Washington, Oct. 1: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s stinging reply to General Pervez Musharraf’s comments on Gujarat in the UN General Assembly last month appears to have bypassed Washington.
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has criticised the BJP-led government for not imposing President’s rule in Gujarat after the communal violence in the state.
The Commission, a statutory body advising the US Congress and the administration on religious freedom abroad, asked secretary of state Colin Powell to designate India as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) under America’s International Religious Freedom Act of 1998.
With the recommendation, India has one more battle to fight in Washington. If Powell agrees to the Commission’s demand, the US President will be required under Act to counter incidents such as those in Gujarat with specific measures. These range from mild ones such as demarches through diplomatic channels to imposition of sanctions. The President can also use his authority to waive action.
The Commission’s missive to Powell yesterday asking for India’s designation as a CPC does not mean the end of the road for New Delhi on this issue.
The secretary of state will back off if India is able to apply the right amount of pressure in the right places in the administration. Effective Indian lobbying on Capitol Hill can also produce results in New Delhi’s favour.
For several years, the Commission has been asking the state department to name Saudi Arabia as a CPC. A close ally of successive administrations here, the state department has, however, stood its ground and refused to give in to the Commission’s recommendation on the oil-rich Arab kingdom.
The state department has also failed to act on similar recommendations for Turkmenistan, where US interests are involved in the central Asian gas pipeline and for Laos, which is crucial to US strategy in Indo-China.
Also in India’s favour is dissent by Felice Gaer, chairperson of the Commission, on its recommendation to Powell that India should be designated as a CPC. The vice-chairman of the Commission, Michael Young, also dissented with the majority of the panel.
In a dissenting note to the letter to Powell, they said: “Although we are appalled by the violence against Muslims that took place in Gujarat this year, we respectfully dissent from the decision to recommend that India be named a CPC... The worst levels of violence were contained in a short time period relative to other similar outbreaks in the past and were confined to the state of Gujarat, not spreading to other states, largely because of the actions of Indian officials.”
They said: “We do not agree that in the case of India as a whole it can be said that systematic, ongoing, egregious violations of religious freedom have been engaged in or tolerated by the Indian government to an extent to warrant CPC status.”
In a one-page note on the situation in India attached to the letter to Powell, the Commission referred to the Narendra Modi government’s decision to dissolve Gujarat’s Assembly and hold elections “despite the devastation and massive displacement of Muslims caused by the riots”.
It quoted the Election Commission’s comments on its resolve not have immediate polls and pointed out to Powell that the poll panel “also recommended that the Central government invoke presidential rule in Gujarat” because “fear...is still a palpable reality”.
For the first time, the Commission also recommended that Pakistan should be designated as a CPC for “failure...to protect religious minorities from sectarian violence” and other acts.
China, Myanmar, Iran, Iraq, Sudan and North Korea are countries which are already designated as CPCs.
Yesterday’s letter to Powell calls for Vietnam, Turkmenistan, Saudi Arabia and Laos to be put under the CPC label in addition to India and Pakistan.