Interview

'Arc of justice is long' for 2002 Gujarat riot victims: Lantos-Swett

Katrina Lantos-Swett is the Chairperson of the U.S. Congress-established Commission on Religious Freedom (USCIRF). Under her leadership and Congressional mandate, USCIRF continues to produce an annual report on the state of religious freedom worldwide, which in years past had designated India as a “Tier II” or “watch-list” country.

In a telephone interview with Narayan Lakshman, Dr. Lantos-Swett discussed the current state of religious freedom in India, the U.S. administration’s view on the role of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in improving religious tolerance in India and on allegations linking him to the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat.

Dr. Lantos-Swett’s comments are particularly significant in the context of two recent occasions on which U.S. President Barack Obama has remarked upon the dangers of religious intolerance for India, a view that Mr. Modi appeared to cognise in February, when he condemned of religious-based violent acts in the country.



When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi won the general election last May, U.S. President Barack Obama called the same evening as the results came out and effectively overturned the nine-year visa ban against him. Now, after two meetings with Mr. Modi that appeared to be overflowing with bonhomie, Mr. Obama has delivered remarks twice on the need for India to respect religious plurality and freedom. What do you think is going on here?



President Obama’s invitation to Prime Minister Modi came after Mr. Modi won a notable electoral victory and [there was] a desire to show respect and in deference to the democratic of the people of India. Certainly, India is an incredibly important partner and ally of the U.S. and so there is a desire on the part of the overwhelming majority of Americans to have close and productive relationships with India.

The invitation and the two meetings that have taken place so far are a reflection of India’s importance in the world, in terms of its partnership relationship with the U.S. and the very strong desire on the part of our country to strengthen those ties.

Now, having said that, I don’t think one could take the invitation or the meeting as an indication that our concerns as a country regarding religious freedom issues in India have gone away.

The President in his most recent visit to the country reiterated concerns that he has in terms of India doing a good job robustly protecting religious freedom and he underscored those again when he spoke to the National Prayer Breakfast.

I think one needs to be able to look at both sides of the way our country is moving forward in its relations with India: on the one hand recognising, honouring, respecting the very clear results of the wonderful and marvellous robust democracy you have in India and that Mr. Modi is now the Prime Minister.

There is an eagerness to work together to partner closely. India is the world’s largest democracy and that is something we welcome and honour.

But at the same time as friends [the U.S. aspires to] being able to nonetheless speak out about concerns that exist with respect to the robust protection of religious freedom.



Has USCIRF come under pressure from the White House so far as expressing its views on Modi and religious freedom in India are concerned?



I would say the answer to that is “no,” in the sense that we at USCIRF have the great benefit and blessing of being a truly independent and bipartisan commission. We serve in what you might actually say is a watchdog function within the U.S. government policymaking community as it relates to religious freedom.

This is because we report on, make recommendations on and are the clarion call voice, I would say, within the U.S. policy establishment as it relates to issues of religious freedom.

That is respected by the White House, by the State Department and by Congress.

Certainly, we have not come under any pressure at all, to trim our sails on any of these issues. That’s not to say that we do not have useful and ongoing exchanges with our interlocutors in the administration – whether at the White House or at the State Department and certainly also with Congress.

While USCIRF may tend to be a little more forward-leaning when it comes to raising the profile of religious freedom concerns, other branches and other areas within our government respect our expertise, passion and mission, and we respect theirs.

We have the luxury of focusing exclusively on religious freedom, and that is a luxury not extended to anyone else. The State Department has many aspects of bilateral relations that they have to consider, certainly the same is true of the White House and in Congress there are many countervailing concerns and important issues that have to be considered and balanced.

The other entities respect the fact that we are able to speak with great clarity on these issues because it is the only issue that we are given as our portfolio and given as our priority to address, so we can be single-minded.

But we do also respect the fact that the other branches of our government that deal with religious freedom issues have to view them in the context of many other policy concerns.



What is USCIRF’s view on religious freedom in India under Modi, i.e. since he became the Prime Minister?



We have concerns but they are not necessarily to be laid at Prime Minister Modi’s feet, but there have been in recent months some concerning events.

