USCIRF’s futile attempt to damage India’s secular credentials

DelhiWritten By: Achal MalhotraUpdated: May 04, 2020, 12:49 PM IST


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India's Constitution is explicit and unambiguous in guaranteeing its citizens the freedom not only to pursue but also preach the religion of their choice.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its Annual Report 2020 on April 28, covering global trends in 2019. The USCIRF, it may be recalled, was established by the US Congress as a federal bipartisan entity in 1998 through the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). It claims to be an “independent” body whose stated objective is to “monitor, analyse and report on threats to freedom of religion or belief abroad” and to make policy recommendations to the US President, the Secretary of State and Congress. The recommendations are supposedly  “intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion or belief.” 

The USCIRF has rarely been correct in its pronouncements on the status of religious freedoms in India. More often than not, the USCIRF reports on India have turned out to be less than objective and even malicious. Nevertheless, the 2020 Report cannot be ignored for more than one reason. For the Commission has not only levelled some baseless allegations against the government of a sovereign nation but has also crossed all lines in its attempt to damage India’s reputation as a secular country, while seeking to carve out a role for itself in managing the affairs of the pluralistic society in India.  

In a completely erroneous, fallacious and even scandalous assessment of the freedom of religion in India, the USCIRF, in its Annual Report 2020, has recommended that India (together with 13 other countries such as North Korea, China, Pakistan etc.) be designated as a “country of particular concern” allegedly for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, on-going, and egregious religious freedom violations as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)” 

Further, the Commission has acted with audacity in recommending to the US President that stringent punitive actions be taken against those individual Government agencies/officials which/who in their assessment are responsible for the violation of freedom of religion in India. The recommended punitive actions include   for instance targeted sanctions by freezing those individuals’ assets and/ or barring their entry into the United States.  

The Commission has further recommended that engagement between the US Diplomatic Missions in India and India’s religious communities and law-enforcement agencies be strengthened and funds be allocated for civil society to strengthen their monitoring systems. In other words, the Commission is asking for the legitimisation of intended interference in the internal affairs of India in a socially hyper-sensitive area. In fact, the recommendation is nothing short of seeking a direct role in managing the affairs of India’s multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, multi-religious society. Before making such ridiculous recommendations, the Commission should have posed a question to itself: Will the Commission agree to the Indian Diplomatic Missions in the USA playing a role in curbing the rampant racial discrimination in the USA?  

In a sweeping statement, the Commission has concluded that religious freedom in India experienced a “drastic turn downward in 2019”, when the  “religious minorities found themselves under increasing assault”. It has accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) of misusing its strengthened majority in Parliament (the following re-election in May 2019) to institute national-level policies, which allegedly violate religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims. It goes on to allege that “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”. The observation is a blatantly mischievous attempt to create a religion-based divide in Indian society, where the overwhelming opinion is in favour of unity in diversity. 

In support of its conclusions, the Commission has cited the abrogation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution and  Citizenship  Amendment Act in 2019 and continued enforcement of the existing laws on cow slaughter, religious conversions, and even the Supreme  Court’s ruling on Babri Masjid. This clearly reflects an utter lack of understanding of the social fabric of India, the benign intentions behind the Indian Government’s decisions and the independence of the judiciary in India.  

India is the largest functioning democracy in the world and its Constitution is explicit and unambiguous in guaranteeing its citizens the freedom not only to pursue but also preach the religion of their choice. There are adequate institutional and legal protections against discrimination on the basis of religion. 

India’s democratic and secular credentials are well established and India owes no explanation, least to ill-informed organisations such as USCIRF. At the same time, USCIRF deserves a befitting response. In a quick rebuttal, the official Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs therefore justifiably rejected the Commission’s observations on India. While recalling that the Commission’s “biased and tendentious” comments against India were not new, he said that “on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels” and went on to add in a sarcastically retaliatory tone that “We regard it (the Commission) as an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.” 

It is worth noting that the Chapter on India in the Annual Report did not enjoy full consensus. Two out of nine Members namely Commissioner Gary L. Bauer and Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee have recorded their explicit disagreement with fellow Commissioners over the recommendation that India be designated as a “country of particular concern”; they have given several valid arguments to assert that India cannot be equated with China and North Korea whom they have described as “rogue nations and authoritarian regimes”. Although Commissioner Johnnie Moore has not registered his dissent, he has made some very laudatory observations describing India, for instance, as “the largest democracy, governed by a pristine Constitution”, and a “great nation” that is the “very definition of diverse”  

Relations between India and the USA have seen upward swing in the past two decades, and have now developed into a "global strategic partnership", based on shared democratic values and increasing convergence of interests on bilateral, regional and global issues. The canvas of relations is so wide that isolated adverse comments from ill-informed organisations such as USCIRF are very unlikely to cause any dent to the strong relationship. Nevertheless, it would be prudent on the part of the US President and US Administration to be seen as ignoring the Report.  At the same time, the Commission must be reminded to be fair and objective in its assessment of the conduct of sovereign nations, and learn a lesson from India which refrains from censuring other countries including the USA whose track-record in matters of racial discrimination is questionable.  

 (Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL)