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Sinking Religious Freedom In India!

Sinking Religious Freedom In India!

India is marked as a ‘violator of religious freedom’ by United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), in its 20th Annual Report released on the conditions of countries, in line with International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). The metre of the above report is ‘systematic, ongoing and egregious violations’ of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by government of the respective country.

The USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan federal government entity established by the U.S. Congress to monitor, analyse and report on threats to religious freedom abroad. It makes foreign policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State and Congress intended to deter religious persecution and promote freedom of religion and belief.  

The Commission bluntly describes threats to religious freedom around the world and recommends to the State Department countries for designation as ‘countries of particular concern’ (CPCs), based on the above indicator. It also recommends to the State Department non-state actors as ‘entities of particular concern’ (EPCs). It places countries in Tier 2 list, meaning the violations meet one or two, but not all three, of the elements of the systematic, ongoing, egregious test for CPC status.

16 countries are recommended for CPC designation, 12 countries on Tier 2 list and five entities recommended for EPC designation, with a total of 28 countries, as per the report. India has been categorized among countries of status with Tier 2, where violations engaged in or tolerated by government are serious and characterized by at least one of the elements of systematic, ongoing, and egregious (horrible)’ .

The report come up despite India’s claims that communal attacks dropped by 12% in 2018 and there is 12% increase in the budget of the Ministry of Minority Affairs, along with the Supreme Court’s push for a 11 point plan to counter mob violence. In the wake of extreme elements remaining active and the decline in religious freedom increasing or persisting, it has to be the understood that the above claims remain defeated.  

Freedom to believe and live as per the dictates of one’s conscience is a fundamental human right. It is vital to the security, stability and economic vitality of any state or region. The year 2018 has witnessed severe violations of religious freedom mounting around the globe, including internment for blasphemy in several countries. In view of sustaining religious freedom as a living reality for everyone, the Commission provides actionable policy recommendations to the US government to take up working with these countries for improving conditions abroad where people are being persecuted for their religion or belief.

The Commission also announced the imminent launch of its Victims Database, which will enable users to learn more about religious prisoners of conscience in countries it recommends as CPCs. It is establishing a mechanism for collecting data on victims to begin populating the database later this year.

With its systemic and characteristic mix of religion and politics very difficult to be separated, India is naturally inclined to politicization of religion and religionization of politics. In recent times, this phenomenon of religio-political combine has been intentionally exploited by vested interests, in view of sidelining minority religious communities and lower caste Hindu communities, much more gravely.

The report points its finger at the Hindu nationalist and extremist groups, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and their likes, in their vicious role of dividing the Indian society and in persecuting other groups, in diverse ways. Attacking certain communities under anti-conversion laws and ghar vaapsi schemes, engaging in mob-lynching in the name of cow-protection and beef eating, applying discriminative policies and practices in National Register of Citizens in Assam, denying registration of international NGOs, targeting NGOs politically and violating the dignity and rights of women by disallowing entry into temples and other places of worship, along with making them subject to sexual harassment, rape, parda and ghoonghat, are some of the blatant examples of the strategic violation of freedom, religious and social, as per the observation of the Commission.  

Besides, the public space of the country is highly polluted by hate speeches and undignified and low statements pronounced by those in responsible positions, which well-meaning and noble citizens would feel ashamed of listening to. The ‘rhetoric of lies’ that is in the social air is not only discriminative but also divisive for the country and it threatens international decorum as well as the unity and integrity of the nation. The religio-political combine with the majority religious group, charged with an exclusive and illogical political ploy of ‘Hindutva’, is sharply geared against the minority and lower level Hindu groups. Such a drive, inclusive of all its foul elements, is detrimental to the democratic freedom, dignity and wellbeing of the country.   

Furthermore, India has a leading position in South Asia and a role in the global economic forum. It also has great cultural ideals to its credit. To violate its noble traditions and to stoop down to petty politics, street violence, discriminative and divisive ways, is to become a matter of scoff in the eyes of the world, along with losing its stateliness even within. It is mean for the majority and powerful groups to misbehave with minority and weaker groups, especially within the country. On the other hand, extending security, protection and support to the smaller groups is real greatness, in the right sense of the term. Taking a lesson from the USCIRF report, India has to grow towards that stature of dignity and collective wellbeing before the world, by fostering the spirit of freedom among all groups, in line with its Constitutional values.       

Avoiding looking into the mirror or breaking the mirror when the face is seen spotted and untidy is not a wise or normal behaviour. Not allowing the US Commission to visit the country and meet the stakeholders is not a solution either. Instead, those who engage in such heinous crimes against minority communities and weaker sections of the Hindu community, by word or deed, have to be booked, prosecuted and punished, may they be governmental, non-governmental or media persons. The national and state human rights commissions have to be activated as regards securing civil rights to the above effect. Zero tolerance of violence, intimidation and harassment of non-Hindus by public and private actors has to be seriously acted upon. Only a democratic fibre can ensure the collective wellbeing of India as a nation. The great prospects for a truly developed, progressive and strong nation in 21st century and beyond are inherent in such an all-inclusive fibre.

(The writer is Founder Director of Institute of Harmony and Peace Studies, New Delhi, and has been deeply committed to infer-faith relations, communal harmony and national integration for over three decades. He can be contacted on ‘mdthomas53@gmail.com’.)

(Published on 13th May 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 20)