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U.S. criticises India’s “restrictive” religious laws

Indian authorities implemented “restrictive laws” and did not “always efficiently or effectively prosecute those who attacked religious minorities,” especially in the context of anti-conversion laws, according to the 2013 International Religious Freedom report, released by the U.S. State Department here on Monday.

Citing a long list of notable incidents where religious rights were curbed, the IRF report said that although the Indian government “generally respected” religious freedom, some laws and policies restricted this freedom and officials invoked several sections of the Indian Penal Code that resulted in minorities’ freedom of speech being curtailed on Internet sites.

Describing the report as a “clear-eyed, objective look at the state of religious freedom around the world,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that it aimed to “directly shine a light in a way that makes some countries, even some of our friends uncomfortable,” but it did so in order to try to make progress.

The report’s release was accompanied by the Secretary’s announcement that President Barack Obama had nominated Rabbi David Nathan Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, to the role of Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom, Department of State.

In the jargon of the State Department the “generally respected” tag is used for governments that attempted to protect religious freedom in the fullest sense “while recognizing that the protection and promotion of religious freedom is a dynamic endeavour, the highest level of respect for religious freedom assigned.

Unlike India some nations were however categorised as countries that have engaged in or tolerated “particularly severe violations” of religious freedom in order to designate “countries of particular concern.” Yet it was the Department’s focus on governments engaging in “particularly severe” violations of religious freedom in 2005 led to the visa ban slapped on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

In that context, under a section titled ‘Government Inaction,’ the report alluded to the >Gujarat government again extending, on July 3, the term of the Nanavati-Mehta Commission, which was appointed in 2002 to investigate the riots in the state that claimed more than 1,200 lives, the majority of whom were Muslims.

It said that while the report was due at the end of the year, “civil society activists continued to express concern about the Gujarat government’s failure to arrest those responsible for the violence,” even while Muslims still feared repercussions from Hindu neighbours as they waited for the court cases to be resolved and riots victims accused the Special Investigation Team “pressuring them to dilute their earlier testimony.”

Criticising India’s overall level of “societal respect,” for religious freedom, the State Department’s report listed the August 2013 incident of the Madhya Pradesh government withdrawing a notification requiring chapters of the >Bhagwad Gita to be part of the school curriculum for the 2013-14 academic year, following “widespread opposition.”

The report went on to cite the case of last September’s public interest law suit in Madhya Pradesh High Court charging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of the Legislative Assembly Kamal Patel and his son Sandeep with inciting communal violence in which a Hindu crowd burned 30 houses and injured many following reports of the killing of a cow on a Muslim-owned farm.

The IRF Commission also hit out at the case in Mumbai last October involving a real estate broker who posted online advertisements for flats in Mumbai and Thane that stated, “Muslims not allowed.” The report noted that the advertisement was removed after activist Shehzad Poonawalla filed a petition with the National Commission for Minorities seeking action against the real estate agent for discrimination.


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