After the diplomatic embarrassment over the outrage in Gulf countries over Islamophobia by Indians, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended this week that India be designated as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) in its 2020 annual report.
It’s for the first time since 2004 that USCIRF has recommended that India be designated a CPC, where governments engage in or tolerate “systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations of religious freedom. India is in dubious company—countries on the list this year include Pakistan, China, North Korea, Russia and Saudi Arabia.
Two members of the nine-member panel also recorded their dissent, arguing that India, the world’s largest democracy, could not be equated with countries like China and North Korea.
One of the recommendations of the USCIRF to the country’s State Department is to impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States.
So what exactly is this commission and how influential is it?
Suchitra Vijayan, lawyer and founder of Polis Project, a New York-based non-profit research and journalism organisation, told HuffPost India that the Commission is part of the US government but independent of the State Department, the Executive Branch, and the Congress.
She pointed out the two key roles of the Commission — to monitor religious freedom violations across the world and to make recommendations to the US government on how to promote religious freedom as part of American foreign policy.
AFP said that the USCIRF recommends but does not set policy and there is virtually no chance the state department will follow its lead on a close ally like India.
Whether the US government follows the recommendations or not, reports like this play an essential role in building on advocacy and momentum against state violence and practices in India, said Vijayan.
Writing in Business Standard, Aakar Patel, former head of Amnesty International India, said that the report’s recommendation will lead to the US government’s intervention in some form or another. “How deep the intervention is, whether it will be limited to behind the scenes arm-twisting or sanctions, will depend on who wins the election in the US later this year and how the Indian government behaves from here on,” he wrote.
The Narendra Modi government’s second term, which began in May 2019, has been marked by strife and protests—from the decision to abrogate Jammu & Kashmir’s special status and pushing through the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) to allegations of inaction during the Delhi riots, the government has repeatedly been accused of treating India’s Muslims with brutality and disdain.
Concerns over Islamophobic posts by Indians have also been raised in some Gulf countries recently. Princess Hend Al Qassimi, a member of the royal family of the United Arab Emirates, has recently been vocal about hate speech against Muslims in India.
“Embarrassment is hardly the word to describe the growing lack of faith and credibility of India as a secular democracy,” Vijayan said, adding that India should seriously think about the implications of hate speech, persecuting minorities, and curtailing religious freedoms.
What the report said
The latest USCIRF report cited the CAA and concerns about religious freedom in Jammu and Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, among other incidents, to reach its conclusion. It said that in 2019, “religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault.”
The report also accused the Modi government of allowing violence against “minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity”, and that it also “engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.”
Coming down heavily on the BJP-led central government, it said:
“Throughout 2019, government action—including the CAA, continued enforcement of cow slaughter and anti-conversion laws, and the November Supreme Court ruling on the Babri Masjid site—created a culture of impunity for nationwide campaigns of harassment and violence against religious minorities.”
India has rejected the observations in the 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 endeavour. We regard it as an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” MEA spokesperson said in a response on Tuesday.
The 2004 USCIRF report had censured India over the government’s inadequate response to “violence against religious minorities in Gujarat and elsewhere”. The Commission said that the then Gujarat government led by Modi “has been widely accused of being reluctant to bring the perpetrators of the killings of Muslims to justice.” The report also accused then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee of not condemning “the massacre of Muslims unequivocally until more than one year after the violence occurred”.
Dissent within the panel
Two of the nine members expressed their dissent over the USCIRF recommendation to place India in the CPC.
“The trend line on religious freedom in India is not reassuring. But India is not the equivalent of communist China, which wages war on all faiths; nor of North Korea, a prison masquerading as a country; nor of Iran, whose Islamic extremist leaders regularly threaten to unleash a second Holocaust,” wrote Commissioner Gary L. Bauer.
Commissioner Tenzin Dorjee also dissented from the recommendation, saying that “India does not belong to the same category as authoritarian regimes like China and North Korea. India is the largest democratic nation in the world, where the CAA has been challenged openly by the opposition Congress Party and law makers, civil society, and various groups. By and large, the press freely reported both anti-and pro-CAA voices and chief ministers of states such as Kerala decided not to implement the CAA.”
The individual view of Commissioner Johnnie Moore was also highlighted in the report. “I am gravely concerned that political and inter-communal strife will be further exacerbated by religious tensions, yet I am also heartened that India remains the world’s largest democracy, governed by a pristine constitution, and I am also encouraged that this great nation is a tremendous friend and ally of the United States,” the Commissioner said.
What is the backlash in the Gulf about?
Princess Hend Al Qassimi has been very vocal about Islamophobic posts by Indians. In an op-ed for Gulf News, she wrote, “I pray for an India without hate and Islamophobia”.
“It is a shock for those of us who were familiar with India to see a rise in animosity, Islamophobia and a regular bloodbath happening, and now a pandemic that is called the ‘Qurano-Virus’,” she wrote.
Earlier, she had tweeted a part of the country’s law on hate speech and shared screenshots of tweets by an Indian, working in Dubai, who targeted Muslims over the Tablighi Jamaat event held in Delhi’s Nizamuddin.
She also noted the USCIRF report and said that the world has taken notice of the “Nazi doctrine crimes against Muslims and Christians in India.”
“The reaction from Gulf countries to the hate against Muslims in India marks a significant departure in the history of diplomatic engagement on issues that are largely dismissed as ‘internal’ matters of a country,” Ambreen Agha, Associate Professor at Jindal School of International Affairs, told HuffPost India.
A cabinet note from Kuwait expressing concerns about the “targeting of Indian Muslims” was leaked over the weekend, Hindustan Times reported. The note, dated March 2, from Kuwait’s council of ministers called on the world community and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) to take steps to stop such attacks. MEA spokesperson Anurag Srivastava later said the government of Kuwait has assured India “they do not support any interference in the internal affairs of India”.
The 57-member OIC had also criticised the “growing Islamophobia” in India and called on the Indian government to take steps to protect Muslim minorities who are being “negatively profiled” and facing “discrimination and violence”, according to The Hindu.
Some Indians have either lost their jobs or face legal action over hate speech. Bala Krishna Nakka, working in Dubai, was sacked for allegedly sharing Islamophobic posts on Facebook. Rakesh B. Kitturmath, who also worked in Dubai, was sacked after his post sparked an outrage on social media.
Around 9 million Indians work in the Gulf states, estimates the International Labour Organisation.
Following the backlash, Modi tweeted that COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or borders before striking.
The Indian government also went into damage control mode immediately, according to reports. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, The Times of India reported, spoke to his counterparts across the Arab world.
Agha, however, said that the Prime Minister’s tweets were a case of ‘too little, too late’.
“He has lived his tenure on the policy of maintaining deathly silence on issues of urgency. This message of ‘brotherhood’ is a complete eyewash. A country where a global pandemic can take a communal colour says significantly about the complicity of the leadership of the country,” she added.