We reject the prejudicial report of USCIRF

The American watchdog Commission on religious rights has to make a disinterested study of Indian polity to understand how an oriental democracy is trying to harmonise inter-communal relations.
Keywords: USCIRF, Religious, Democracy, Freedom, Tolerance, Minority, Rights, Constitution, Legal
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The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is a US Congress-constituted quasi-judicial body tasked to monitor violations of religious freedom across the globe and submit annual reports to the US government. Generally, this organisation works along subjective lines which lend minimal credibility to its opinion.

In its annual report of 21 April, the USCIRF asked the Biden administration to designate four nations, including India, as ‘countries of particular concern’, alleging that religious freedom conditions in them in 2020 continued on a downward trend. It also recommended the State Department re-designate 10 nations as ‘countries of particular concern’ (CPC). These are Burma (Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. In addition to India, USCIRF in its non-binding report recommended the State Department add three more countries to the list: Russia, Syria and Vietnam.

About India, it says, “Designate India as a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC, for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious religious freedom violations, as defined by the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA)”.

India’s response to the censuring practice of the USCIRF in the past has been that the American body has chosen to be guided only by its biases on matters on which it has no locus standi. India means to say that the religious and other rights of the Indian citizens are constitutionally protected. As such a foreign entity has no right to make pronouncements on the status of Indian citizens and on their access to constitutionally protected and other rights.

The reason given by the said Commission for ”designating India as a country of particular concern is that it engages in and tolerates systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations….” In simpler words, the Commission means to say that India does not only tolerate violation of religious freedom but is also engaged in that practice. This is a very irresponsible statement and the Commission has used recklessly negative adjectives such as “egregious” which in the English dictionary means  “willful, wanton, malicious, in bad-faith, deliberate, consciously wrongful” or “flagrant” behaviour” to denounce the Indian government’s treatment of some religious entities. One is surprised to discover how crudely the Commission has given expression to its bias against India. It has even thrown the linguistic protocol to the wind.

India is a multi-religious, multi-lingual and multi-cultural country. The Constituent Assembly, while framing the Constitution for India in 1949, was fully conscious of the structure of Indian society and the unavoidable requirements of various religious entities. Leaders of religious denominations were part of the Constituent Assembly.

To safeguard the interests of its religious minorities, the Constitution declared main religious groups as national minorities. The Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains and Zoroastrians (Parsis) have been notified as minority communities under Section 2 (c) of the National Commission for Minorities Act, 1992. As per the Census 2011, the percentage of minorities in the country is about 19.3% of the total population of the country. The population of Muslims is 14.2%; Christians 2.3%; Sikhs 1.7%, Buddhists 0.7%, Jains 0.4% and Parsis 0.006%. The Constitution of India provides freedom of worship and propagation of faith to all minorities without any discrimination. 

90 Minority Concentration Districts, 710 Minority Concentration Blocks and 66 Minority Concentration Towns have been identified based on both population data and backwardness parameters of Census 2001. The Multi-Sectoral Development Programme was implemented in these 90 MCDs during the 11th Plan and 2012-13 period. The programme has not been discontinued.

The Centre has floated as many as 29 schemes and projects exclusively for providing relief and support to the identified religious minorities in the country. These schemes are (a) For addressing housing deficits (b) For addressing deficits in female and total literacy including toilets (c) For addressing the electricity deficit (d) For addressing the low level of institutional delivery and vaccination (e) For addressing the deficit in female and total work participation, and (f) For addressing deficits in female and total literacy.

These are all centrally sponsored schemes directly funded by the Union government. Nothing could be a more comprehensive programme to uplift the backward sections of society in the country. The population of the Muslims of India after the partition according to a reliable census report of 1971 was around 3.5 crore (thirty-five million) which has grown nearly six-fold in 2021. On the other hand, the population of the Hindus in Pakistan at the time of Partition was 20.5 percent of the total which, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics religious data of the Pakistan Census 2017 released on 19 May 2021 showed that the Hindu population has been reduced to 2.14%

In response to unremitting demand from the Muslim women, and despite opposition from the orthodox clerics, the Government brought the bill against triple talaq which was a great relief to the women of that community. The government provides many facilities like reservations, quotas, and other privileges without discrimination and prejudice. All religious denominations have the right to establish their schools and teaching institutions and the government gives grants-in-aid by way of financial assistance. The religious minorities, enjoy with the rest of the people access to all services including defence and other sensitive sectors.   

