USCIRF 2020: Why India Should Introspect

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (the Commission) established by International Religious Freedom Act, 1998 (IRFA) with the principle aim of reviewing instances of violations of religious freedoms internationally and make policy recommendations to the department of state of the United States. In its Annual Report for 2020, the Commission has recommended India for Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedoms.

Broadly speaking, the Commission consists of nine voting members out of which three appointed by the President, four are appointed by the opposition, two are appointed by the leader of President’s political party.

India a CPC

The chapter on India in the report holds that the following the re-election of the Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) in May 2019, the central government used its strengthened majority to implement national-level policies violating religious freedoms of minorities in India, especially Muslims.

The report has considered CAA-NRC issue extensively. It holds the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019 to be fast track route to citizenship for non-muslims from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. It has critiqued the exercise of National Register of Citizens in Assam, which excluded about 2 million Hindus and Muslims stateless. In the Commission’s view, the CAA was enacted because the Central government feared possible exclusion of Hindus if and when nationwide NRC is carried out. It is pertinent to note that the Commission does not find the CAA to be problematic alone rather the coupled effect of CAA-NRC appears problematic, this has been argued by some Indians.

In addition to this, the Commission has criticised hate speech, including those given by mainstream political leaders. Among other things, the commission expressed its concern on anti-conversion laws, the violations in the state of Jammu and Kashmir post the partial abrogation of Article 370 and cow slaughter related mob-lynchings.

The Road that Led India

There are numerous factors responsible for India’s classification as a CPC. Recent events, like relentless slandering of Muslims in the garb of Tablighi Jamaat incidents, suggests that India is not expected to improve substantially in the near future. Although the Prime Minister of India can be seen advocating for non-discrimination, his sub-ordinates preach the opposite.

Even the Commission has acknowledged this and said “Yogi Adityanath pledged “revenge” against anti-CAA protestors and stated they should be fed bullets, not biryani.”(emphasis supplied). The statement is clearly directed towards protesters and in particular towards Muslims protestors. This is perhaps one of the primary reason why India ended up in the CPC list.

The episodes of mob-lynching are rising in India, majority of the victims of these mob-lynchings are Muslims in India. The state governments as well as the central government, have failed repeatedly to respond effectively to mob-lynchings and enact stricter laws despite being directed by the Supreme Court. In a nutshell, due process is being flouted in India. Another extreme example is the direction given by the Home Ministry of the Union of India to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB). The Ministry has instructed the NCRB to completely omit and exclude the mob-lynching from the Annual NCRB Report of 2019. This step is taken without any rational and will affect not only policymaking in India as well as research.

Moreover, the mainstream media in India has a particular role to play in India’s classification as a CPC. There have been numerous instances of biased reporting, demonizing of Muslims and ignoring the atrocities against minorities. Ranging from a biased view of the attack on students in Jamia Milia Islamia University to the 2020 Delhi riots. Ignoring the arbitrary acts of police or executive in general of stopping minorities while offering prayers and so on are only a few facets of the bias in the mainstream Indian media. Even the commissioners who dissented from the majority in the Annual report of USCIRF have accepted that media in India is biased to some extent.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court of India is equally responsible for the rising majoritarian conception. Constitutional experts and scholars have expressed their concern regarding the hearing of habeas corpus petitions from the state of Jammu and Kashmir. It is a settled doctrine that habeas corpus petitions are accepted to be of utmost importance. However, the Indian Supreme Court in recent times has failed to give this importance to these petitions.

The long-standing restriction on internet services in J&K is yet another example. Although the Supreme Court held right to freedom of speech through the internet as a medium a fundamental right in Anuradha Bhasin’s case, the services are not restored in the state till date. It would not be far-fetched to say that in times of COVID-19 when almost everything is on the web, deprivation of 4G internet services in the state is a violation of the right to life and personal liberty itself.

The story doesn’t end here. Two important judgments were given by the Supreme Court in recent years concerning religion, viz the Sabarimala Judgment and the Ramjanmabhoomi Judgment/Babri-Masjid ruling. Briefly, the SabrimalaJudgmentis concerning the rights of women to enter and worship in the Hindu temple Sabrimala whereas Ramjanmabhoomi Judgment was, in essence, a property dispute and related with the birthplace of Lord Rama/Mosque built by Barber. The Sabrimala Judgment which recognised the rights of women to enter and worship in the Sabrimala temple was not well received by the Hindu community whereas the ruling in Ramjanmabhoomi Judgment was widely appreciated.

A review petition was filed in both these cases, the Sabrimala Judgment was accepted whereas Ramjanmabhoomi Judgment was rejected from the chamber without giving an opportunity of an open court hearing. I am not questioning the rejection of review the latter case, however, I am questioning the acceptance of review in the Sabrimala Judgment. To accept a review, there has to an error apparent on the face of the record in the judgment, which was not pointed out in the Sabrimala review petition.

Tackling The Defence Of Dissent

The report is being disregarded based on the fact that three out of nine commissioners in the Commission dissented from the view that India should be included in the list of CPC. It is certainly true that the report is not based on consensus. However, there are two primary objections to this defence, viz firstly the three commissioners, Gary L. Bauer, Tenzin Dorjee and Johnnie Moore, who dissented did not give India a clean chit. They have expressed their concern about religious freedom. Gary Bauer, while dissenting from the majority view, stated, “the trend line on religious freedom in India is not reassuring”(emphasis supplied). The dissenters express that India is not on the same pedestal as China, North Korea and Pakistan. Secondly, two of the three dissenters were nominees of President Trump and owing to the strong ties between PM Modi and President Trump, the dissenters might have voted against the majority view.

To conclude, diplomatically the right step was to reject the report which is what the government did. However, this does not in any way mean that the contents of the report are absolutely untrue. The leadership in India needs to introspect their actions, in particular, check their subordinates in the states. Last time when India was classified in the CPC list was 2002 after the Godhra Hindu-Muslim riots, keeping this in mind the government should decide their course of action. There is a need to balance punishment with the wrongful act, booking a journalist under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) is something India should refrain from. The report has called for the United States to impose sanctions on India, bar entry of individuals responsible in the United States and so on, these recommendations might take effect. But our course of action should not be dependent on it. Introspection is all that the leadership needs.

Prakhar Raghuvanshi
Prakhar Raghuvanshi
Prakhar Raghuvanshi is currently a law undergraduate at National Law University Jodhpur (India).