- PARTICIPATING IN CONGRESSIONAL BRIEFING, US LAWMAKERS, USCIRF HEAD VOICE ALARM OVER WIDESPREAD PERSECUTION OF RELIGIOUS MINORITIES, RIGHTS DEFENDERS
- FORMER V-P ANSARI SAYS NEW CULTURAL NATIONALISM DISTINGUISHES CITIZENS ON BASIS OF FAITH, GIVES VENT TO INTOLERANCE AND PROMOTES INSECURITY
WASHINGTON, DC – A United States Senator and three Members of the United States Congress have condemned the escalating violations of human rights, civil and political liberties, and religious freedom under the BJP government. The widespread persecution of India’s religious minorities and human rights defenders and the rash of anti-democratic legislation in India threatens and undermines India’s pluralist Constitution, these officials said at a Special Congressional Briefing called to commemorate India’s 73rd Republic Day on January 26.
Saying he was “concerned” about the Modi government’s “efforts to peel back the rights of religious minorities in India,” US Senator Ed Markey said that the “laws on religious conversion, citizenship and other restrictive measures fly in the face of India’s inclusive secular Constitution and core tenets of any democracy.”
“As the Indian government continues to target the practices of minority faiths, it creates an atmosphere where discrimination and violence can take root. In recent years, we have seen an uptick in online hate speech and acts of hate, including vandalised mosques, torched churches, and communal violence,” Senator Markey said.
India’s former Vice President Hamid Ansari warned of the imaginary new cultural nationalism that “wants to distinguish citizens on the basis of their faith, give vent to intolerance, insinuate otherness, and promote disquiet and insecurity.”
Congressman Jim McGovern, who is the Co-Chair of the powerful Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the US House of Representatives, listed several warning signs that showed India’s alarming backsliding on human rights.
“For the first time in 2019, a law was passed that links citizenship to religious identity. There is every reason to fear that this change combined with the proposal for a National Register of Citizens institutionalises discrimination against Muslims,” Congressman McGovern said.
The “concern about discrimination based on religious identity [was] so great that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom has recommended that India be designated a Country of Particular Concern,” McGovern added, referring to the premier federal commission that tracks global religious persecution. He quoted USCIRF to say the Modi government “promoted Hindu nationalist policies, resulting in systemic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
Condemning the abuse of harsh anti-terror laws to crack down on journalists, activists, lawyers, and other civilians, Congressman McGovern said, “This kind of misguided anti-terrorism legislation is not the sign of a healthy democracy. We cannot be silent when measures are taken that discriminate against whole populations or when inflammatory language is used that could incite violence against those populations.”
US Congressman Andy Levin said he had loved India since he first traveled there as a 17-year-old, but also warned that he was closely monitoring the recent threats to Indian pluralism: “India, as the world’s largest secular democracy, was such a source of pride to me as a ‘Bharat wala,’ a friend of India… Regrettably, today, the world’s largest democracy is seeing backsliding, human rights under attack, and religious nationalism. Since 2014, India has fallen from 27 to 53 on the Democracy Index. And Freedom House downgraded India from free to partly free.”
He added, “As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Vice Chair of its Asia Subcommittee, a longtime human rights activist and a proponent of democratic values all over the world, please know that I’m closely following events in India in any way. The country is in danger of becoming less free and less representative for all the people who live there.”
Congressman Jamie Raskin, a member of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission and Chair of the House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the US House of Representatives, spoke on India’s continuing struggle for human rights, especially under Prime Minister Modi, which affects not just India’s Muslim, Christian, and Sikh minorities, but also Hindus who dissent against the Hindu supremacist movement.
“There have been a lot of problems with the issue of religious authoritarianism and discrimination taking place in India,” he said. “So we want to make sure that India… stays on the path of respecting religious liberty, freedom, pluralism, toleration and dissent for everybody. And we don’t want to see discrimination against any minority religious group or any majority religious group, for that matter. That is the road to authoritarianism and destruction of civil liberty.”
Nadine Maenza, Chair of the United States Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), spoke on USCIRF’s recommendation to label India as a Country of Particular Concern for the past two years. This recommendation was based on repeated offenses by the Indian government against its vulnerable minority populations.
