USCIRF 2020 Annual Report
5th May, 2020
The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has re-entered India into its list of ‘Country of Particular Concern’ because of the Modi government’s policies and treatment towards the Muslim population.
- The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, a government body that monitors conditions abroad and U.S. responses, moved India to its category of greatest concern in an annual report.
- USCIRF, as the group is called, has no power to enforce its recommendations, but the State Department is required to consider them.
- India last received a similar rating from the watchdog in 2004, also a period of heightened concern over a Hindu nationalist government's treatment of religious minorities, especially Muslims and Christians.
- In 2002, more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, were killed in three days of riots in the state of Gujarat.
- This is the first time in more than 15 years that India has been designated a "country of particular concern".
- In fact, the 2006 Annual Report had appreciated the "positive developments" in affecting freedom of religion.
- The 2013 report had said "there has been no large-scale communal violence against religious minorities in India since 2008", but had pointed out that in some cases, redressal had been slow and ineffective.
- The annual reports for the last two years have been warning India of a "continued downward trend" with regards to religious tolerance and religious freedom violations.
What is freedom to religion?
- According to the Constitution of India, freedom to run religious affairs include the freedom to establish and maintain charitable institutions either to manage its own affairs in the matters of religion or to acquire and own movable and immovable property and to take care of such property, without infringing the law.
- Fundamental right to freedom of religion is guaranteed under Articles 25, 26, 27 and 28 of Part III of the Indian Constitution.
- Article 25: Freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion
- Article 26: Freedom to run religious affairs
- Article 27: No person shall be compelled to pay any tax for the promotion or maintenance of any religion
- Article 28: Freedom as to attendance at religious instruction or religious worship in certain educational institutions
- It is religious freedom in the background of a secular state. It eliminates God from the matters of the state and ensures that no one shall be discriminated against on the ground of religion.
Also, India acceded to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and so pledged to adhere to the international standards of human rights enshrined in the treaty.
Key-highlights of the Report:
- The report documents significant developments during 2019, including remarkable progress in Sudan and a sharp downward turn in India, and make recommendations to enhance the U.S. government’s promotion of freedom of religion or belief abroad in 2020.
- Instead of using its own “Tier 2” category, as in past reports, the 2020 Annual Report recommends 15 countries for placement on the State Department’s Special Watch List (SWL) for severe violations.
- These include four that the State Department placed on that list in December 2019—Cuba, Nicaragua, Sudan, and Uzbekistan—as well as 11 others—Afghanistan, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Central African Republic (CAR), Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Malaysia, and Turkey.
- USCIRF had recommended Sudan, Uzbekistan, and CAR for CPC designation in its 2019 Annual Report; the SWL recommendations this year are based on improved conditions in those countries.
- The 2020 Annual Report further recommends to the State Department six non-state actors for designation as “entities of particular concern” (EPCs) for systematic, ongoing, egregious violations.
- These consist of five groups that the State Department designated in December 2019—al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Houthis in Yemen, Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan, and the Taliban in Afghanistan—plus one other—Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) in Syria.
- Countries of particular concern: The state department designates nine “countries of particular concern” on religious freedom – China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.
- Pakistan, India’s historic rival, was added by the state department in 2018 after years of appeals by the commission, which was appalled by attacks on minorities and abuse of blasphemy laws.
- In its latest report, the commission asked that all nine countries remain on the list. In addition to India, it sought the inclusion of four more – Nigeria, Russia, Syria and Vietnam.
- It called on the US to impose punitive measures, including visa bans on Indian officials believed responsible and grant funding to civil society groups that monitor hate speech.
- USCIRF is an independent, bipartisan U.S. federal government commission, the first of its kind in the world, dedicated to defending the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad.
- USCIRF reviews the facts and circumstances of religious freedom violations and makes policy recommendations to the President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.
- Established by the US Government in 1998 after the inaction of the International Religious Freedom Act, recommendations of USCIRF are non-binding to the State Department.
- Traditionally, India does not recognize the view of the USCIRF. For more than a decade, it has denied visas to members of the USCIRF.
What’s there for India in the report?
- In the 2020 edition of its annual report on International Religious Freedom, the USCIRF alleged that in 2019, religious freedom conditions in India "experienced a drastic turn downward", with religious minorities under increasing assault.
- In India, the Citizenship (Amendment) Act potentially exposes millions of Muslims to detention, deportation, and statelessness when the government completes its planned nationwide National Register of Citizens.
- Detailing Modi government’s policies in recent months that targeted Muslim population in particular, the report featured various BJP leader’s hateful comments against minority population.
- The report recommended to the US government to impose targeted sanction on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets and/or barring their entry into the United States under human rights-related financial and visa authorities, citing specific religious freedom violations.
- The USCIRF Commissioner appreciated Pakistan’s efforts saying, “One of the things that has been important for us with Pakistan, is that the government has been willing to engage in dialogue about how religious freedom concerns can be addressed.”
How India reacted?
- India rejected the observations made for the country in the USCIRF Annual Report. It’s biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels.
- The organization has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavour.
- India regards it as an organization of particular concern and will treat it accordingly.
Indeed, the issue is serious. The level of violence is expected to increase as the perpetrators continue to enjoy impunity for their crimes. Similarly, as the victims of such atrocities are forgotten by the government, they have little faith in ever seeing any justice done. This can only lead to ever-growing mistrust between the government and religious minorities in India. Nothing will change unless the government takes decisive steps to address the issue of religiously motivated violence.