The Ministry of External Affairs had denied visa to teams from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom last year after it flagged concerns about the controversial Citizenship Act, PTI reported on Wednesday. Minister of External Affairs S Jaishankar said the panel has no locus standi to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.

The commission had also sought sanctions against Union Home Minister Amit Shah for the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act. In a letter on June 1 to Bharatiya Janata Party MP Nishikant Dubey who had raised the matter during the Winter session of Lok Sabha, Jaishankar said India will not accept any external interference or pronouncement on its sovereignty and fundamental rights of its citizens.

He added that the USCIRF has been known to make prejudiced, inaccurate, and misleading observations regarding the state of religious freedom in India. “We do not take cognizance of these pronouncements and have repudiated such attempts to misrepresent information related to India,” the minister wrote.

Jaishankar said the MEA had rejected the panel’s remarks as inaccurate and unwarranted. “We have also denied visa to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom, as we do not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens constitutionally protected rights,” he wrote.

Last year, the USCIRF had said the Citizenship Amendment Bill was “a dangerous turn in the wrong direction”, pointing out that the legislation used religion as a legal criterion to grant citizenship. “It runs counter to India’s rich history of secular pluralism and the Indian Constitution, which guarantees equality before the law regardless of faith,” the panel had added.

The bill was passed in the Lok Sabha by a division of votes with 311 in favour and 80 against it in December. Two days later, it was also cleared by Rajya Sabha. The legislation amends the Citizenship Act of 1955 to provide citizenship to persecuted Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains, Parsis and Christians from the Muslim-majority nations of Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It will grant citizenship to persecuted people from these communities, provided they have resided in India for six years. The cut-off date is December 31, 2014.

In April, the panel noted a “sharp downward turn” in religious freedom in India in 2019. It suggested that the Department of State impose “targeted sanctions” against Indian government agencies and officials responsible for violations of religious freedom. 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.

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”.

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”.