The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was created by the US federal government under the International Religious Freedom Act, 1998. The USCIRF monitors the universal right to freedom of religion or belief abroad and makes policy recommendations to the President of the US. It aims to advance international freedom of religion or belief by independently assessing threats to this universal right.
On May 1, the United States Department of State released an annual report on the status of religious freedom in India, titled India 2022 International Religious Freedom Report. The report extensively tabulates incidents of violence in 2022 against religious minorities in India, including killings, assault and intimidation.
The report delves into the details of the discriminatory practices to which members of religious minority communities are subjected. It quotes the Freedom in the World report that rated India as ‘partly’ free on account of the “discriminatory policies and the rise in persecution affecting the Muslim population”.
The USCIRF urges the US government to designate India as a “country of particular concern” for engaging in systematic, ongoing and egregious violations of religious freedom as provided under the International Religious Freedom Act. It also makes an appeal to the US government to condemn the ongoing violations of religious freedom and support religious organisations and human rights groups that are targeted by State and non-State actors in India.
The report recommends imposing targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing their assets or barring their entry into the US. The report stresses the need for the US Congress to raise the issue of religious freedom in the US–India bilateral interactions and engagements.
India’s Union government has, however, ‘rejected’ the USCIRF report for its “misrepresentation of facts”. On May 2, spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, termed the report “biased” and “motivated”. Bagchi urged the USCIRF “to desist from such efforts” in the future and to make efforts to understand India’s “plurality, its democratic ethos and its constitutional mechanism” better.
What are the main findings of the report?
The report refers to the National Crimes Record Bureau’s data, which records 378 instances of communal violence in 2021. The report states that in 2022, communal violence between Hindus and Muslims broke out in four states— Gujarat, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal— during Hindu festivals and the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.
On the occasion of Hanuman Jayanti in April 2022, a crowd of Hindu provocateurs from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, reportedly took the procession past a mosque in the Jahangirpuri district of Delhi, which was the site of massive communal violence in 2020. The procession played loud music and chanted Hindu invocations outside the mosque.
This, in turn, as per the report, instigated Muslims and resulted in violence between the communities. On September 10, 2022, violence erupted during the Hindu festival of Mahavir Akhara in the Siwan district of Bihar, when members of a Hindu procession allegedly shouted remarks offensive to Muslims while passing by a mosque.
The report states that according to the Forum of Religious for Justice and Peace, 486 incidents of violence against Christians were recorded in the country in 2021, which they said was a “gross violation” of their rights.
Further, the report mentions that on December 18, 2022, local villagers forced approximately 200 Christians from 70 families to leave their homes in the Narayanpur and Kondagaon districts of Chhattisgarh. Reportedly, 20 “coordinated attacks” on Christians took place around the state that day and Christians were asked to renounce their faith or leave the region.
Demolitions of Muslim-owned houses and shops
The report highlights the actions of authorities that largely target Muslim communities, particularly the demolition of houses and shops owned by Muslims. It provides instances of such acts that usually follow episodes of communal violence.
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The report gives the example of the communal violence in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh, and in Khambhat, Gujarat, when large processions of Hindus, celebrating the festival of Ram Navami, marched past predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, the police bulldozed Muslim-own homes, shops and carts for illegal structures.
The report notes that the state authorities in Uttar Pradesh bulldozed Muslim activist Afreen Fatima’s home, claiming it was built ‘illegally’.
Cow vigilantism and mob lynching
The report explains that 25 states apply partial to full restrictions on bovine slaughter, which penalises violators with fines and imprisonment. The terms of imprisonment vary between states and can range from six months to, for instance, in Gujarat, a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for killing cows, selling beef, or illegally transporting cows or beef.
The report raises specific concerns about the incidents of ‘cow vigilantism’ against non-Hindus on allegations of cow slaughter and trade in beef. It points out that the ban largely affects Muslims, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes that traditionally consume beef.
The report lists instances of mob lynching by cow vigilantes, including members of Hindu nationalist organisations Bajrang Dal and Ram Sena, causing death and injury. Attacks on Muslims and tribals in Bihar, Baramura village in Tripura and the Seoni district of Madhya Pradesh are mentioned.
Further, as per a report by the Jharkhand Janadhir Manch, a human rights collective, 30 tribals and Christians were lynched on suspicion of cow slaughter and beef consumption between 2016 and 2021, the report says.
Inflammatory public remarks
The report points out inflammatory public remarks about religious minorities by religious leaders, academics, political figures and activists. It gives instances of such remarks, including a BJP state politician Haribhushan Thakur Bachaul saying that Muslims should be “set ablaze”; P.C. George, a former legislator in Kerala, encouraging Hindus and Christians to not eat at restaurants run by Muslims; and a former BJP Rajasthan state legislator Gyan Dev Ahuja encouraging Hindus to kill Muslims suspected of cow slaughter.
