A United States panel has recommended that the Joe Biden government designate India as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in and tolerating “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” religious freedom violations.

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom suggested imposing targeted sanctions on individuals and entities responsible for violating religious freedom by freezing their assets and/or stopping them from entering the US.

This is the second such recommendation from the panel. It 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.

India was listed as one of 14 “countries of particular concern”. Ten of these 14 countries had already been designated by the department as countries of particular concern in December 2020 – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan. The other four were India, Russia, Syria and Vietnam. Twelve countries were recommended to be put on a special watch list for “severe violations”.

Read the full report here.

Key findings

The report said that in 2020, religious freedom in India continued its negative trajectory. The panel said that the Bharatiya Janata Party government-led central government promoted Hindutva nationalist policies that resulted in violations of religious freedom.

It said that the passing of the “religiously discriminatory” Citizenship Amendment Act led to a countrywide protest against the legislation and spurred violence that largely targeted Muslims. The Citizenship Amendment Act, approved by Parliament on December 11, 2019, offers citizenship to refugees from six minority religious communities from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan, on the condition that they have lived in India for six years and entered the country by December 31, 2014. It has been widely criticised for excluding Muslims.

The US panel report noted that the Northeast Delhi violence in February last year led to the death of at least 50 citizens. It said:

“Mobs sympathetic to Hindu nationalism operated with impunity, using brutal force to single out Muslims, attack mosques, and destroy homes and businesses in majority-Muslim neighborhoods. 

The Delhi Minorities Commission investigated and found that the violence and allegations of police brutality and complicity were ‘seemingly planned and directed to teach a lesson to a certain community which dared to protest against a discriminatory law [Citizenship Amendment Act]’.”

— The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2021 annual report

The report also pointed out that the Citizenship Amendment Act in conjunction with the proposed National Register of Citizens could subject Muslims, in particular, to “statelessness, deportation or prolonged detention.” The National Register of Citizens requires all residents to provide documentation of citizenship.

Citing the Assam National Register of Citizens, it said that 1.9 million, or 19 lakh, residents were left out of the list published in August 2019. These included families residing in the country for generations. “The consequences of exclusion – as exemplified by a large detention camp being built in Assam – are potentially devastating and underscore concerns about the impact such laws may have if extended to other states or nationwide,” the panel said.

Laws against interfaith love

The US panel report said that despite constitutional protections for religious freedom in the country, approximately one-third of the 28 states in the country limit or prohibit religious conversion to protect the dominant religion from perceived threats from religious minorities.

“These anti-conversion laws are too often the basis for false accusations, harassment, and violence against non-Hindus that occur with impunity,” the report said. It pointed out that authorities did not prevent these abuses or chose not to investigate many of these cases.

Right-wing Hindutva activists allege that Hindu women are forcibly converted by Muslims through marriage. They call the conspiracy theory “love jihad”. Many Bharatiya Janata Party ruled states have already implemented or are contemplating enacting laws aimed at preventing inter-faith marriages.

Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, both governed by the BJP, have recently passed such laws. Some more BJP-ruled states have also decided to introduce anti-conversion laws. The Haryana government has formed a three-member drafting committee to frame a law on the matter. Karnataka and Assam governments have made similar announcements.

These actions are despite the fact that in February 2019, the Centre told the Lok Sabha that no “case of ‘love jihad’ has been reported by any of the central agencies”. In February this year, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs G Kishan Reddy replied in the negative to a question if there was enough evidence to show that interfaith marriages are related to forced religious conversions.

Tablighi Jamaat

The report also said that many government officials and non-government actors used social media to spread misinformation against minority communities. “At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, disinformation and hateful rhetoric – including from government officials – often targeted religious minorities, continuing familiar patterns,” the panel said.

The panel referred to a Tablighi Jamaat congregation that took place at the Nizamuddin Markaz and was blamed for thousands of coronavirus infections around the country in the initial weeks of the nationwide lockdown which began on March 25, 2020. The event had renewed stigma against Muslims, triggering a wave of business boycotts and hate speech towards them. The Tablighi Jamaat is a Sunni Muslim sect with followers in over 80 countries.

Several cases were filed against people who attended the congregation for reasons such as allegedly disobeying the government’s Covid guidelines or violating the conditions of their visa. But courts quashed most of the FIRs and acquitted members. The SC also criticised the media coverage of the matter, and pulled up the government for not placing curbs on television programmes.

The US panel report said:

“Experts suggest that in 2020, pervasive disinformation about the CAA protests and the Covid-19 pandemic specifically targeted religious minorities and marginalized communities, disproportionately affecting women. Dalits, who have long faced religious-based discrimination in all aspects of life, experienced heightened harassment and discrimination during the Covid-19 pandemic.”

— The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom 2021 annual report

The report also said that members of civil society, including human rights advocates and media reporting on religious freedom violations, have faced intimidation and harassment. It said that the government took several steps to limit engagement and support of the non-government organisations, including amending the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act to reduce the amount of foreign funds they get.

Johnnie Moore, the commissioner for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said that India must resist allowing political and intercommunal conflict to be exacerbated by religious tensions. “India’s government and people have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose from preserving social harmony and protecting the rights of everyone,” he said.

Recommendations made by the USCIRF are non-binding to the State Department. India has regularly rejected unfavourable views expressed by the panel.

Last April, India called the USCIRF “an organisation of particular concern” and rejected the 2020 report, saying that the panel’s “misrepresentation has reached new levels”.

In February 2020, after the commission expressed concern over the communal violence in Delhi, India called its remarks factually inaccurate and misleading.

In December 2019, 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.