In Delhi, five churches were attacked. There are reports that Hindu nationalists forced some Christians and Muslims to convert. There are reports of the majority-Muslim village of Azizpur in Bihar being attacked by more than 5,000 people and Muslims were killed and houses were set on fire.

As you may recall just a few weeks ago earlier in February police detained a large number, I believe it was hundreds of Christians, who were demonstrating against attacks on churches in New Delhi.

One of the gentlemen who were detained during the police arrests of these demonstrators was a very distinguished human rights activist, John Dayal, who actually had testified before the U.S. Congress just about a year ago, in April 2014. He testified before the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission on the plight of religious minorities in India.

These are events that certainly are of concern.

One of the ongoing issues that we as a Commission have had that has caused us concern relative to religious freedom situation in India is the issue of impunity, a failure to in an effective and timely fashion, hold people accountable, provide effective redress for victims of past incidents.

It seems that in many ways the Indian system of justice has been somewhat slow and ineffective in responding to religious freedom violations and that can lead to a culture of impunity. That’s a very dangerous situation to let arise.

I have spoken with representatives of the Indian government [who assured that] the lack of timeliness of the judicial system is not a function of the fact that we are not concerned about addressing these religious freedom cases, it is just endemic to the system itself [and] we need reform, we need to be able to speed things up in general.

I understand that that is something that may well be the case but you do have some cases where matters have dragged on for a very long period of time and if a society gets the impression that there is impunity, that you can burn down a church, these sorts of attacks will go unpunished over a long period of time, that can create a more unstable and a more volatile social situation.



Does Mr. Modi’s silence on minority religious rights exonerate him of all anti-minority sentiment and activities of Hindu fundamentalist groups?



I don’t want to speak to the situation in India simply because I do not have enough knowledge and understanding of what, in recent days and months, Mr. Modi has said to that I described.

But I think it is fair to say that one of the duties of a good leader to is to lead on the values and moral issues that beset their society. People have an enormous respect for Mr. Modi’s grasp of how to promote the Indian economy and help encourage businesses to develop and those are very, very important attributes, and sure had a great deal to do with his success in the recent elections.

But for democracies such as India and the U.S. the most important things that we have to fight for to defend in our societies are our values, the precious freedoms and rights that lie at the heart of what our societies are about.

I absolutely think that a good leader has a moral as well as a political duty to provide moral leadership and guidance, to speak out when rights are in jeopardy, when things are happening in their society, which undermine an important value like religious freedom and tolerance and pluralism.



Although Mr. Modi is now able to travel to the U.S. on his A1 visa as a head of government, does the ban earlier imposed still stand? So, for example, would it continue to be in effect the day after he demits office?

That is an interesting question. By granting specifically the visa for the head of [government], to some degree the administration was sidestepping that issue. I don’t think we know the answer to that question to be perfectly honest.

I think the sort of assumption might be that the visa ban would no longer be in place because a valid visa has been issued. So one could certainly say that the presumption is that the decision to issue a visa vacates the prior ban.

But as a technical matter nothing specific I know has been done to lift that ban.

The question you are asking is in some ways an open question. I don’t have a definitive answer for you but most people would assume that by issuing the A-1 visa as a de facto matter that has the effect of lifting the visa ban.



Related to that, on the broader question of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat – what is the U.S. thinking on the allegations that Mr. Modi bears some responsibility?



That’s a very good question. Of course I can’t speak on behalf of the White House or the administration about that, so I will speak from the perspective of USCIRF.

We believe, and many other continue to believe, that not all the questions have been fully answered about the tragic events that happened in Gujarat. There are people in India who continue to believe that there remain unanswered questions. There may also be some cases that are continuing to work their way through the legal process.

Success has a way of shifting the gaze and re-focusing people’s attention elsewhere, and that has certainly been the case with Mr. Modi and I think that to the degree that he is perceived as successful and a good Prime Minister that will also have the effect of ameliorating, if you will, whatever lingering concerns and memories that people have about the events in Gujarat in 2002.