Remarks by BJP spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, which were widely considered derogatory to Prophet Mohammad, led to violent protests across several parts of the country, causing over 13 deaths, the report notes.
According to the report, 13 out of 28 states in India have laws restricting religious conversion. These laws do not mention any particular faith, but are often carried out in practice against non-Hindus. According to the Indian American Muslim Council, Christians are increasingly targeted on allegations of forced conversions under the anti-conversion laws.
The report highlights that the anti-conversion laws mandate individuals, who wish to convert, to submit a formal notification to the state government, followed by the state police determining any objections to the conversion. Laws of some states provide a higher form of punishment if the converts are children, women, or members of a Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe, the report adds.
The USCIRF, in its report, explains that Andhra Pradesh has banned the propagation or practice of any non-Hindu religion in localities designated as ‘temple towns’.
The report also points out that in Himachal Pradesh, conversion of two or more people at the same time is deemed illegal. Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe individuals who convert from Hinduism to other religions are stripped of the affirmative action afforded to them under law, the report notes. It also says that from 2020 to November 2022, the Uttar Pradesh police filed 291 cases and arrested 507 persons under anti-conversion laws.
The report describes ‘love jihad’ as “a derogatory term referring to Muslim men seeking to marry women from other faiths to convert them to Islam”. It pointed out that a Hindu nationalist organisation, Vishwa Hindu Parishad, released a list of 400 examples of ‘love jihad’ between 2009 and 2022, urging the Union government to outlaw the marriages.
According to the report, anti-conversion laws aim to prohibit and criminalise inter-faith marriages. For instance, as per Haryana’s anti-conversion law, passed in March 2022, any marriages found to be carried out for religious conversion are liable to be annulled.
The report raises the concern that the public notice requirement (under Section 5 of the Special Marriage Act, 1954) for interfaith marriages imposed in 10 states has caused “violent reprisals” against interfaith couples.
Impact on religious property
The report analyses certain actions of the state government that affected the use of property by religious groups. Providing instances of disruption of religious property by local authorities, the report states that a statue of Jesus that stood for 30 years in Karnataka’s Gokunte village was demolished by authorities.
Further, the report notes the demolition of a three-year-old mosque at Shamshabad in Telangana by the authorities after receiving complaints from the local Hindu community on the building’s legal status, and the demolition of three madrassahs in the Bongaigaon, Barpeta, and Morigaon districts in Assam on the allegation of supporting terrorist groups. The report also mentions that during the exercise 37 imams and madrassah teachers were also arrested.
The report points out that in December 2022, the Union education minister Dharmendra Pradhan announced the revision of the Central Board of Secondary Education syllabus, wherein the textbooks will exclude material covering non-Hindu governments, rulers or persons, such as the Muslim Mughal courts, or instances of violence against non-Hindus, such as the Gujarat riots in 2002. Further, it is reported that the revised textbooks would include verses from Hindu religious texts.
The report notes that the policy has been criticised for being detrimental to minorities, particularly Muslims and Dalits, and for having “a single-minded agenda of implementing (a) regressive and sectarian vision, an exclusivist idea of India.”
On May 29, the Assam state government announced issuing ‘minority certificates’ to six religious communities— Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Jains, Parsis and Sikhs— ostensibly to ensure access to government programmes and scholarships. However, the policy was opposed for being divisive and unnecessary, with concerns over the chief minister’s remark that the minority groups will be redefined in each district.
The Assam state government-mandated the registration of around 3,000 Muslim community-run madrassahs on a government portal and their compliance with state regulations. The Uttar Pradesh government, in September 2022, conducted a survey of around 16,000 madrassahs. These acts are alleged to be interferences in the operation of constitutionally-protected private madrassahs.
The 2020 amendment to the Foreign Contributions Regulations Act, 2010 (FCRA), as upheld by the Supreme Court, reduces the amount of foreign funding that non-governmental organisations could use for administrative purposes. The amendments were criticised by non-governmental organisations as constraining civil society, and organisations working on religious programmes and advocacy reported difficulties in obtaining registration approval.
The report states that the Minister of State for Union Home Affairs Nityanand Rai stated that the government cancelled registration certificates of 1,811 associations and denied renewals of 783 applications under the FCRA between 2019 and 2021.
