Pay heed to a minorities report

Even though the U.S. does not practise what it preaches, its report on religious freedom in India should not be pooh-poohed as the Indian government has done.

May 13, 2015 02:34 am | Updated September 06, 2016 10:50 am IST

“Christian communities… report an increase of harassment and violence in the last year.” Picture shows Christian groups protesting at Ahmedabad’s Sardar Baug.

“Christian communities… report an increase of harassment and violence in the last year.” Picture shows Christian groups protesting at Ahmedabad’s Sardar Baug.

“We take no cognisance of this report” … it is based on “limited understanding of India, its constitution and society.” This is how the Ministry of External Affairs reacted to the >2015 Report of the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom released on 30th April. A prominent politician from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and belonging to the minority community dubbed it as a conspiracy for tarnishing the fair image of India. The use of such unfriendly words for a country whose friendship was sought just last year by the new political dispensation with great fanfare is indeed striking.

Alarmed by the growing trend of religious intolerance and anti-minority prejudices worldwide, the United Nations had proclaimed a Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief in 1981, and a Declaration on the Rights of Minorities in 1992. Finding that these proclamations of the world body had remained ineffective, the United States decided to use its influence to control the unfortunate trend through its international economic-aid laws. It first set up an Office of International Religious Freedom headed by an Ambassador-at-Large. The office remains intact and carries out its assigned mission, inter alia, through its reports describing the status of religious freedom in all countries throughout the world. Mandated by and presented to the U.S. Congress, these reports are public documents and are taken into consideration by the U.S. administration in shaping the country’s foreign policy and foreign-aid programs.

Two-tier clarification In 1998 the U.S. Senate enacted an International Religious Freedom Act under which a Commission was set up to bring out its own independent and non-governmental annual reports. The Commission began releasing its reports the next year and adopted a two-tier classification of the countries where its probe mechanism found the religious freedom situation and condition of minorities, unsatisfactory. Tier-I under this system included “CPCs” (countries of particular concern), while Tier-II covered countries which the Commission put on its “Watch List.” The latter are the “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.”

Reporting on India in its first annual report submitted during the National Democratic Alliance rule in 1999 the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) had observed that “animosities within and between religious communities in India have roots that are centuries old, and these tensions – at times exacerbated by poverty, class and ethnic differences — have erupted into periodic violence throughout the country’s 51-year history.” In four consecutive annual reports since 2001 India was placed on the Commission’s Tier-II Watch List. It was removed from there in 2005 but returned to it in 2009. The Commission’s annual report for 2015 states that “incidents of religiously-motivated and communal violence reportedly have increased for three consecutive years.”

Though sometimes marred by inaccuracies, USCIRF reports are not based on hearsay or gossip

Far from inaccurate I have been studying and commenting on the USCIRF reports right from the beginning. Though sometimes marred by inaccuracies and misinformation, these are not based on hearsay or street gossip. The U.S. embassies in the countries mentioned in the report locally collect facts from all sections of the society including impartial observers and various governmental and non-governmental information-providers. Their drafts are then checked and cross-checked by experts in the U.S., and the final reports are not too far from reality. Countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have always been severely criticised in these reports year after year. If the chapters on such countries are based on facts and ground realities — which they undoubtedly are — only those on India cannot be presumed to be based on fiction and fantasies. Look at some of the statements about India in the 2015 report. “Since the last election religious minority communities have been subjected to derogatory comments by politicians linked to the ruling party” — is this utter falsehood? And, when the report says that “Christian communities, across many denominations, report an increase of harassment and violence in the last year,” can this be dismissed as sheer nonsense and untruth?

In the past, unfavourable USCIRF reports were silently ignored by the rulers of the day — they never took them seriously and never took any remedial measures. Vocal “rejection” of the latest report by the present government was also, to say the least, unnecessary. These reports are submitted to the U.S. government which will not disbelieve them simply due to the knee-jerk reaction of any particular country. Instead of taking offence, should we not work towards a harmonious society? I would urge the government to set up a small committee of apolitical and impartial scholars to dispassionately study the chapters on India in all the 17 annual reports of USCIRF that have been brought out so far and present its concrete findings to the people of India — exposing falsities wherever found but affirming the truth, if any. On the basis of its report the government can initiate all possible measures to save our country from any such infamy in future.

I hold no brief for the U.S. Commission and do not claim that its modalities for procuring necessary information are always foolproof. Also, its reports sometimes reveal an unjustifiable selectivity. The situation of religious minorities in India is surely not ideal by any standard, but religious intolerance is not confined to India and other third-world countries; it indeed seems to be the order of the day in the so-called “developed” world as well. Caricaturing chosen faiths, their founders and holy books has become a favourite pastime of some people in the western countries, and their volatile activities are ignored or even defended in the name of freedom of speech and expression. The disturbing rise of hate speech, angry protests, and wild accusations directed against the religious “other” in the U.S. itself is assuming alarming proportions. This unfortunate development too merits a serious consideration by the country’s powers that be. A leading nation that aspires, very laudably, to combat religious intolerance and discrimination around the world through the medium of its foreign policies and economic aid programs must also devise means to put its own house in order. If this is not done, countries criticised by the U.S. Commission would not be too wrong in telling it “Physician, heal thyself.”

(Tahir Mahmood is a senior Professor of Law and former Chair of National Minorities Commission.)

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