US body on religious freedom puts India on 'watch list'
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has put India on its watch list. The move has evoked sharp reaction from New Delhi.
The USCIRF has of late announced that India earned the ‘Watch List’ designation due to the ‘disturbing increase’ in communal violence against religious minorities — specifically Christians in Orissa in 2008 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002. New Delhi termed the move “regrettable”.
A press release issued by the USCIRF quoted its chairman Leonard Leo saying that it was “extremely disappointing” that India had done “so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege”.
“India’s democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence,” said Leo. He added that India should do more to ensure future violence did not occur and that perpetrators were held accountable.
New Delhi in its official reaction reminded the USCIRF that India, a country of 1.1 billion people, was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious society.
“The Constitution of India guarantees freedom of religion and equality of opportunity, to all its citizens, who live and work together in peace and harmony,” said Joint Secretary and spokesman of the Ministry of External Affairs, Vishnu Prakash.
“Aberrations, if any, are dealt with promptly within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media,” he added.
The USCIRF was created by America’s International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 to monitor the status of freedom of thought, conscience, and religion or belief abroad, as defined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and related international instruments. It is an independent and bipartisan US federal Government Commission.
The USCIRF commissioners are appointed by the US President and the leadership of both political parties in the Senate and the House of Representatives. It gives independent policy recommendations to the US President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.
Any country designated on the USCIRF Watch List requires “close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the Government”.
Apart from India, Afghanistan, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela are also on the Watch List.
The USCIRF issues its annual report on religious freedom each May. But this year’s report on India was delayed, because some of its commissioners had requested to visit India.
However, according to the USCIRF, the Government of India denied visas to them resulting in the delay in the release of the report.
The report recommends that President Barack Obama’s Administration should urge the Indian government to take new measures to promote communal harmony, protect religious minorities, and prevent communal violence by calling on all political parties and religious or social organisations to publicly denounce violence against and harassment of religious minorities, women, and low caste members, and to acknowledge that such violence constitutes a crime under the law of India.
What added to New Delhi’s ire is that the USCIRF had deliberately timed the release of the report “to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa”.