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Delhi allows scrutiny of religious freedom

Washington, May 2: In its last days in office, the UPA government has broken with a long-standing policy of disallowing intrusive fact-finding visits from America and permitted a religious vigilante state body from the US to sit in judgement on the extent of India's religious freedom.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a statutory body created by the US Congress and funded by the US government, announced yesterday that its members will “travel to India for the first time in June 2009”.

Pending this scrutiny of the extent of religious freedom in the country, the Commission has put off its annual report on conditions in India and promised that it will only “release its report on India during this summer” after its members assess the conditions first hand.

Ever since the US Congress passed an International Religious Freedom Act 1998 and created the USCIRF, it has been trying to visit India, but New Delhi has consistently told the Commission’s members that they will not be given visas for an official visit if they applied for one.

That policy, hitherto followed by the NDA and UPA governments alike, has been in line with the stand taken by governments led by P.V. Narasimha Rao, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral that intrusive inspections by similarly placed US institutions and individuals to sit in judgement on India on issues like human rights would not be permitted.

Government officials, who objected to an USCIRF visit at this time and were overruled, suspect that politics, not diplomacy, is behind the unprecedented permission to allow the Commission into India.

Its members are certain to target Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi on the continuing fallout from Godhra and its aftermath as well as the BJP and other saffron organisations for communal violence in Orissa.

For whatever it is worth, it will add a dimension of international pressure to the actions resulting from a resurgent judicial activism against Modi and hold back, at least to a limited extent, Orissa chief minister Naveen Patnaik from realigning with the BJP in the crucial month of June, when the USCIRF team is expected to be in Orissa.

Even if the change in New Delhi's policy is overlooked and the USCIRF is given the benefit of the doubt, indications are that its judgement will neither be illuminating or factual.

In its annual report and announcement of the India visit yesterday, the USCIRF referred to Modi as “governor” of Gujarat and not its chief minister. The Commission also got Modi’s first name wrong as “Nahendra”, instead of Narendra.

This is despite the Commission having a 17-member professional staff, including a full-time researcher, specifically for South Asia.There is also a possibility, although unlikely given the character of the USCIRF, that the decision to play politics with the Commission’s visit could boomerang.

In March last year, the UPA government similarly allowed into India, without any prior announcement, a Pakistani, Asma Jahangir, the special rapporteur of freedom of religion or belief of the UN Human Rights Council.

Jahangir went to Gujarat, where, contrary to expectations, Modi laid out a red carpet for her. As a result, she was criticised by some human rights advocates in India and Pakistan, who would have preferred that she wrote her report without meeting Modi.Although some US allies like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia have been targeted for recommended sanctions as “countries of particular concern” by the USCIRF, it is significant that states that are considered unfriendly to Washington figure prominently among those routinely vilified by the Commission.

These include North Korea, Iran, Myanmar, Cuba, Russia and China.

In the last eight years, because of the Bush administration’s friendship with New Delhi, the Commission’s punitive recommendations on India have largely been ignored by the US administration.

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