Special Correspondent

“It failed to take steps to ensure rights of religious minorities in several States”

In 2002 and 2003, India was designated as a “country of particular concern”

The Commission wanted to visit the country in June, but the government did not issue visas

NEW DELHI: The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed India on its “Watch List” for 2009 because it found the Central government had failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several States.

In 2002 and 2003, the Commission had recommended that India be designated a “country of particular concern (CPC)” in the wake of the “severe riots” in Gujarat and elsewhere. This is a grade higher than “Watch List,” which includes countries “where religious freedom conditions do not rise to the statutory level requiring CPC designation but which require close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments.”

The USCIRF annual report – released on Wednesday – states that “despite the Congress Party’s commitment to religious tolerance, communal violence has continued to occur with disturbing results, and the government’s response – particularly at the State and local levels – has been largely inadequate.”

According to a footnote in the chapter on India, the Commission had sought permission to visit the country in June this year to discuss religious freedom conditions with officials, religious leaders, civil society activists and others, but the government did not issue visas. “Nor did the Indian government offer alternative dates for a visit which the Commission requested.”

In particular, the Commission dwells on the attacks on Christians in Orissa since the Christmas of 2007, which left 40 people dead and over 60,000 members of the community homeless.

“The inadequate police response failed to quell the violence, and early Central government intervention had little impact. Mass arrests following the Orissa violence did not translate into the actual filing of cases,” the report notes.

Adding to this indictment, the reports says “efforts continue to lag to prosecute the perpetrators of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in which over 2,000 people were killed, the majority of whom were Muslim.”

The report makes note of the fact that India – unlike many other countries of concern to the Commission – has a democratically elected government with a tradition of secular governance dating back to the country’s independence. “In practice, however, India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably State and Central judiciaries and police, lack capacity and have emerged as unwilling or unable to consistently seek redress for victims of religiously-motivated violence or to challenge cultures of impunity in areas with a history of communal tensions.”

Reflecting on India’s diverse democracy – where the “current, two-term Prime Minister is Sikh, the past President is Muslim, and the national governing alliance remains headed by a Catholic” – the report adds that despite this “remarkable pluralism and general commitment to religious freedom, Hindu nationalist organisations retain broad popular support in many communities in India, in part because some provide needed services or function as community social organisations.”

While the report details the Gujarat and Orissa violence against minorities, it also brings to note the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the Mumbai riots of 1992-93, the violence in Jammu & Kashmir in the summer of 2008 over transfer of forest land to Sri Amarnath Shrine Board, stray attacks on Christian institutions across the country, and the hate speeches of Bharatiya Janata Party MP Varun Gandhi.

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