USCIRF chief on why India was blacklisted for religious freedom

Boston, United States – In April this year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent and bipartisan federal government commission, recommended that India be placed on a religious freedom blacklist for the second year in a row.

In its 2021 annual report (PDF), the commission, which makes recommendations on religious freedom and foreign policy to the US President, the US Congress and the State Department, called for India, the world’s largest democracy, to be designated as a “country of special interest” (CPC) for “egregious violations of religious freedom.”

India shares the CPC list with 14 other countries, including Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Syria, Russia, Vietnam, and Turkmenistan.

The report also recommended that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken should impose specific sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for “gross violations of religious freedom” by freezing their assets, including banning upon entering the United States.

Since taking power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has been accused of persecuting minorities, especially its 200 million Muslims.

Current USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza, who previously served as commissioner and vice chair of the commission and has spoken out against the deteriorating religious freedom situation in India, spoke to Al Jazeera about attacks on minorities, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA). ), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the incarceration of activists and protesters, and the steps President Joe Biden should take to address these concerns.

Al Jazeera: What is your assessment of the current state of religious freedom in India?

Nadine Maenza: The conditions of religious freedom in India are very worrying. The Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promotes Hindu nationalist policies that result in systematic, continuous and egregious violations of religious freedom negatively impacting non-Hindu religious communities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) and adivasis (indigenous).

Al Jazeera: How do you view the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Citizen Registry (NRC)? What worries you most?

Maenza: The CAA, combined with the proposed national NRC, runs the risk of depriving Muslims across the country as it provides a path to citizenship for non-Muslims from neighboring Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, but has no remedy for those. Muslims caught up in NRC processes. Those who cannot prove their citizenship through documentation are subject to statelessness, deportation, and even detention.

Due to socioeconomic factors, many people are unable to provide proof of citizenship through documentation. As a result, approximately 1.9 million people were left off the Assam NRC list in 2019, and the majority excluded were Muslims. However, Hindus excluded from the NRC list are likely to be protected through the 2019 CAA.

Al Jazeera: What are your observations on the arrest of anti-CAA protesters, activists and student leaders?

Maenza: USCIRF is extremely concerned about the Indian government’s crackdown on civil society. The misuse of policies such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Financial Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) enables the Indian government to silence or restrict individuals and NGOs from reporting and combating religious persecution.

Al Jazeera: USCIRF has recommended that the United States designate India as a CPC. What prevents the Biden administration from implementing the recommendation of its own bipartisan federal commission?

Maenza: USCIRF generally recommends that more countries be designated as CPCs than the State Department will designate. Part of the discrepancy is because the USCIRF can focus solely on the conditions of religious freedom without the need to balance other bilateral issues.

Al Jazeera: In recent years, the Indian government has dismissed USCIRF reports and their recommendations to place India on a religious freedom blacklist. Are you worried about this?

Maenza: Our mandate requires us to monitor the conditions of religious freedom and make policy recommendations to the United States government. USCIRF will continue to be an independent voice that will not be affected by the reaction of the Indian government or other problems in the bilateral relations between the United States and India.

Al Jazeera: Is the religious persecution of minorities in India often attributed to “non-state actors” and not so much to the ruling BJP? How valid is that argument?

Maenza: The BJP government of India promotes Hindu nationalist policies that negatively affect non-Hindu communities in India, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits and Adivasis. Both Indian government officials and non-state actors continue to use social media and other forms of communication to intimidate and spread hatred and misinformation against minority communities.

Al Jazeera: India’s continued refusal to grant visas to USCIRF officials is reflected in its claims of open democracy. How does this compare to other countries where USCIRF is not welcome?

Maenza: USCIRF wants the relationship between the United States and India to be as productive and meaningful as possible, and we believe that religious freedom should be an important part of that relationship. We want to have a constructive discussion and dialogue with the Indian government. That is why we have wanted to travel to India for a long time and remain interested in traveling there. As a pluralistic, non-sectarian and democratic state, and a close partner of the US, India should have the confidence to allow our visit, which would give it the opportunity to convey its views directly to the USCIRF in a constructive dialogue.

Al Jazeera: Will USCIRF recommend the inclusion of human rights and religious freedom as part of any future dialogue between the United States and India?

Maenza: USCIRF has repeatedly recommended that the United States government make religious freedom an important part of the bilateral relationship between the United States and India and promote the human rights of all religious communities in India and promote religious freedom and dignity and interreligious dialogue through forums and bilateral and multilateral agreements, such as the Ministerial Quadrilateral.

Al Jazeera: What actions would you recommend that the Biden administration should take immediately to address the human rights and religious freedom situation in India?

Maenza: The USCIRF in its 2021 annual report recommends that the White House and the State Department continue to raise concerns about religious freedom in the bilateral relationship between the United States and India and that the United States Congress should highlight the concerns through hearings. , informative sessions, letters and delegations of the Congress.

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