However, a government so just and liberal towards its religious minorities is pained when anti-social elements try to malign their minds and instigate protests on frivolous issues. Being a minority of any denomination does not give them the liberty to violate the law of the land.

The American Commission for Religious Freedom should have given priority to the constitutional and legal safeguards provided to the religious minorities and the privileges and facilities provided by the government to improve their social and economic status. We are aware that the members of the Commission depend more on propaganda, particularly from non-democratic or pseudo-democratic sources aiming at maligning India including certain religious and political lobbies. In reality, they are embarrassed how in the entire Asian region, India can progress along a democratic dispensation. Denial or abuse of religious rights is usually to be seen in countries with authoritarian regimes.

We have noted that the USCIRF’s recommendations on India, unlike for other countries, are not unanimous. USCIRF Commissioner Johnnie Moore has officially registered his dissent with such a recommendation arguing that India should not be designated as CPC. ‘Of all the countries in the world, India should not be a ‘country of particular concern,’ or CPC. It is the world’s largest democracy, and it is governed by a pristine constitution. It is diversity personified and its religious life has been its greatest historic blessing,” Moore said.

‘Yet, India does seem to be at a crossroads. Its democracy— still young and freewheeling— is creating through the ballot box difficult challenges for itself. The answer, of course, is for India’s institutions to draw upon their rich history to protect their values,” he said in his dissent note.

‘India must always resist allowing political and intercommoned (sic) conflict to be exacerbated by religious tensions. India’s government and people have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose from preserving social harmony and protecting the rights of everyone. India can. India must,” Moore said.

Traditionally, India does not recognise the views of USCIRF. For more than a decade, it has denied visas to members of the USCIRF. The reason is the pre-meditated bias of some members of the organisation. The Commission has become a victim of pernicious propaganda.

In the India section of the report, USCIRF urges the State Department to impose targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ or entities’ assets and barring their entry into the US. It urges Congress to continue to raise religious freedom concerns in the US-India bilateral relationship and highlight those concerns through hearings, briefings, letters, and congressional delegations.

This is nothing but a prejudicial and crudely biased interpretation of the ground situation in India. For example, the Commission advertently overlooks the role of external actors in whipping up a communal frenzy among some sections within religious minorities in India. It does not say a word about the various designated terrorist organization in the neighbouring country that has an elaborate plan of sending armed jihadists across the border for disrupting peace and tranquillity in the Indian Territory. 

Unfortunately, the Commission is unable to appreciate India’s great efforts in creating a congenial atmosphere in which people of different religions can live in peace and harmony. What better example of the government’s special favour towards the Muslim community can be given than that the taxes imposed on Hindu temples and shrines are diverted towards the monthly salaries of the preachers (Mullahs) of mosques and towards subsidising the air ticket of the pilgrims proceeding on hajj pilgrimage to the Mecca. No taxes are imposed on mosques. 

Anti-India bias has become an obsession with the higher echelons in the United Nations Human Rights Commission. Because an adversarial neighbour of India has undertaken a permanent mission to malign India on all platforms where it has a voice.  This has, unfortunately, been accepted by the UN authorities without understanding the socio-cultural-juridical structure of democratic India. The UNHRC authorities. including its President and General Secretary have become the victims of partisan propaganda just because they do not care to reach the bottom of the narrative. If they care to seek the truth they will conclude that nowhere in the world do the Muslims enjoy the quantum of freedom and privileges of the Muslims of India. India has friendly relations with most of the Islamic countries and very special relations with some of them. Trade and commerce, technology, healthcare, tourism, oil and gas, pharmaceuticals, IT and a host of areas are covered by bilateral and multilateral agreements with Islamic countries. The American watchdog Commission on religious rights has to make a disinterested study of Indian polity to understand how an oriental democracy is trying to harmonise inter-communal relations. We reject the biased opinion of the American Commission and are proud of the solid philosophy of sab ka sath sab ka Vikas, meaning cooperation with all and progress for all.

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K N Pandita

K N Pandita has a PhD in Iranian Studies from the University of Teheran. He is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies, Kashmir University.

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