“Since 2014, the BJP-led Indian government has increasingly institutionalised its ideological vision of a Hindu state at both the national and state levels through a foundation of laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities, which include Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and adivasis,” she said. “For this reason, since 2020, USIRF has recommended that the State Department designate India as a Country of Particular concern or a CPC for engaging in tolerating systemic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.”
She said that ever since Modi became prime minister, “Hindu nationalist groups have launched inflammatory campaigns decrying interfaith relationships, including calling for censorship of media depictions of these relationships… Mobs empathetic with Hindu nationalism acted with impunity and at times were assisted by authorities, even police, in targeting religious minorities in places of worship. Sectarian violence is enabled by hate speech and disinformation propelled by government officials. Civil society lacks the freedom to document or raise their voices against gross human rights and religious freedom violations.”
Hamid Ansari, former Vice President of India, expressed his concern over the rising trend of Hindu nationalism: “In recent years, we have experienced emergence of trends and practices that dispute the well-established principle of civic nationalism and interposes a new and imaginary practice of cultural nationalism…. It wants to distinguish citizens on the basis of their faith, give vent to intolerance, insinuate otherness, and promote disquiet and insecurity.”
He also urged action against these human rights offences by saying, “These trends need to be contested legally and contested politically.”
Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, reflected on her longtime friendship with Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez, whose recent arrest under India’s draconian anti-terror law was decried by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
“Khurram’s most recent arrest is a prime example of the crackdown on civic space in India and across the globe – where regimes target journalists, lawyers, and human rights defenders who play a critical role of holding governments accountable for human rights abuses,” said Kerry, who is the daughter of the late Senator Robert Kennedy and a niece of former US President John Kennedy.
Carolyn Nash, Asia Advocacy Director at Amnesty International USA, criticized President Joe Biden’s “warm relationship” with Modi during the recent democracy summit, especially in the face of the Indian government’s “profound fear of activists and critics.” Nash said the draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), “violates an individual’s right to fair trial. It imposes stringent bail requirements and intentionally slows the investigative process.” She added that the law was made “more problematic in 2019 with amendments that give greater leverage to authorities to designate an individual a terrorist.
“The definition of terrorists is overly broad, and this allows the law to be used to label and detain just about anyone the government wants to target. It’s important to note that this sweeping definition of terrorism is intentional. The weaponising of the UAPA against rights defenders and journalists and others is the point of the legislation. It’s designed to create a pervasive climate of fear that chokes out free expression, and that dims the light that activists and journalists have worked so hard to shine on human rights abusers.”
She said the stories of human rights defenders suffering under the UAPA “must be a wake up call to show solidarity for civil society and human rights defenders at the front lines of India today. And to insist that the laws the government wields to perpetuate human rights abuses will not be tolerated, and demand that the Indian government deliver on its human rights obligations.”
Archbishop Peter Machado, who heads the archdiocese of Bangalore, spoke on India’s rising number of anti-conversion laws, which Hindu extremists weaponize against religious minorities to harass, assault, and imprison them on flimsy claims of forcing Hindus to convert to other religions. “In the name of the freedom of religion, [India] has been bringing more and more laws and regulations to restrict our freedom of religion,” he said.
Karnataka state’s new anti-conversion law would “be discriminatory to Christians… I see that even without the law there are so many instances of violence, of hurt, of hating each other [are] taking place. Unfortunately, it is not only affecting the Christians alone. The freedom of marriage is going to be affected.”
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, Former President of Mauritius, spoke of her Indian heritage and the strong fraternal ties she had experienced within the diverse Indian diaspora community whilst growing up. These ties were rooted in the values of the Indian Constitution, which she described as “unique in its content and spirit.” She added that it was “unfortunate” that the Constitution that constituted India into a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic and safeguarded and protected human rights, was “being trampled upon almost on a daily basis.”
The briefing was co-hosted by Amnesty International USA, Genocide Watch, 21Wilberforce, Hindus for Human Rights, Indian American Muslim Council, International Christian Concern, Jubilee Campaign, Dalit Solidarity Forum, New York State Council of Churches, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America, India Civil Watch International, Students Against Hindutva Ideology, Center for Pluralism, American Muslim Institution, International Society for Peace and Justice, Association of Indian Muslims of America, the Humanism Project (Australia).
The briefing was moderated by Sravya Tadepalli, Board Member, Hindus for Human Rights.