At a recent Congressional hearing on India convened by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. several top U.S. Senators voiced their concern over religious freedom in India, just ahead of a trip by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s to the United States.
The hearing also came barely three months after thirty-four leading U.S. lawmakers, senators and congressmen, wrote an open letter to Modi on growing intolerance and violence against religious minorities in India, and asked him to take immediate steps to protect these fundamental rights and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
Very naturally, supporters of Modi and the BJP party, which is the political wing of India’s Hindu nationalist movements, have not taken too kindly to what they describe as ‘interference in the internal affairs’ of the country.
This is sheer hypocrisy.
There is not a whimper of protest though from these very people when the Indian government agrees to allow the U.S. to use its military bases, or for that matter, if U.S. investments in India flagrantly violate environmental laws or the human rights of its citizens — for instance, Union Carbide and a Coca-Cola plant in Kerala.
So, what’s wrong if U.S. senators and congressmen are concerned about religious and civil liberties in India? Why tolerate, even welcome, one form of “interference” but complain about the other?
What does India have to hide about its record on religious freedom? Plenty.
Let’s begin with the fact that members of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) were once again denied visas for a fact-finding visit to India. (Some senators raised this point at the congressional hearing.)
In its Annual Report released on May 3, USCIRF once again castigated the Indian government over attacks on religious minorities, and simultaneously praised U.S. President Barack Obama for speaking out against growing intolerance during his visit to India in January 2015.
A few days later, at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, Obama once again referred to the religious intolerance in India saying that “it would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi — who helped liberate the nation.”
It’s exactly two years since the Modi Government came to power; since then, the minorities of the country are on the back foot. Fali Nariman, one of India’s most eminent jurists delivering the Annual Lecture of the National Commission for Minorities, lambasted the Government for doing nothing to stop the attacks by fundamentalist Hindu groups against minority communities.
“Hinduism is losing its traditional tolerance, because some Hindus have started believing it is their faith that has brought them political power – and because this belief is not being challenged by those at the top,” Nariman said in his lecture.
“We have been hearing on television and reading in newspapers, almost on a daily basis, a tirade by one or more individuals or groups against one or another section of citizens who belong to a religious minority, and the criticism has been that the majority government has done nothing to stop it,” he said.
The ‘Sangh Parivar’, the term for the constellation of India’s various Hindu nationalist groups, has been calling the shots from day one. Their posturing, utterances and actions lay bare their agenda.
There has been a spate of attacks, directly or subtly, on the minorities in several parts of the country.
- Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the main nationalist body RSS, calls for the establishment of a Hindu ‘Rashtra’ (nation).
- Bhagwat also makes derogatory remarks about Mother Teresa.
- A government minister, Niranjan Jyoti, turns abusive, saying that in India one is either ‘ramzadon’ (those born of Ram) or ‘haramzadon’ (illegitimately born).
- Another minister, through a circular, states that Christmas Day, December 25, should be a working day for schools (and then denies it); the Government however continues to insist that it is not a holiday for Government employees.
- School text-books with an anti-minority stance are propagated by several BJP state governments.
- Christians in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and elsewhere continue to be attacked.
Muslims too face threats. On September 14, 2014, a BJP parliamentarian, Sakshi Maharaj, made a strong allegation that, “the Madrasas of the Muslims are teaching terror.”
On January 5, 2015, Maharaj boldly proclaimed, “the concept of four wives and 40 children will not work in India, and the time has come when a Hindu woman must produce at least four children in order to protect Hindu religion.”
Those involved in conversion must be punished with death, Maharaj said, though simultaneously arguing that “ghar wapsi,” reconversion, is not the same thing. Wait for some time, he said, and “a law will be passed in parliament in which anyone indulging in cow slaughter and conversion will be punished with the death sentence.”
“Ghar wapsi” programs in different parts of the country are aimed at reconverting those Hindus who have accepted Christianity or Islam as their faith. These programs have to be seen as a clever ploy, so when key BJP functionaries cite law-and-order issues created by resistance to reconversion, they very conveniently throw in the need to introduce an anti-conversion law for the country.
A September 2015 lynching of a Muslim man named Akhlaq because of a rumors that ‘he ate beef’ should not be seen as a spontaneous act of violence by a mob, but a well thought-out and barbaric act by people who know that they can do things with impunity.
In Gujarat, several Muslim youths have been killed by the police in what are infamously known as “encounters’. The youth were certainly innocent, and those responsible for their deaths have got away with murder.
To add fuel to the fire, those trigger-happy policemen and other terrorists belonging to the Hindutva brigade have been very conveniently released from prison, and some of the policemen have even received promotions because of their unflinching loyalty to their political bosses.
Modi himself piloted a controversial “Freedom of Religion Act” in 2003 in Gujarat, when he was at the helm of the state. It’s an anti-conversion law which can easily be rated as the most draconian piece of legislation in post-independence India.
If Modi is serious about promoting religious tolerance in India, the first thing that he would do would be to abolish this law.
The senators at the Congressional hearing cited several examples of violations of religious and civil liberties in India. An India which adheres to the principles of democracy and pluralism must demonstrate the maturity to pay heed to them, and to act on facts immediately and objectively.
Father Cedric Prakash, S.J., is a human rights activist from India. He is currently engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service in the Middle East, working on advocacy and communications. In June 2002, he testified before USCIRF in Washington on the Gujarat carnage.