A United States panel on Monday, for the fourth year in a row, recommended the White House to designate India as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in or tolerating systematic violations of religious freedom.

The recommendation was made in a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which is an independent American government agency that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion and makes policy suggestions to the White House. But these suggestions are not binding.

Last year, the Indian government had rejected the findings of the commission made in April, calling them biased and inaccurate.

In the report published on Monday, the panel urged United States President Joe Biden to impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for “severe violations” of religious freedom by freezing their assets or barring their entry into the country.

“In 2022, religious freedom conditions in India continued to worsen,” the report said. “Throughout the year, the Indian government at the national, state, and local levels promoted and enforced religiously discriminatory policies, including laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of the hijab, and cow slaughter, which negatively impact Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis.”

It also said that the Narendra Modi-led Central government continued to suppress critical voices – especially of minorities and those advocating on their behalf – through surveillance, harassment, demolition of property and detention under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

“The Indian government invoked the UAPA and the Sedition Act throughout the year to target freedom of religion and expression, creating an increasing climate of intimidation and fear,” the independent panel said. “Authorities surveilled, harassed, detained, and prosecuted a number of journalists, lawyers, rights activists, and religious minorities advocating for religious freedom.”

The report also cited violence by cow vigilantes, the demolition of the homes of Muslims and incidents of violence against Christians to say that India should be designated a “country of particular concern”.

“Social media platforms continued to facilitate widespread disinformation, hate speech, and incitement of violence toward religious minorities,” the panel added. “In February, Twitter removed a caricature shared by the verified account of Gujarat BJP depicting Muslim men hung by a noose.”

India is among 17 countries flagged by the USCIRF for violations of religious freedom. The other countries are Afghanistan, Burma, China, Cuba Eritrea, Iran, Nicaragua, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam.

Report not ‘entirely conclusive’: State Department

But State Department’s Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel on Monday said that the USCIRF’s recommendation is not “entirely conclusive”, reported PTI.

“Governments or other entities with questions or comments about this report should reach out to the commission directly,” he told reporters.

The Foundation of Indian and Indian Diaspora Studies, a US-based non-profit, termed the USCIRF report as biased.

“There seems to be a biased agenda of USCIRF generalising isolated incidents without considering the complexities of India’s diverse population of 1.3 billion people,” foundation member Khanderao Kand said, according to PTI. “...It raises questions about their true intentions and credibility.”

The Indian American Muslim Council welcomed the report and urged the State Department to act on the panel’s recommendation.

“This decision reaffirms what IMAC has been saying for years that India’s government, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has continued to systematically violate the religious freedom of minority communities, particularly Muslims and Christians,” Executive Director Rasheed Ahmed said.