The report points out that 16 of the 18 activists charged after the Hindu–Muslim riots in northeast Delhi in 2020 were Muslim. Quoting another investigation by Human Rights Watch, the report states that the government’s investigation into the 2020 Delhi riots was heavily biased against activists. A citizens committee found “anti-Muslim hate” as the root cause for the violence and “police complicity” in violent actions among protestors who were mostly Muslim, the report enunciates.
The report highlights that a Muslim student, Umar Khalid, was arrested in connection with the 2020 Delhi riots. On October 18, 2020, the Delhi High Court rejected his bail application, whereas prominent civil society groups demanded his release, describing Khalid as a “defender of human rights” and a “peace activist”.
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Journalist Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of the fact-checking website Alt News, was arrested for a tweet he posted in 2018, where he allegedly “deliberately insulted Hindus”, and was subsequently granted bail by the Supreme Court. Journalists, activists and opposition politicians termed Zubair’s arrest as harassment, the report notes.
Violence in the form of attacks and threats
The report reflects on certain incidents indicative of the violence members of minority communities have begun to be routinely subjected to in India. In Gujarat, policemen in plainclothes publicly flogged four Muslim men for injuring Hindu worshippers during a festival. In Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, three Christian preachers were assaulted by a member of the Hindu nationalist organisation, Hindu Munnani for proselytising. The accused who allegedly assaulted the preachers was released in two days and the case was closed, the report notes.
According to the report, pastors were violently attacked in South Delhi and Karnataka for allegedly forcibly converting individuals to Christianity. In Khandwa, Madhya Pradesh, members of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad stopped a school bus on its way to an event at a Catholic school and harassed the tribal children onboard, the report says.
Disruption of religious practices
The report declares that there were many incidents of disruption of religious practices of Christians and Muslims in 2022.
According to the 2022 annual report by the Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations of North America, 762 violent incidents were documented against the Christian community in India. For instance, in Odisha, the Bhadrak district administration closed the only church in the Geltua district on Bajrang Dal’s allegations that the church was forcibly converting members of tribal communities to Christianity.
The report states that police filed a first information report (FIR) against 26 Muslims for a mass gathering to offer namaz at a house without seeking prior permission. In August 2022, dozens of Shiite Muslims in Srinagar, Jammu & Kashmir were arrested for taking out processions during Muharram, allegedly without permits and in defiance of security restrictions.
In July 2022, members of a Hindu group occupied and erected a makeshift temple in a parcel of land designated for a Muslim cemetery and were accused of disturbing the communal harmony between the communities, the report says.
Violence against women
The report explains that 11 men, convicted of life imprisonment for raping Bilkis Bano and murdering 14 members of her family during the 2002 communal violence, were set free under a remission policy. The report highlights that while, as per the Gujarat state government’s application to the Supreme Court, the approval for release was granted by the Ministry of Home Affairs, reportedly, the release was publicly celebrated by certain Hindu nationalists.
The release of the convicts was criticised for being discriminatory against the Muslim community, and more than 6,000 activists and members of the civil society wrote to the Supreme Court to revoke the early release. Subsequently, in December 2022, the court rejected Bano’s plea seeking a review of the release.
Further on the violence perpetrated against women, the report explains that police complaints were lodged against the Bulli Bai app on the open-source platform GitHub. The app contained photographs of more than 100 Muslim women that were on “sale”. The app allegedly targeted Muslim women who were outspoken against the government.
But why so much ado about an open secret?
The findings of the report are consistent with the statements and assertions of public officials and figures in India.
Justice Lekshmana Chandra Victoria Gowri, a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who was elevated as a judge of the Madras High Court recently, said “Like Islam is green terror, Christianity is white terror” in an interview in 2018.
At three rallies during the state assembly elections campaigns in Karnataka, Prime Minister Narendra Modi started and concluded his speeches with chants of “Jai Bajrang Bali”, a religious chant praising the Hindu deity Hanuman. The chanting of religious slogans during an election campaign runs parallel to the taunting of Muslims by standing in front of their mosques during Hanuman Jayanti.
The chief minister of Uttar Pradesh (UP), Yogi Adityanath, proudly owns the moniker of ‘Bulldozer Baba’, and has used the symbol of a ‘bulldozer’ during the state election campaigns in 2022, praising the conduct of his government to use demolitions for the purposes of “development” and “law and order”. The use of bulldozers is used to symbolise demolishing ‘illegal’ property of the mafia or the miscreants, but due to its selective and outsized applications against Muslims, is seen as a thinly-veiled threat to the community.
In June 2022, the Supreme Court heard a petition that challenged the demolitions in UP for not following due process of law. According to the petitioners, the authorities failed to follow municipal laws in demolishing properties linked to those allegedly involved in violent protests against remarks by BJP spokespersons Nupur Sharma and Naveen Jindal, which were widely considered derogatory to Prophet Mohammad. It was alleged that the demolitions targeted a specific community. Without staying the ban on the use of bulldozers, the court remarked, “Demolitions can’t be retaliatory”.
