Religious intolerance in India was first flagged by the United States government officially in 2004. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) looked at the post-Godhra riots situation in Gujarat and recommended to the George W Bush administration that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern (CPC)”. 

The report observed that Vajpayee “had not condemned the massacre of Muslims unequivocally” for more than a year. It noted that there was no justice for the victims, mostly Muslims, in Gujarat, and it also noted the anti-conversion legislation that was passed, also in Gujarat. 

Four of the USCIRF’s commissioners dissented from the recommendation that India be designated a CPC. They included the Indian-origin USCIRF chair, Preeta Bansal. The dissent noted that the Indian state’s conduct in Gujarat was deeply problematic, but said that the nation’s civilisational and democratic background made it different from the other nations on the list (such as China, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan). Also, that the Supreme Court of India was against majoritarianism. It was a dissent not based on the findings, but on the hope that India would behave itself.

The 2005 USCIRF report said that “significant developments affecting freedom of religion had taken place in India in the past year and the Commission no longer recommends that it be designated as a CPC”. This change, the report said, was the fall of the Vajpayee government and taking over by Manmohan Singh as the leader of India. The report said that “in March 2005, the Commission issued a statement encouraging the Department of State to prevent the planned visit to the United States of Gujarat State Minister Narendra Modi, citing evidence presented by India’s National Human Rights Commission and numerous domestic and international human rights investigators of the complicity of Gujarat state officials, led by state minister Modi, in the February 2002 mob attacks on Muslims.”

Illustration by Binay Sinha

This was of course the famous visa ban on Modi, and he did not visit the US from then on, till he won the 2014 election. There was no dissent from within the USCIRF on taking India off the list. 

India’s inclusion this year was announced this week with the release of the 2020 report. India has found five dozen references in the report (the highest in the 22-year history of the bipartisan body). On the first page of the report, India’s record is nailed to the cross. 

It reads: “India took a sharp downward turn in 2019. The national government used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims.” This is the first time that the USCIRF accused India’s Union government of not an act of omission, as was its observation on Vajpayee’s condemnation of the Godhra massacre, but of commission.” 

It said the Modi government was up to mischief against Muslims through its actions on citizenship, cow slaughter, Kashmir and conversions. Three commissioners dissented this time, though the Indian- origin member, Arunima Bhargava, was not among them. The dissent was not based on a different reading of the facts. The dissenters were “gravely concerned” about what was happening in India, but again expressed hope that the civilisational entity would overwhelm the state’s bigotry.  One of the dissenters was Tenzin Dorjee who said that India did not deserve to be made a CPC in part because it had helped the Tibetan refugees. 

This time there were no words of faith in the Supreme Court of India (the report notes the Ayodhya ruling, and the conduct of the Uttar Pradesh chief minister).  It recommends to US President Donald Trump that he designate India as CPC, “for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)”.

It wants Mr Trump to “impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violation of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/ or barring their entry into the US. It seeks to “strengthen US Embassy’s and consulates’ engagement with religious communities, local officials, and police, especially in regions impacted by religiously motivated violence; increase US partnerships with Indian law enforcement to build capacity to protect religious minorities, houses of worship, and other holy sites, and confront religious-based hate crimes; and allocate funding to support civil society to create a monitoring and early warning system in partnership with police to challenge hate speech and incitement to violence.”

This portends intervention, which will come. How deep the intervention is, whether it will be limited to behind the scenes arm-twisting or sanctions, will depend on who wins the election in the US later this year and how the Indian government behaves from here on. It should be noted that the day the USCIRF report was released, social media reported a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) legislator hectoring a Muslim vegetable vendor and his son, and another BJP legislator telling his constituents to boycott Muslims. 

India’s official response to the report was quite breezy and brisk. It read: “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 organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”

This doesn’t mean anything. India has no leverage on the bipartisan body. Our only hope is that 
Mr Trump does not take the recommendation, which most likely he will not. But he will have that leverage over us for sure. The report also opens up linkages between rights activists, non-government organisations and the US, which will irritate and alarm the Indian state. The USCIRF recommendations came after a series of public meetings with Indian academics and activists. Meaning that the recommendations are based on the findings of Indians themselves, against the majoritarianism that is plaguing India. 

Of course this is interference in our internal affairs, but we have to accept that we brought it on. The Trump administration has no interest in human rights, and as such we should have had an easy pass. But even the USCIRF chair Tony Perkins, who was nominated by the Republicans, weighed in against India. What has transpired in the USCIRF will not end with the releasing of the report recommending action against India. 

Unless the Modi administration shows great change of direction between now and the end of the year, India will figure again in next year’s report. The current mention will stay alive till then, and incidents of bigotry and discrimination and violence against Indian minorities will be flagged to the USCIRF and the western media. This will give leverage to the activists and Indian civil society over a government that has thus far been dismissive and contemptuous of them and their work.

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