The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends but does not set policy, and there is virtually no chance the State Department will follow its lead on India, an increasingly close US ally.

A group of men chanting pro-Hindu slogans, beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 24, 2020.
A group of men chanting pro-Hindu slogans, beat Mohammad Zubair, 37, who is Muslim, during protests sparked by a new citizenship law in New Delhi, India, February 24, 2020. (Reuters Archive)

A US government panel on Tuesday called for India to be put on a religious freedom blacklist over a "drastic" downturn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, triggering an sharp rebuttal from New Delhi.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends but does not set policy, and there is virtually no chance the State Department will follow its lead on India, an increasingly close US ally.

In an annual report, the bipartisan panel said 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 and 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."

It pointed to comments by Home Minister Amit Shah, who notoriously referred to mostly Muslim migrants as "termites," and to a citizenship law that has triggered nationwide protests.

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

The changes in disputed Kashmir region lift a ban on property purchases by non-residents, opening the way for Indians outside the territory to invest and settle there. 

Highly-militarised Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan and both claim the region in its entirety, although each of them controls only parts of it. Militants have been fighting Indian control since 1989.

Most Kashmiris support the militants' demand that the territory be united either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country, while also participating in civilian street protests against Indian administration.

About 70,000 people have been killed in the struggle for control of Kashmir.

The local Muslim population has long feared such measures would change Kashmir's demography and culture. 

The Indian government, which has long been irritated by the 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.

The State Department designates nine "countries of particular concern" on religious freedom – China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

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

Pakistan, India's historic rival, was added by the State Department in 2018 after years of appeals by the commission.

In its latest report, the commission said that Pakistan "continued to trend negatively," voicing alarm at forced conversions of Hindus and other minorities, the abuse of blasphemy prosecutions and a ban on the Ahmadi sect calling itself Muslim.

'Tipping point' 

India's citizenship law fast-tracks naturalisation for minorities from neighbouring countries while singling out Muslims. 

Modi's government says it is not targeting Muslims but rather providing refuge to persecuted people and should be commended.

But critics consider it a watershed move by Modi to define the world's largest democracy as a Hindu nation and chip away at independent India's founding principle of secularism.

Tony Perkins, the commission's chair, called the law a "tipping point" and voiced concern about a registry in the northeastern state of Assam, under which 1.9 million people failed to produce documentation to prove that they were Indian citizens before 1971, when mostly Muslim migrants flowed in during Bangladesh's bloody war of independence.

"The intentions of the national leaders are to bring this about throughout the entire country," Perkins told an online news conference.

"You could potentially have 100 million people, mostly Muslims, left stateless because of their religion. That would be, obviously, an international issue," said Perkins, a conservative Christian activist known for his opposition to gay rights who is close to President Donald Trump's administration.

Trump has hailed Modi and himself called for a ban on all Muslim immigration to the United States when he campaigned for president.

But for the first time in years, India has been facing substantial criticism in the US Congress.

Source: AFP