Explainer: Will India be placed on the US's religious freedom blacklist?

Explainer: Will India be placed on the US's religious freedom blacklist?
A US government panel has called for India to be placed on a religious freedoms blacklist as persecution and violence by Prime Minister Modi's supporters against Muslims continues.
4 min read
01 May, 2020
India is a close ally of the Trump administration [Getty]
A US government panel on Tuesday introduced a motion calling for India to be put on a religious freedom blacklist, over a “drastic” downturn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It marks a shift in the perception of India, as sectarian and religious violence against minorities bring the country to join the likes of Syria, Myanmar and North Korea.

In an annual report, the bipartisan panel narrowly agreed that India should join the ranks of "countries of particular concern" that would be subject to sanctions if they do not improve their records.

"In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault," the report said.

It called on the United States to impose punitive measures - including visa bans - on Indian officials believed responsible for religious repression, and to grant funding to civil society groups that monitor hate speech.

The commission said that Modi's Hindu nationalist government, which won a convincing election victory last year, "allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity, and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence."

What is the US Commission on International Religious Freedom?

USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan US federal government commission created by the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief across the world.

USCIRF uses international standards to monitor religious freedom violations globally, and makes policy recommendations to the US President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.

The organisation issues a yearly report looking into religious freedoms globally, which is then used to advice US foreign policy.

In the past the commission has looked at issues including global use of blasphemy laws, religious violence in Pakistan; and religious freedom provisions in the constitutions of Muslim-majority countries.

Why India?

The report highlighted the revocation of the autonomy of Kashmir, which was India's only Muslim-majority state, and allegations that Delhi police turned a blind eye to mobs who attacked Muslim neighbourhoods in February this year.

India will join the likes of China, Eritrea, Saudi Arabia, and Myanmar as countries the US deems to be of “particular concern”.

The commission asked that all nine countries currently on the list remain there. In addition to India, it sought the inclusion of four more - Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam.

In response, the Indian government, long irritated by the American commission's comments, quickly rejected the report.

"Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels," foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said.

"We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly," he said in a statement.

Muslim minorities in danger in India

Modi’s government in December last year approved an anti-Muslim citizenship law that provides rapid naturalisation for foreign-born minorities while depriving India’s indigenous Muslim population of those same rights, signalling a sharp move away from equal rights in the country when it comes to its religious minority population.

Read More: Between virus and violence: The horror of being Muslim in India

The controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) – deemed unconstitutional, anti-Muslim and a threat to the pluralist structure of India by critics – triggered massive unrest in India after it was passed in December last year.

In Delhi prolonged peaceful sit-ins, mostly held by Muslims, went on for months, and violence erupted in February when Hindu rioters attacked the Muslim protesters.

Scores of Muslims were beaten mercilessly by pro-government Hindutva mobs, who burned down Muslim-owned properties, including shops and houses, and desecrated Muslim religious sites. The violence against India's Muslim population left at least 24 people dead, including a policeman, and more than 200 injured.

“Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has increasingly drawn on the same post-9/11 securitised and racist rhetoric when speaking about the country's Muslims, which make up 14 percent of India's 1.3 billion,” wrote Mobashra Tazamal for The New Arab.

“They seek to re-frame Indian Muslims... as not only ‘terrorists’ but also ‘illegal immigrants,’ a dual shift in ‘ideological alignment over the figure of the Muslim, one determined by the US, and the other by Europe.’ In India, the Muslim ‘other’ is oppositional and a detriment to the Hindu nation that the BJP seeks to create.”

However, despite the increasing persecution of Muslims in India, it should be noted that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends policy but does not set it, and despite its sharp words against Modi’s government, there is very little chance that the State Department will follow its lead on India, an increasingly close US ally.

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