US religious freedom report on India rejected as ‘Hinduphobia’

MUMBAI (RNS) The USCIRF report cited India’s anti-conversion laws, cow protection legislation and the treatment of Dalits, or so-called untouchables, as points of concern.

MUMBAI (RNS) Political leaders here have rejected a critical report by a U.S. government religious freedom commission, while an American Hindu group called it “Hinduphobia.”

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan panel, released a special report earlier this month alleging the fate of religious minorities has deteriorated under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The report cited India’s anti-conversion laws, cow protection legislation and the treatment of Dalits, or so-called untouchables, as points of concern.

Cows are sacred in India, and cow slaughter is banned across most states. But vigilante cow protection groups have mushroomed, and many feel empowered to attack religious minorities such as Muslims who do not regard cows as sacred.

In addition, many Dalits and other low-caste Hindus admit they convert to Islam or Christianity primarily to escape crushing caste prejudice and oppression.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after laying the foundation for the memorial of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 24, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks after laying the foundation for the memorial of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, in Mumbai, India, on Dec. 24, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Shailesh Andrade

Although India’s constitution guarantees religious equality, the report said “minorities face discrimination and persecution due to a combination of overly broad or ill-defined laws, an inefficient criminal justice system, and a lack of jurisprudential consistency.”

The report is only the latest in a series of slaps at the Hindu-majority nation, which has been on a USCIRF watch list of Tier-II countries since 2009.

The Indian external affairs ministry rejected the document, as it did earlier reports in 2015 and 2016 by the Washington-based commission, currently led by the Rev. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit priest who was appointed by former President Barack Obama.

“We have serious doubts on their credibility,” ministry spokesman Vikas Swarup said of USCIRF.

In the U.S., the Hindu American Foundation accused the USCIRF of misunderstanding the “nature and intent” of cow protection laws, and of asserting “that caste-based discrimination is a Hindu religious teaching, rather than a pernicious social problem blighting all Indian religious communities today.”

“This report’s egregious display of Hinduphobia in linking caste-based discrimination to the Hindu religion is unprecedented, and must be condemned,” said says HAF Executive Director Suhag Shukla.

HAF suggested that the author of the report, British academic Iqtidar Karamat Cheema, was unreliable because he has “consistently advocated for Pakistan’s foreign policy objectives” and for an independent Sikh state.

Last year, the Indian government denied members of USCIRF visas for a visit to assess religious freedoms in the country.

Surendra Jain of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, a prominent right-wing group, insisted India has a record of tolerance and alleged USCIRF harbors ulterior motives.

“This is not an honest report but has a broader mission of conversion behind it,” he said.

Dhruva Jaishankar, a foreign policy fellow at Brookings India, said many Indians see American involvement as “unnecessarily interfering in its domestic affairs and patronizing” while religious freedom in India is often misunderstood in the U.S.

He said religious minorities “have levels of rights and legal protections in India that are not afforded to minorities in many other countries.”

(Bhavya Dore is a correspondent based in Mumbai)