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Religious Freedom In India Takes 'Drastic Turn Downward,' U.S. Commission Says

India Home Minister Amit Shah (center) introduced India's new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some non-Muslim migrants. Opponents say it violates India's secular constitution.
Bikas Das
India Home Minister Amit Shah (center) introduced India's new citizenship law that fast-tracks naturalization for some non-Muslim migrants. Opponents say it violates India's secular constitution.

Updated at 7:40 p.m. ET

Religious freedom in India under the Hindu nationalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken "a drastic turn downward," according to the U.S. government commission that monitors conditions around the world.

In its annual report, the congressionally mandated U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) says the Indian government's enactment last year of the Citizenship Amendment Act discriminated against Muslim migrants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Commission vice chairperson Nadine Maenza, appointed by President Trump, said in a press conference that the deterioration of religious freedom in India was "perhaps the steepest and most alarming" of all the negative developments identified around the world. The commission accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of having "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."

The commission, for the first time since 2004, recommended that the State Department designate India as a "country of particular concern," a status it says is reserved for "the worst of the worst." Thirteen other countries have that status, including Iran, North Korea, Myanmar, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The commission called on the Trump administration to impose sanctions on "Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom," given its treatment of religious minorities, including Christians as well as Muslims.

In a "Howdy Modi" event in Houston last fall, President Trump called Modi "one of America's greatest, most devoted, and most loyal friends" and said he was doing "a truly exceptional job for India and all the Indian people."

At that event, Trump said the U.S. and Indian militaries work together to oppose "radical Islamic terrorism." During a trip to India in February, Trump said he had asked Modi about his commitment to religious freedom but declined to elaborate on the conversation, saying he wanted to "leave that to India." Trump insisted that Modi "wants people to have religious freedom and very strongly."

During the Trump visit, mobs attacked Muslim neighborhoods in New Delhi, with police reportedly standing by or even directly participating in the violence, a development highlighted in the USCIRF report.

Commission member Gary Bauer, a Trump appointee, dissented from the USCIRF conclusion on India, saying it placed the country "in a gallery of rogue nations in which it does not belong" and cited the country's status as "our ally." Another member, Tenzin Dorjee, appointed to the commission by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also dissented, saying that as a Tibetan refugee who lived in India for years, he and his fellow Buddhists "enjoyed complete religious freedom."

The Indian government, which has long had an acrimonious relationship with the USCIRF, angrily rejected the commission's conclusions. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson said, "[The commission's] biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion its misrepresentation has reached new levels." In a retort to the commission's recommendation that India be designated a "country of particular concern," the spokesperson said the Indian government would now regard the commission as "an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly."

The USCIRF report also highlighted China's detention of 1.8 million Uighur Muslims, the plight of nearly a million Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh, North Korea's reported imprisonment of about 50,000 Christians and the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, among other instances of religious freedom violations. Two countries, Sudan and Uzbekistan, were said to have made "important progress" on religious freedom issues.

The USCIRF was established under the terms of the 1998 International Religious Freedom Act as an independent, bipartisan federal government commission.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.