The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Not all reports from the US proclaim that India is shining

To demonstrate that India is shining, we are now especially fond of reports that emanate from the United States of America. For purposes of objective assessment, the Indian media should cover all reports that originate from the US, not just the ones that prove India is shining. The US commission on international religious freedom was created under the international religious freedom act of 1998. The USCIRF is supposed to make independent recommendations to the US president, the secretary of state and the congress for possible policy action. It is chaired by Dean Michael Young and the other members are Felice Gaer, Nina Shea, Preeta Bansal, Patti Chang, the archbishop Charles Chaput, Khaled Abou El Fadl, Richard Land, the bishop Ricardo Ramirez, the ambassador John Hanford and Joseph Crapa.

On February 10, 2004, the USCIRF recommended to the secretary of state, Colin Powell, that 11 countries should be designated “countries of particular concern” “for the systematic, ongoing, and egregious violation of religious freedom that the governments are responsible for or have tolerated”. These countries are Myanmar, North Korea, Eritrea, India, Iran, Pakistan, China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. Under the IRFA, the “countries of particular concern” designation entails an obligation to impose sanctions against the country concerned, unless the president decides that existing sanctions are enough or decides to waive this requirement. The USCIRF can only recommend the CPC designation, the actual designation will be done by the state department, as far as I can make out, in March 2004. The CPC designation is stronger than “Watch List” designation.

Why does the USCIRF not think that India is shining' You will find the complete details at the website, But here is the gist. “In India, violence, including fatal attacks, against Muslims and Christians continues, and the government has yet to address adequately the killing of an estimated 2,000 Muslims in the state of Gujarat in 2002. Several central government ministers from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, or BJP, have publicly allied themselves with extremist Hindu organizations, known collectively as the Sangh Parivar, whose members regularly employ hate speech against religious minorities, have been implicated in violence against them, and seek legislation to prohibit the religious conversion of Dalits and others from Hinduism.”

In the more detailed report, you will find the following. “Though there have been some convictions of a few perpetrators of the Gujarat violence and attacks on Christians, and though the BJP-led central government may not be directly responsible for instigating the violence against religious minorities, it is clear that the government does not do all in its power to pursue the perpetrators of the attacks and to counteract the prevailing climate of hostility against these minority groups. India’s two most senior leaders, Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, are both members of the RSS and have never renounced its militant Hindu ideology. The severe violence in Gujarat provided the national government with adequate grounds — under the Constitution and existing laws to counteract communal violence — to invoke central rule in the state, yet the BJP government did not do so, despite many requests and the fact that the killing of Muslims continued (on a lesser scale) for many weeks. Prime Minister Vajpayee did not condemn the massacre of Muslims unequivocally until more than one year after the violence occurred. Quicker action to forestall Hindu-Muslim violence was taken by the Vajpayee government in October 2003, when police arrested 1,500 members of a militant Hindu group rallying in the town of Ayodhya and demanding a temple on the site where a mosque once stood, until it was torn down by a Hindu mob in 1992.

“In March 2003, the Gujarat government passed a bill against religious conversions. (Though Article 25 of India’s Constitution provides for “the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion,” in 1977, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that the constitutional right to propagate religion did not include a right to convert [or attempt to convert] another.) The Gujarat bill, which is modelled on similar laws in the states of Tamil Nadu and Orissa, requires government officials to assess the legality of conversions and provides for fines and imprisonment for anyone who uses force, fraud, or “inducement” to convert another. Though worded to prohibit only ‘forced’ religious conversions, observers contend that the bill is targeted against conversions generally of Hindus to Christianity and Islam. To date, however, there are no reports of persons having been arrested under this law.”

The USCIRF recommends that the US government should urge the BJP leadership to denounce RSS militancy that supports violence and discrimination; make clear its concern to the BJP-led government that virulent nationalist rhetoric is fuelling an atmosphere in which perpetrators believe they can attack religious minorities with impunity; persistently press the Indian government to pursue perpetrators of violent acts that target members of minority religious groups.

Besides, it should urge the government of India to oppose any attempts to interfere with or prohibit ties between religious communities inside India and their co-religionists outside the country, and any government efforts to regulate religious choice or conversion; urge India to allow official visits from foreign government agencies concerned with human rights, including religious freedom; and take into account, in the course of working toward improvements in US-Indian economic and trade relations, the efforts of the Indian government to protect religious freedom, prevent and punish violence against religious minorities, and promote the rule of law.

In all fairness, one should mention the minority view within USCIRF also. “Commissioners Bansal, Gaer, and Young dissent from the Commission’s recommendation that India be designated a country of particular concern. Their views with respect to India are reflected in a separate opinion, attached to this letter as Appendix A. Commissioner Chaput also joins this separate opinion, and would place India on the Watch List rather than recommend that it be designated a CPC.”

The note of dissent doesn’t make out a case for India shining. But it suggests that the CPC designation might be counter-productive. “As noted in the dissent last year, India, unlike the other countries on the Commission’s recommended CPC or Watch List, is a respected constitutional democracy with manifold religious traditions that coexist and flourish under extreme economic and other conditions; has a judiciary which is independent, albeit slow-moving and frequently unresponsive, that can work to hold the perpetrators responsible; contains a vibrant civil society with many vigorous, independent non-governmental human rights organizations that have investigated and published extensive reports about the Gujarat government’s handling of the situation and the rise of religiously-motivated violence; and is home to a free press that has widely reported on and strongly criticized the situation on the ground in Gujarat and the growing threats to a religiously plural society within India. In fact, some of the most vociferous critics of the Gujarat government’s handling of the 2002 situation and the prosecutions thereafter have been Indian governmental bodies — including the National Human Rights Commission, the National Commission on Minorities, and the National Commission for Women, and much of the source material for critical analysis of the state of religious freedom in India derives from publications of the Indian media and of nongovernmental and other civil society groups within India. We remain very concerned about growing threats to the religiously plural foundations of Indian society. The pace of prosecutions against individual perpetrators of the Gujarat and other religious violence is slow. This is a moment when Indian government officials need to act in defense of religious freedom by forcefully denouncing and taking concrete steps to redress religious-based violence in order to preserve their own legitimacy with respect to human rights. Nonetheless, despite our concerns, we feel that adding India to the CPC list of nations is inappropriate at this time. India has the legal and democratic traditions to deal with religious intolerance and should be strongly encouraged to do so.”

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