06 July 2009 International us: religious freedom

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Why is India afraid of a US commission on religious freedom?
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Felice Gaer is pretty accustomed to India's stonewalling tactics. From 2001, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), of which Gaer is the chairperson, has been regularly applying for visas for its members to travel to India and report on the state of religious freedom of its minorities. On each occasion, New Delhi has turned down the request. Buoyed by optimistic declarations from State Department officials and promises of help from the US embassy in New Delhi, Gaer thought 2009 would be different. She even decided to postpone a report on India as she hoped to travel there with other commission members on June 12.

But it wasn't to be: USCIRF's request for visas has been denied yet again. "We were given no explanation," Gaer told Outlook, "just that now is not a good time. We weren't told when would be a good time." The denial, she says, sends a message that India has something to hide. (The Indian embassy in Washington declined to comment.) Monitoring India from afar, Gaer has been alarmed by the atrocities committed against Christians in Orissa and the Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat. She wanted to take her team to New Delhi, Mumbai, Gujarat and Orissa to discuss with government officials their response to communal violence and its prevention.

A bipartisan US government commission, USCIRF reviews violations of religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the US president, the secretary of state and Congress. Under law, however, no country is obligated to invite commission members to visit, nor is the US government bound by its recommendations. The response of countries to the USCIRF is varied—China and Saudi Arabia have allowed it in, India and Cuba have barred it. The State Department has never adopted any USCIRF recommendations on India; its criticism consequently boiling down to what one US official described as no more than "a naming and shaming exercise".

Gaer denies the accusations that the USCIRF is primarily concerned about atrocities against Christians, saying violence against "Hindus and Christians and Muslims cause an equal uproar in the commission". Preeta Bansal, a former USCIRF chairman, agrees. An Indian-American Hindu, Bansal's written views on India in the commission's annual reports helped place incidents of religious violence in India within the broader context of a vibrant, pluralistic democracy. Yet, simultaneously, she consistently refused to become an apologist for government inaction in the face of mass violence against Muslims or Christians in India or anywhere else.

As chair, Bansal, on behalf of the commission, opposed Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi's plans to visit the US in 2005, warning that such a visit would "only serve inappropriately to give a platform in the United States to someone who has been implicated in grave violations of religious freedom". Based on reports by Indian governmental bodies, including the National Human Rights Commission, the USCIRF's report prompted the State Department to deny Modi's request for a US visa, causing an uproar in some segments of the Hindu community here.

But it isn't as if the USCIRF has a tilt against India. Both Bansal and Gaer were among four commissioners who opposed a USCIRF recommendation in 2004 to brand India as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in the wake of Gujarat. New Delhi then invited Gaer to visit India but the commission ruled that governments cannot cherry-pick whom they wish to invite. Agreeing with them was Charles Chaput, the archbishop of Denver and a former USCIRF commissioner, "I felt that it was not sensible to treat India, which is a legitimate democracy with a functioning legal system, in the same manner as we treat rogue states, or extremist religious or authoritarian regimes. " The USCIRF took India off its CPC list in 2005.

Nishrin Hussain, whose father Ehsan Jaffri, a Congress MP, was a prominent victim in the Gujarat violence of 2002, is disappointed by the government's decision to keep the USCIRF away. "I have full faith in our democracy, our current newly elected democratic government and in the Indian justice system, but let's be honest, we have big and gruesome issues we have to answer to the world if we want to be part of this globalisation of which the US is a big piece," she told Outlook. Dr Rajwant Singh, chairman of the Sikh Council on Religion and Education, believes the commission's visit could have served as a "good stimulus for internal dialogue" in India.

Many find it inexplicable that the Congress-led government has turned down the USCIRF's request. John Prabhudoss, an Indian-American Christian activist, says he wasn't surprised when the BJP government denied visas to the commission, but is shocked to see the Manmohan Singh government follow suit. He finds this particularly amazing because New Delhi welcomed UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion Asma Jahangir a year ago. Ironically, Manmohan is winning kudos from BJP supporters. Dinesh Aggarwal, a former president of the Overseas Friends of the BJP, believes the commission only wants to visit Orissa and Gujarat to write a "prejudged report to malign Hindus". He questions the USCIRF's record on ensuring the religious freedoms of Hindus, especially in Jammu and Kashmir, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Bansal counters Aggarwal's concerns. When she was on the commission, it took up the concerns of Hindus in Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia and Malaysia. It also put Bangladesh on its watch list over its treatment of Hindus. India, indeed, has to accept that the rise of Hindu extremism, as Chaput says, "has had a very ugly effect on Indian life itself, besides having a deeply frightening impact on Indian Christians". He describes the authorities' indifference to attacks on Christians in Orissa as "the behaviour of a gangster state".

Meanwhile, even as Gaer continues her quest for Indian visas, the USCIRF plans to publish its report on India. "We would have had a richer report had we been to India," she says wistfully.
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