But I would also say that the arc of justice is also long. The arc of history is long. It is important that people continue to shine a light on those events, that those who were victims will receive adequate recompense through the legal system, that the wrongs that were done would be adequately recognised and acknowledged, that responsibility will be assigned where it is due, and that is something that I do not think that will evaporate simply as a result of Mr. Modi’s election.



While it is well known that some members of Congress strongly support deeper engagement with the Modi administration for the economic benefits it could bring the U.S. are there any on Capitol Hill, who still have misgivings about violence or discrimination against Muslims, Christians and other religious minorities in India? Is Congress divided on this matter?



Absolutely, I would say yes.

In general you will find that those for whom human rights are a very high priority, they are going to be more concerned and more sensitive to the risk that extreme fundamentalist groups might pose to the religious freedom landscape in India. Those who are more focused on commercial relations and economic matters are going to be less concerned.

You definitely will find within Congress different constituencies and different levels of concern.



In the current environment, where the Obama administration continues to engage with Modi, can you describe USCIRF’s mission or vision in terms of keeping the issues most important to it on the discussion table?

One of our statutory tasks is that each year, we are required by statute to issue an annual report in which we report on the state of religious freedom in a variety of countries around the world.

Since 2009, we have listed India on what we call our Tier II list, which is sometimes referred to as a “watch list.”

It basically means that India is by no means one of the really egregious religious freedom rights abusers – that is absolutely not the case – but there are areas of concern and we have recommendations that we make to encourage India to more effectively address the religious freedom situation in their country and, frankly, try to perhaps do a better job of bringing their practice in line with Article 25 of India’s Constitution, which very robustly provides for the freedom of conscience and the free profession, practice and propagation of religion as well as the international commitments that India is signatory to.

We use our annual report as one means of keeping the issue in the spotlight.

I would also say that we would really welcome the opportunity to travel to India and we’ve been saddened that until now India has not been yet ready to welcome a USCIRF delegation to come for a visit.

We have travelled to many, many countries, with infinitely more troubling religious freedom records, and yet they have welcomed us even though they know that we might have been critical of them in the past – from Saudi Arabia, in the near future we will be travelling to Pakistan, Burma and Vietnam. It’s just a wide range of countries, I could go on at some length.

I think it would be very valuable. We want to know if we don’t have a full and adequate picture of the religious freedom situation in India – that’s something that we would be much better able to assess if we would have the opportunity to send a delegation there.

It has been a little surprising to me that India as this robust, free democracy somehow seems unwilling or too concerned to welcome an independent and bipartisan commission of a partner nation, the U.S., to come and meet with the people, the government and religious communities.

So I would really, really encourage the Indian government to take another look at that and say, “Absolutely, we welcome USCIRF.” They don’t have to accept our criticisms. They don’t have to agree with our points of view.

But certainly a country as impressive, large, significant, and powerful on the world stage as India has nothing to fear from inviting a delegation of commissioners committed to the advancement of religious freedom to come in and meet with people in their country.

So that is something that we would love to see happen.



Has USCIRF ever been invited to India?



No. It’s really quite surprising. Our Commission has been welcomed in countries that neither have India’s democratic tradition nor India’s robust tradition of religious pluralism and tolerance, nor India’s tradition of religious diversity and free press.

It is very surprising to us that they have not been willing to let an official USCIRF delegation come and make a visit.

We really would appreciate and be grateful for the opportunity to do so but think it would also be very much in India’s interest. The government may or may not like the conclusions that we have reported in our reports but a country of India’s strength and confidence should not be in any way reluctant to welcome our group.



Has USCIRF made specific requests to visit India in years past? To which Indian governments have these been made?



We have, we have asked, and we would very much appreciate the opportunity to visit and thus far have not had a positive reception to those requests.



When was the last request?



I will say “recently.” We have begun reaching out to people in the Indian government and we very much hope that they will decide to say, “Yes, we welcome you.” We hope that this is something that will be possible in the future.



Was your last request made to the Modi government?



We have had outreach, yes, since the election of Prime Minister Modi. We have been having, at this stage, informal conversations with people. If we get any indication that there is openness there, we would certainly at that point formally ask for the opportunity to visit.

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