WASHINGTON / NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi seldom condemns mob violence while religious freedom in India continued a downward trend last year, according to a US report released this week.

The US State Department’s annual report on religious freedom also accused Indian officials of encouraging mob violence against religious minorities.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which compiled this report, again placed India on its Tier 2 list of countries that engage in or tolerate violations of religious freedom.

Pakistan is also in this category.

The commission claimed that extremist groups within the Hindutva movement have openly stated they would like to “see all non-Hindus expelled, killed, or converted to Hinduism”. At least some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have affiliation with such extremist groups, it added.

India says other governments don’t have right to criticise its ‘vibrant democracy’

The report stirred a new controversy ahead of a visit by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who arrives in New Delhi on Tuesday.

No “foreign entity/government” had the right “to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights,” said Raveesh Kumar, a spokesman for the Indian ministry of foreign affairs. “India is proud of its secular credentials,” he added.

The 2019 report, which Secretary Pompeo released on Friday, said Hindu-groups had used “violence, intimidation, and harassment” against Muslims and low-caste Dalits last year to force a religion-based national identity.

“In 2018, religious freedom conditions in India continued a downward trend,” the report added. “Prime Minister Narendra Modi seldom made statements decrying mob violence, and certain members of his political party have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and used inflammatory language about religious minorities publicly.”

Decrying the growth of “exclusionary extremist narratives” in India, the report also referred to “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.”

Both “public and private actors” have engaged in this campaign against religious minorities, it added.

According to the report, in 2018, approximately one-third of state governments “increasingly enforced” anti-conversion and/or anti-cow slaughter laws discriminatory against non-Hindus and Dalits alike.

Cow protection mobs engaged in violence predominantly targeting Muslims and Dalits, some of whom have been legally involved in the dairy, leather, or beef trades for generations.

Mob violence was also carried out against Christians under accusation of forced or induced religious conversion.

In cases involving mobs killings, often based on false accusations, police investigations and prosecutions were not adequately pursued.

Some Indian states continued to be relatively open and free for religious minorities while others had “systematic, ongoing, egregious” violations of religious freedom.

Victims of large-scale attacks in recent years had not been granted justice, and reports of new crimes committed against religious minorities were not adequately accounted for or prosecuted.

The USCIRF noted that in February last year, the Indian Minister of State for Home Affairs, Hansraj Ahir, reported to parliament that 111 people were murdered and 2,384 injured in 822 communal clashes during 2017 (as compared to 86 people killed and 2,321 injured in 703 incidents the previous year).

The US report also pointed out that religious minorities in India claimed that the numbers were much higher.

The USCIRF also highlighted the ideology of “Hinduness”, known as Hindutva, which “forms the basis of an oftentimes exclusionary national narrative with a singular focus on the rights of Hindus”.

The report noted that “both moderate and extreme forces” within the Hindutva movement point to the rise in the Muslim population from 10 per cent of the national population in 1951 to 14 per cent in 2011.

India fumes at US criticism of religious rights

In its reaction to the report, India said foreign governments do not have the right to criticise its “vibrant democracy and dedication to rule of law”.

“We see no locus standi for a foreign government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights,” The Hindu quoted Raveesh Kumar, spokesperson for the ministry of external affairs (MEA), as saying.

The newspaper had reported earlier that the report was released by Mr Pompeo himself and he referred to the issue of religious freedom as a “deeply personal” priority.

US news reports had published detailed accounts of anti-minority violence during the recent polls, highlighting the daily terror faced by Muslims, Christians and Dalits from upper caste mobs loyal to Mr Modi’s ideology of Hindutva.

The State Department’s report referred to multiple instances where the Modi government at the centre and various state governments of the Bharatiya Janata Party took steps that hurt the Muslim community.

The official spokesperson, however, maintained that India was proud of its “secular credentials”, saying “it is widely acknowledged that India is a vibrant democracy where the constitution provides protection of religious freedom, and where democratic governance and rule of law further promote and protect the fundamental rights”.

Apart from the murders and lynching by cow vigilante groups, the report pointed out that there were several attempts to undermine minority institutions and change names of cities that reminded of the pluralistic nature of India. In this regard, the report highlighted the change of the name of Allahabad to Prayagraj.

The MEA did not answer if the report and its observations about India’s failure to uphold and protect minority rights would feature in talks with Mr Pompeo during his visit.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2019