Foreign minister Jaishankar's rebuttal to US report on religious freedom is hypocritical; rule of law is weakly articulated in India

The United States Committee on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has been monitoring and reporting on the status of religious freedom and civil rights for over a decade. In its 2013 report, it gave India qualified approval till 2012, but from 2014 (for the report on 2013) the reports have been consistently negative.

In the past two years, it has placed India in Tier 2, alongside Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey. That's hardly an endorsement. The burden of the USCIRF's song in the report for 2018, released on 21 June 2019, is that minorities, especially Muslims, have been attacked by Hindu extremists, including both private and public actors, and that a third of Indian states have 'enforced anti-conversion and/or anti-cow slaughter laws discriminatorily against non-Hindus and Dalits alike'.

It also says that India's "history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives — including, at times, the government's allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities — that have facilitated an egregious and ongoing campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities."

 Foreign minister Jaishankars rebuttal to US report on religious freedom is hypocritical; rule of law is weakly articulated in India

Representational image. Reuters

While it has accused the NDA of keeping mum this year, in its 2018 report, the committee partially exonerated the government, saying that Prime Minister Narendra Modi "has made statements decrying mob violence, but members of his own political party have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and many have used discriminatory language about religious minorities". It, however, added that despite the availability of government statistics indicating a spike in communal violence, the state had done little to address the problem.

On Wednesday, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during his first official visit to India, seemed to echo some of the concerns raised in the USCIRF report. "India is the birthplace of four major world religions," he said. "Let's stand up together for religious freedom for all, let's speak out in favour of those rights, for whenever we do compromise those rights, the world is worse off." It's not difficult to read between these lines.

Reacting to the report, a BJP spokesperson, quite predictably, said that it suggested there was a "grand design behind anti-minority violence," which was 'simply wrong' and that most attacks on minorities are a result of local disputes or 'criminal mindsets'. He also said that Modi and other BJP leaders have 'strongly deplored violence against minorities and weaker sections of society'.

S Jaishankar's Ministry of External Affairs reacted to the USCIRF report a little late but took a different tack. The external affairs minister spoke about India's "status as the largest democracy and pluralistic society, with a long-standing commitment for tolerance and inclusion". He added that it was widely acknowledged that the Constitution provides protection for religious freedom, while the rule of law provides protections of fundamental rights. But the main argument was that the Indian government saw "no locus standi for a foreign entity/government to pronounce on our citizens' constitutionally protected rights."

This argument has been buttressed on television channels, by those who argue that the US has no right to pronounce judgment given its track record on the way it treats immigrants and its own minorities.

The MEA's defence is hypocritical, as much as the ruling party's silence is deafening. Theoretically, the Constitution does protect the religious freedom of citizens and the rule of law protects fundamental rights. But anybody who follows public affairs even in the most cursory manner knows how weakly the rule of law is articulated in India and how easily constitutional guarantees can be violated, especially when governments provide blanket impunity to both state and non-state actors.

On 18 June, a Muslim was tied to a tree and beaten so badly near Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, that he died on 22 June, a day after the release of the report. Before he was beaten, he was forced to chant 'Jai Shri Ram' and 'Jai Hanuman'. Modi condemned the lynching in Rajya Sabha in his thanks giving speech to the President's address to the newly-convened Upper House, four days after the death occurred. However, no senior member of the BJP has decried the lynching. After Modi's lead, it's possible that we will hear some voices.

On 20 June, a Muslim man was pushed out off a train allegedly by members of a group called Hindu Samhati, which claims that it is a non-political organisation (a claim the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh also makes) when he refused to chant 'Jai Shri Ram'. The Government Railway Police claimed it examined CCTV footage and weren't able to see any image of a man falling off a train at the relevant railway station.

On 24 June, six men waylaid a van carrying cattle in Kerala. They assaulted the driver and his assistant. The owner of a dairy in Kerala had bought the animals in Karnataka. The police have said the deal was legal, but have not yet been reported to have arrested anyone. Kerala is one of the few states in India where cow slaughter is not banned. Kasargod district in Kerala, where the assault happened, is home to right-wing Hindu groups and has witnessed similar incidents in the past. Dakshin Kannada district in Karnataka, where the cattle were being transported, has also borne witness to communal violence and 'beef vigilantism'.

On 25 June, another Muslim man was assaulted in Gurugram after being accosted by a group of men, which commanded him to chant 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' and 'Jai Shri Ram'. When he refused, the men threatened for force-feed him pork and then beat him. Authorities notified the police when he was taken to the civil hospital. The Haryana BJP spokesperson has condemned the attack, the police have registered a case, but no further action has been taken. The Haryana government has since approved a more draconian version of its existing law against cow slaughter, which was itself an amended and more stringent version, passed in 2015, of the law against cow slaughter.

As for the question of locus standi the United States, for sure, has no right to comment on India's internal affairs. Why then does the Indian establishment cheer when the United States routine criticisms of Pakistan and the country's establishment? Surely, it has no locus standi in that case either.

Finally, the United States' record, especially with their own minorities, has no bearing on the truth value of the USCIRF's comments on India. Indian citizens and the establishment should recognise that and try to remedy the situation. If nothing else, from a pragmatic standpoint, the United States' pronouncements have a global significance and can influence the way in which the world (and, perhaps, investors) views India.

Updated Date: Jun 27, 2019 14:33:08 IST