwide protests that police and government-aligned groups met with violence; in Uttar Pradesh (UP), the BJP chief minister Yogi Adityanath pledged “revenge” against anti-CAA protestors and stated they should be fed “bullets not biryani.” In December, close to 25 people died in attacks against protestors and universities in UP alone. According to reports, police action specifically targeted Muslims.
Throughout 2019, government action—including the CAA, continued enforcement of cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, and the November Supreme Court ruling on the Babri Masjid site—created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities. In August, the government also revoked the autonomy of Muslim-majority state Jammu and Kashmir and imposed restrictions that negatively impacted religious freedom. Mob lynchings of persons suspected of cow slaughter or consuming beef continued, with most attacks occurring within BJP-ruled states. Lynch mobs often took on overtly Hindu nationalist tones. In June, in Jharkand, a mob attacked a Muslim, Tabrez Ansari, forcing him to chant “Jai Shri Ram (Hail Lord Ram)” as they beat him to death. Police often arrest those attacked for cow slaughter or conversion activities rather than the perpetrators. Violence against Christians also increased, with at least 328 violent incidents, often under accusations of forced conversions. These attacks frequently targeted prayer services and led to the widespread shuttering or destruction of churches.
In 2018, the Supreme Court urged the central and state governments to combat lynchings with stricter laws. When, by July 2019, the central government and 10 states had failed to take appropriate action, the Supreme Court again directed them to do so. Rather than comply, Home Minister Shah called existing laws sufficient and denied lynchings had increased, while the Home Ministry instructed the National Crime Records Bureau to omit lynchings from the 2019 crime data report.
During 2019, discriminatory policies, inflammatory rhetoric, and tolerance for violence against minorities at the national, state, and local level increased the climate of fear among non-Hindu communities. After the reporting period, India continued on this negative trajectory. In February 2020, three days of violence erupted in Delhi with mobs attacking Muslim neighborhoods. There were reports of Delhi police, operating under the Home Ministry’s authority, failing to halt attacks and even directly participating in the violence. At least 50 people were killed.
India’s population is 79.8 percent Hindu, 14.2 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian, 1.7 percent Sikh, 0.7 percent Buddhist, and 0.4 percent Jain; smaller groups include Zoroastrians (Parsis), Jews, and Baha’is. India’s constitution defines the nation as secular and protects freedom of religion or belief—including the right to proselytize. However, religious freedom is “subject to public order,” a vague phrase allowing the suspension of rights to protect social “tranquility.” This qualification was used to justify anti-conversion laws in the 1977 Supreme Court case Rev. Stainislaus v. State of Madhya Pradesh and Orissa. The BJP has challenged the secular principles of the constitution by implementing policies reflecting Hindu nationalist ideology, or Hindutva.
The Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the National Register of Citizens
In December 2019, parliament passed the CAA, providing a pathway to citizenship for non-Muslim migrants already in India from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan by treating them as refugees fleeing religious persecution. The CAA would be even more problematic in conjunction with a nationwide NRC, which could be modeled after the statewide NRC in Assam, and is a goal outlined in the BJP’s manifesto and repeatedly promised by BJP leadership. The NRC process in Assam raised significant concerns: impoverished families could not present the necessary documents due to poor record keeping or illiteracy. Even with documentation, citizens were excluded because of minor inconsistencies; some were excluded despite using the same documents as included relatives. The Foreigners’ Tribunals that adjudicate citizenship status have been critiqued for their anti-minority bias. In December, the Parliament approved an NPR to collect residents’ citizenship data. According to government statements and under the Citizenship Rules, 2003, the NPR—which allows residents to be marked as “doubtful citizens” and placed under scrutiny—is the first step toward a nation-wide NRC.
Cow Slaughter Laws
In Hinduism, the cow is considered sacred. Article 48 of India’s constitution directs the state to “take steps . . . prohibiting the slaughter of cows and calves,” and 21 states criminalize cow slaughter in various forms. Cow protection has been promoted as a key issue by the BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Lynch mobs, often organized over social media, have attacked minorities—including Muslims, Christians, and Dalits—under suspicion of eating beef, slaughtering cows, or transporting cattle for slaughter. Since the BJP came to power in 2014, there have been over 100 attacks, amounting to over 98 percent of such attacks since 2010. Lynching victims, rather than the perpetrators, are often arrested under these laws.
While the constitution protects the right to proselytize, 10 states have anti-conversion laws criminalizing conversion using force, allurement, inducement, or fraud, but many use vague language that can be interpreted as prohibiting consensual conversions. In 2019, BJPruled Himachal Pradesh increased the penalties for forced conversions. Authorities predominately arrest Muslims and Christians for conversion activities. To date, however, there are no known convictions for forced conversion. Hindutva groups pursue mass conversions through ceremonies known as ghar wapsi (homecoming), without interference from authorities. Empowered by anti-conversion laws and often with the police’s complicity, Hindutva groups also conduct campaigns of harassment, social exclusion, and violence against Christians, Muslims, and other religious minorities across the country. Following attacks by Hindutva groups against religious minorities for conversion activities, the police often arrest the religious minorities who have been attacked.
In September 2019, the Home Ministry introduced new rules under the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act requiring all members of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to sign an affidavit affirming they have “not been prosecuted or convicted for indulging in forced religious conversion or creating communal tensions” to receive foreign funding. Faith-based NGOs, in particular Christian organizations, expressed fear that this is intended to limit their activities.
Religious Freedom in Jammu and Kashmir
In August 2019, the government stripped Muslim-majority Jammu and Kashmir’s autonomy and imposed security measures, including restricting freedom of movement and assembly, cutting Internet and phone access, and arresting Kashmiri leaders, including religious leaders. The restrictions on movement and assembly limited the ability to attend prayers and religious ceremonies. USCIRF also received several reports of mosques being closed, imams and Muslim leaders arrested and detained, and threats and violence by extremist groups.
Key U.S. Policy
During 2019, the United States and India strengthened their relationship, especially in security and defense. In December, the two governments signed an agreement for defense technology transfers during a 2+2 ministerial dialogue. President Donald J. Trump and Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared together at the September “Howdy Modi” event in Houston, Texas, during which the President praised this relationship. Amid these positive developments, U.S. officials highlighted concerns with India’s religious freedom violations through public statements, congressional hearings, and bilateral engagements. In October, the U.S. Ambassador-at- large for Religious Freedom-Samuel D. Brownback traveled to India. The Indian government, however, continued to reject the State Department’s and USCIRF’s reporting on religious freedom violations in India.