Religious tolerance deteriorated in India in 2016: USCIRF

Washington (PTI): Religious tolerance and religious freedom conditions “continued to deteriorate” in India in 2016, an independent bipartisan American body has claimed as it placed India in a list of dozen odd nations where religious freedom violations are severe.

The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its annual report said that Hindu nationalist groups and their sympathisers perpetrated numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence against religious minority communities and Dalits.

The Indian government for the past several years, including that of the previous Manmohan Singh regime, have dismissed the findings of this annual report, which has always been critical of religious freedom in India.

New Delhi maintains that the Indian Constitution has granted religious freedom to every citizen.

“In 2016, religious tolerance and religious freedom conditions continued to deteriorate in India,” the report said.

USCIRF, which has been established by the US Congress, but whose recommendations are not binding on the US government, in its report alleged that the violations of religious freedom were most frequent and severe in 10 of India’s 29 states.

“National and state laws that restrict religious conversion, cow slaughter, and the foreign funding of nongovernmental organisations and a constitutional provision deeming Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains to be Hindus helped create the conditions enabling these violations,” it said.

“While Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke publicly about the importance of communal tolerance and religious freedom, members of the ruling party have ties to Hindu nationalist groups implicated in religious freedom violations, used religiously divisive language to inflame tensions, and called for additional laws that would restrict religious freedom, it alleged.

These issues, combined with longstanding problems of police and judicial bias and inadequacies, have created a “pervasive climate of impunity” in which religious minorities feel increasingly insecure and have no recourse when religiously motivated crimes occur.

“Based on these concerns, in 2017 USCIRF again places India on its Tier 2, where it has been since 2009,” it said.

The USCIRF urged the US government to integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India, including the framework of future Strategic Dialogues, at both the federal and provincial levels, and encourage the strengthening of the capacity of state and central police to implement effective measures to prohibit and punish cases of religious violence and protect victims and witnesses.

It asked the US government to press the Indian government to allow USCIRF to visit the country, and urged the Indian government to invite the United Nations Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit India.

Among other things, it recommends the US government to urge India to boost training on human rights and religious freedom standards and practices for the police and judiciary, particularly in states and areas with a history or likelihood of religious and communal violence.

It also seeks the help of US government in urging the central Indian government to press States that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally recognised human rights standards.

USCIRF report recommends the US government to urge the Indian government to publicly rebuke government officials and religious leaders who make derogatory statements about religious communities.

Notably the map of India used by USCIRF puts portions of Kashmir as part of Pakistan. This is, however, not the official position of the US government, which demarcates the boundary between Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan-occupied Kashmir as Line of Control.