Abuse of Muslims, Christians, and other minorities in India drew the attention of a federal religious freedom watchdog in its annual report released on Tuesday.
“India took a sharp downward turn in 2019,” concluded the 2020 annual report of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).
USCIRF is a bipartisan federal commission that studies religious persecution and adverse circumstances facing religious minorities around the world, and makes policy recommendations to the State Department.
India’s Hindu nationalist BJP party won elections in 2017 and again in 2019 to gain a majority in the national legislature. The government then “used its strengthened parliamentary majority to institute national-level policies violating religious freedom across India, especially for Muslims,” USCIRF said.
USCIRF released its annual report on Tuesday, documenting progress and setbacks for religious freedom in 29 countries around the world during the previous year.
The commission recommended that India be designated by the State Department as a “country of particular concern” (CPC)—a designation reserved for the worst violators of religious freedom or the countries where the worst abuses are taking place and the governments do not stop them. USCIRF has not recommended India for the CPC list since 2004.
Of concern is the country’s new policy of fast-tracking citizenship for non-Muslim migrants from neighboring countries which, combined with a National Register of Citizens, could leave many Muslims without legal protections and saddled with burdens of having to prove their citizenship.
This could potentially result in 100 million people, mostly Muslims, being left “essentially stateless,” said USCIRF chair Tony Perkins.
In addition, the report highlighted the enforcement of anti-conversion laws, and acts of violence committed with impunity by non-state actors against religious minorities.
Christians have been subject to increasing attacks by mobs in India, with national and state governments failing to protect them and administer justice to perpetrators. A 2020 Open Doors report noted at least 447 verified incidents of violence and hate crimes committed against Christians in India in a year, many of them by radical Hindus.
In response to media queries on the observations on India in the USCIRF annual report, the Official Spokesperson Mr. Anurag Srivastava said, “We reject the observations on India in the USCIRF Annual Report. Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. It has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavor. We regard it as an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.”
Three USCIRF commissioners dissented from the report’s CPC recommendation for India, saying that despite abuses that have been committed, it is still the world’s largest democracy and does not have the same level of persecution of religious minorities as China and North Korea.
Among the recommendations USCIRF makes each year are designations of countries to a tier-system of rankings, based on how serious their religious freedom abuses are.
The CPC list is for the worst violators, and the State Department has already designated as CPCs Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan.
In addition, USCIRF recommended that India, Nigeria, Russia, Syria, and Vietnam be added to the list.
The next tier below the CPC designation is the “Special Watch List,” where abuses of religious minorities are taking place but not at a level as severe as in CPC-designated countries.
USCIRF recommended that Cuba, Nicaragua, Uzbekistan, and Sudan be kept on the State Department’s Special Watch List; in addition, the commission recommended that the agency add Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey to the list.
Nicaragua appeared on the list for the first time, commissioner Nadine Maenza said, noting that the government has targeted the Catholic Church and attacks on clergy, laity, and church property have occurred.