NATIONAL

Religious freedom in India has improved: U.S. report

WASHINGTON, SEPT. 15. The status of religious freedom in India improved in a number of ways; "yet problems remain in some areas," says the State Department's Annual Report on International Religious Freedom.

Making the point that during most of the period covered by the report it was the Bharatiya Janata Party which was in power, the State Department has said that this party is a "Hindu nationalist party with links to Hindu extremist groups that have been implicated in violent acts against Christians and Muslims."

The United States has been critical of the BJP on this issue before and the sixth annual report appears to be no different.

"The BJP-led Government did not act effectively to counter societal attacks against religious minorities and attempts by state and local governments to limit religious freedom. This failure resulted in part from the legal constraints inherent in the country's federal structure and in part from shortcomings in the law enforcement and justice systems," the State Department has maintained.

"Tensions between Muslims and Hindus and to certain extent between Christians and Hindus were a problem. Attacks on religious minorities occurred in several States. Some extremists saw ineffective investigation and prosecution of attacks on religious minorities as signals that such violence could be committed with impunity," the report reads in the executive summary.

`Inclusive rhetoric'

In the section on "Significant Improvements in the Promotion of Religious Freedom," the State Department takes note of the fact that by the end of its governing tenure the coalition led by the BJP "had adopted a more inclusive rhetoric regarding minorities and took some steps to decrease violence."

And in the context of the changed political dispensation in New Delhi the annual report notes the new coalition government that has come to power pledged "to respect the country's traditions of secular government and religious tolerance and to pay particular attention to the rights of religious minorities" going on to say that both the Prime Minister and the President of India have spoken out strongly against the 2002 riots in Gujarat.

Repeal of law

"The GOI (Government of India) has already taken some positive steps. Shortly after the elections, the State of Tamil Nadu announced the repeal of its anti-conversion law. There also has been some progress on conflict resolution in Gujarat," the State Department says while taking note of the ruling of the Supreme Court in the Best Bakery case and the moving of the trial from Gujarat to Mumbai as a way of "ensuring fairness of the process."

As far as the role of the United States, the State Department has said that officials have continued to discuss with state officials the "implementation and reversal of anti-conversion laws"; and that American officials have also urged that the perpetrators of the Gujarat violence of 2002 be brought to justice. The report lists the various activities of the American Embassy in New Delhi and the various Consulates including the one in Chennai.

"The Consulate in Chennai organised a roundtable to promote better understanding among Hindu, Muslim, Christian and Buddhist communities. The Chennai Consulate also continued to reach out to the Muslim community through Iftar dinners and the International Visitor/Madrassa programmes," the report reads.

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