A United States panel has noted a “sharp downward turn” in religious freedom in India in 2019, flagging it as a “country of particular concern” for the first time since 2004. The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom suggested that the Department of State impose “targeted sanctions” against Indian government agencies and officials responsible for violations of religious freedom.

In return, India called the USCIRF “an organisation of particular concern”. The Ministry of External Affairs rejected its claims, saying that the panel’s “misrepresentation has reached new levels”.

While releasing its annual report for 2020, USCIRF Vice Chair Nadine Maenza noted that India had seen “perhaps the steepest, and most alarming, deterioration” in religious freedom in the past year. The panel accused the Indian government of “allowing violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity, and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence”.

The sanctions proposed by the commission included the freezing of the assets of officials involved in such acts, or barring their entry into the United States.

India was listed as one of 14 “countries of particular concern” because their governments “engage in or tolerate systematic, ongoing, egregious violations”, the commission said, making its recommendations to the US State Department.

Nine of these 14 countries had already been designated by the department as countries of particular concern in December 2019. These included countries such as Myanmar, China, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Fifteen countries were recommended to be put on a special watch list for “severe violations”.

However, two of the nine commissioners on the panel expressed their dissent over the recommendation to place India in the category of “particular concern”. One of them, Gary L Bauer, said this would place India in “a gallery of rogue nations in which it does not belong”. He said India is “not the equivalent of communist China, which wages war on all faiths; nor of North Korea, a prison masquerading as a country; nor of Iran, whose Islamic extremist leaders regularly threaten to unleash a second Holocaust”.

India’s external affairs ministry said in response: “We reject the observations on India in the USCIRF Annual Report. Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. It has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavour. We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”

Recommendations made by the USCIRF are non-binding to the State Department. India has regularly rejected unfavourable views expressed by the panel. In February, after the commission expressed concern over the communal violence in Delhi, India called its remarks factually inaccurate and misleading.

In December, the commission had said it was “deeply troubled” by the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act in the Indian Parliament and had sought sanctions against Union Home Minister Amit Shah and other principal leadership.