The growing myopia in India is now causing the auspiciously projected international image of the country to experience a sharp downturn. Besides increasingly adverse media coverage, a Genocide Alert was issued for Indian Occupied Kashmir a few months ago. This past week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has also placed India on its list of ‘countries of particular concern’ (CPC) due to its widespread religious intolerance.
India’s inclusion on the USCIRF ranking is certainly merited. At the end of last year, Pakistan had reacted angrily to again being deemed a CPC due to its lingering failure to protect its minorities. Moreover, our foreign ministry was particularly upset by the seeming subjectivity and bias of the State Department’s designation, which we pointed out to be illustrated by the conspicuous omission of India. This rebuttal was not entirely accurate, however.
The US State Department’s designation of countries of concern due to religious intolerance is, in fact, based on an evaluation carried out by USCIRF — an independent body funded by the US government. The last USCIRF report focused on data gathered in 2018, and had found Pakistan’s blasphemy persecutions, the ongoing sectarian violence, and threat of extremist groups to be issues of major concern. This year’s report, which was released a few days ago, is based on developments which took place in 2019.
While communal tensions in India are a longstanding phenomenon, the BJP’s landslide victory last year emboldened the Modi government to institute a sequence of very problematic policies. The Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) and the National Population Register have caused much consternation both at home and abroad.
UN special rapporteurs have warned that multitudes of people in India now face the threat of “statelessness, deportation, and/or prolonged detention”. Nationwide protesters against the CAA have also been met with violent reprisal from the police and government-aligned groups like the RSS.
Moreover, the continued enforcement of cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, the Supreme Court ruling of November on the Babri Masjid site and hate mongering by senior BJP leaders have created a culture of impunity for targeted campaigns of harassment and violence. Even the Covid-19 pandemic has been coopted to clamp down on protesters and to persecute Indian Muslims.
In its 2020 report (which, again, is based on data gathered in 2019), USCIRF has recommended to the US State Department that 14 countries be designated as CPCs because their governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, egregious violations”.
Before Pakistan begins to congratulate itself, it should be noted that it too remains amongst the list of nine countries that the State Department designated as CPCs in December 2019 (Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan), and now this list includes another five countries (India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam), which the State Department would potentially also place on the revised list of countries where the lack of religious freedom is concerning.
Whether we agree or disagree with the findings of the USCIRF report, the fact of the matter remains that this list is paid heed within the US government as well as in the international community.
India has obviously rejected the USCIRF assessment, which is a big blemish on the country’s image given that this is the first time India has been placed in this category since 2004 (due to the rise in communal violence following the Gojra incident).
There were dissenting voices within the US administration too, which feel that placing India, ‘the largest democracy in the world’ and ‘a key US ally’ on the USCIRF list is not advisable. However, many other human rights groups and American Muslims have welcomed the move.
One hopes that India (as well as Pakistan) will pay more attention to why they have been placed on this unenviable list, rather than trying to refute its findings, or focusing on who else should, or should not, have been on this list.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 8th, 2020.
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