UP deputy chief minister Brajesh Pathak has said, “Bulldozers will be used against troublemakers.”Adityanath’s ‘bulldozer model’ has inspired other BJP-led states including Madhya Pradesh, Haryana, Assam and Gujarat.
In March 2022, chief minister of Madhya Pradesh Shivraj Singh Chouhan said during a visit to Raisen after violence between two communities, “Mama’s [pointing to himself] bulldozer has set off and will not stop unless wrongdoers are not entirely destroyed.”
A BJP Telangana MLA was banned from campaigning for 72 hours for threatening voters with a bulldozer reference. He had said, ‘”You do know the purpose of JCBs and bulldozers… If you have to live in UP, you will have to chant Yogi-Yogi or leave Uttar Pradesh.”
During the campaign for state assembly elections, Adityanath promised to enhance the security of cows. He said, “We have completely stopped illegal slaughterhouses. I promise that we will not let ‘Gaumata‘ be slaughtered.”
Former chief minister of Chhattisgarh Dr Raman Singh, also of BJP, remarked in public that those guilty of cow slaughter will be hanged. It is to be noted that no law calls for the death penalty to those found guilty of cow slaughter.
In a gathering in Rajasthan, a senior BJP leader referred to mob lynchings by cow vigilantes on suspicion of cow slaughter and said, “Ab tak to paanch humne maare hain (We have killed five so far).” He also allegedly remarked “I have given my men full freedom to kill. We will get them acquitted as well as secure bail for them.”
After a mob lynching that killed a Muslim man on suspicion of consumption of beef in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Sadhvi Prachi said, “Those who consume beef deserve such actions against them.” On focusing on the investigation of alleged cow slaughter over a policeman’s death, a senior police officer in Uttar Pradesh said “The cow killers are our top priority. The murder and rioting case is on the back burner for now.”
During the recent Karnataka assembly elections, the manifesto by the Indian National Congress (INC) to ban the Hindu nationalist organisation Bajrang Dal was strongly opposed by members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). According to the former deputy chief minister of Karnataka K.S. Eshwarappa, Bajrang Dal is a patriotic organisation that is committed to “protecting dharma” by stopping cow slaughter in Karnataka.
At a rally in Gangapur, Rajasthan, Amit Shah referred to the illegal Bangladeshi immigrants as “termites” and promised to “pick out each and every infiltrator” through the National Register of Citizens in Assam.
Addressing a public meeting in Indore, Madhya Pradesh, Chouhan claimed, “Some people of other religions marry the daughter of a tribal just to acquire her land. This is not love, it is jihad in the name of love.” Further, he promised to not permit the “game” of ‘love jihad’ in Madhya Pradesh and to pass a stricter law against it.
In 2021, BJP Kerala president K. Surendran promised to pass a love jihad law if it came to power during the next state assembly election in Kerala, and blamed the ruling party for failing to heed the demands of Christians and Hindus to pass a law against ‘love jihad’
In an inaugural address in Bhopal, Chouhan remarked on anti-conversion laws and said, “A stringent law should be enacted to stop the vicious cycle of religious conversion because religious conversion cases are still running in any guise.”
In its manifesto for state assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh in 2022, the BJP promised to increase the punishment for ‘love jihad’ cases to a minimum of ten years imprisonment and a fine of ₹10 lakh.
In Gurugram, 15 Bajrang Dal members disrupted Friday namaz, forcing over 100 people offering namaz to leave the place. Reportedly, the venue was one of the six designated places to offer namaz in an open site. These designated places had been decided during previous negotiations between the communities and the district administration of Gurugram.
During an event called ‘Dharma Sansad’ or ‘religious parliament’, organised by religious leaders and Hindutva organisations, Swami Prabodhanand Giri, president of the Hindu Raksha Sena called upon the ‘Hindus’ to “pick up weapons” and “conduct this cleanliness drive (safai abhiyan)”, in a lightly disguised reference to Muslims.
Thus, the ruling regime, its office bearers and party leadership at all rungs, openly endorse, frequently drumbeat and proudly own all the activities highlighted by the International Religious Freedom Report as issues of concern. This is particularly true of election campaigns. This rhetoric, and an open and proud admission of indulging in these activities when they are seeking votes and a return to power, suggests that the ruling regime is not in any way ashamed of or averse to these activities.
Why then would they contest and “reject” the findings of the International Religious Freedom Report remains an unsolved puzzle.