With scarcely three days to go before India’s behemoth general elections kick off, a high-level official commission looking into violations of human rights of religious minorities in India said, “Severe outbreaks of communal violence against religious minorities, including the 2002 Gujarat riots targeting Muslims, the 2007 mob attacks against Christians in Odisha, and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 have socially and economically marginalised large pockets of religious minority communities.”
In a tightly-packed hall of the Rayburn House Buiilding on Capitol Hill on Friday, members of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the plight of religious minorities in India noted that the rise in acts of violence targeting religious minorities and an increase in discriminatory rhetoric that has polarised national politics along religious and class lines had increased in the months leading up to India’s 2014 national elections.
“Underlying problems have been exacerbated by the implementation of ‘Freedom of Religion Acts’ across five Indian states, which have led to higher reported incidents of intimidation, discrimination, harassment, and violence against minorities,” the Commission noted, adding that such polarisation in Indian politics would have to be situated “in the context of the U.S.-India relationship.”
The witnesses testifying before the Commission included Katrina Lantos Swett, Vice Chair, U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch, Robin Phillips, Executive Director, The Advocates for Human Rights, John Dayal, Secretary General, All India Christian Council.
Joseph Pitts, Executive Committee Member of the Commission, who said that he had seen “blood-splattered walls” in India and met with “countless victims” there but that instead of “justice” for victims, there were signs of increasing “impunity,” being witnessed.
He added, “Our government should not turn a blind eye to any religiously motivated harassment or violence intended, because it being perpetrated during an election. Doing so does nothing to ensure that India’s elections are free from influence, it only discourages that prospect.”
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, the first ever Hindu member of the House of Representatives, appeared to be a voice of dissent at the hearing when she said, “I fear that the goal of this hearing is to ultimately influence the outcome of this election,” and this could undermine the shared interest between the U.S. and India.
However Ms. Swett said that USCIRF’s concerns about religious freedom in India were “reinforced by reports this past year of increases in communal violence, including Hindu-Muslim violence in Uttar Pradesh, and violence at a Christian and Muslim Dalit rally and an attack on a Buddhist complex, along with Pakistani Hindus seeking safe haven being ill treated and facing serious governmental discrimination.”
Ms. Swett also took up the subject of the violence in Gujarat in 2002 and Odisha in 2007-08, arguing that although India established fast-track courts and the Special Investigative Team and independent commissions, “However these have been used inconsistently and their impact remains limited by corruption and insufficient capacity to investigate and prosecute cases and antiquated judiciary and religious bias, particularly at the State and local levels.”
She added, “Many religious minority communities fear religious freedom will be jeopardised if the BJP wins and the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister. We hope that is not the case.”
Underscoring USCIRF’s concern that the BJP and Mr. Modi have an “association with Hindu ultra-nationalist groups as well as allegations of his complicity in the Gujarat riots,” she noted that the U.S. State Department’s decision to revoke and deny Mr. Modi entry visas in 2005 was a reflection of their agreement with USCIRF.
At the same time USCIRF itself had been denied visas to visit India in June 2009, and had made subsequent enquiries in this regard, “but to no avail.” It had repeatedly pressed for India to be classified as a “Country of Particular Concern,” in the context of “egregious” violations of religious freedoms, she added.
She called upon the State Department to elevate religious freedom concerns in the bilateral Strategic Dialogue mechanism, among other recommendations.
Mr. Dayal echoed this sentiment, saying, “Currently, human rights and religious freedom are excluded from this framework. Although counter-terrorism is part of the framework, it must be borne in mind that counter-terror laws in India are implemented in a manner that is repressive towards minorities. Also, this position is in contrast to the U.S. policy with respect to China where the U.S.-China strategic dialogue does include human rights.”