A United States panel on Monday recommended to the Joe Biden government that it designate India as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating systematic violations of religious freedom. This is the third year in a row that it has made such a recommendation.

The recommendation was made by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent, bipartisan American government agency that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion and makes policy suggestions to the White House.

In its 2022 report, the panel urged the United States government to impose targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for “severely violations” of religious freedom by freezing their assets and/or stopping them from entering the country.

The panel recommended that the US Congress should raise matters related to religious freedom during US-India bilateral meetings and highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters and congressional delegations.

India is among 15 countries flagged by the USCIRF for religious freedom concerns. The other countries are Afghanistan, Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

The panel had noted a “sharp downward turn” in religious freedom in India in 2019 and flagged it as a “country of particular concern” in its 2020 report, for the first time since 2004.

However, India had called the USCIRF as “an organisation of particular concern”. The Ministry of External Affairs at the time had said that the commission’s “misrepresentation” had reached “new levels”.

Read the full 2022 report here.

Credit: The US Commission for International Religious Freedom

Key findings

The latest report released on Monday said that conditions linked with religious freedom in India “significantly worsened” in 2021.

The panel said that during the year, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led central government escalated its promotion and enforcement of policies – including those promoting a Hindu nationalist agenda – that harmed Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and other religious minorities in the country.

“The government continued to systemise its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through the use of both existing and new laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities,” the report said, adding that critical voices were repressed through harassment, investigation, detention, and prosecution under laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act and India’s sedition law.

“The UAPA and sedition law have been invoked to create an increasing climate of intimidation and fear in an effort to silence anyone speaking out against the government,” it said.

The report specifically mentioned the treatment meted out to 84-year-old Stan Swamy, a Jesuit priest who was arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case.

“Swamy was arrested on dubious UAPA charges in October 2020 and never tried,” the report said. “He died in custody in July 2021 despite repeated concerns raised about his health.”

Swamy had suffered from multiple ailments including Parkinson’s disease and had contracted the coronavirus infection at the Taloja prison in Navi Mumbai.

“The government arrested, filed complaints against, and launched criminal investigations into journalists and human rights advocates documenting religious persecution and violence...,” the report said, citing an example of Jammu and Kashmir activist Khurram Parvez. “The government also broadly targeted individuals documenting or sharing information about violence against Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities.”

Attacks on minorities

The report said that numerous attacks targeted religious minorities, particularly Muslims and Christians, and their neighbourhoods, businesses, homes, and places of worship in 2021.

“Many of these incidents were violent, unprovoked, and/or encouraged or incited by government officials,” the commission added. “Both officials and non-state actors have used social media platforms and other forms of communication to intimidate and spread hatred and disinformation against religious minority communities.”

The report added that multiple attacks had been perpetrated across India under the guise of preventing cow slaughter.

“Vigilante mobs, often organised over social media, have attacked religious minorities including Muslims, Christians, and Dalits under suspicion of eating beef, slaughtering cows, or transporting cattle for slaughter,” the report said. “Most such violent incidents are reported in states where cattle slaughter is banned.”