The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on Thursday noted with concern reports that the Indian government is arresting Muslim activists during the Covid-19 crisis who protested against the country's contentious Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA).
"At this time, India should be releasing prisoners of conscience, not targeting those practising their democratic right to protest," the USCIRF, which is a bipartisan agency of the federal government, said in a tweet.
It specifically mentioned the arrest of Safoora Zargar, a pregnant activist who was arrested in connection with the communal violence that flared up in Delhi in February over the CAA.
According to reports, 27-year-old Zargar was arrested on April 10 and charged under the country's Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 2019 (UAPA). She was three months pregnant at the time of her arrest.
Zargar was a research fellow at the Jamia Millia University in Delhi and the media coordinator for the Jamia Coordination Committee (JCC) which organised weeks of protests against the citizenship law passed by the government in December of last year.
In a second tweet, the USCIRF noted that in its annual report for 2020, the commission had recommended that India be designated a Country of Particular Concern for its "systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom" during 2019.
"Unfortunately, this negative trend has continued into 2020," the US agency said.
The designation by the US Secretary of State is used against a nation guilty of particularly severe violations of religious freedom under the US International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998.
The panel noted last month that this was the first time since 2004 that India was being recommended to be designated on the religious freedom blacklist.
The report had particularly criticised the enactment of India’s new citizenship law, which eases the path for non-Muslims from neighbouring Muslim-majority countries to gain citizenship. The passage of CAA had triggered weeks of sometimes violent protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government.
At least 78 people were killed in demonstrations triggered by the law across the country, a large number of them in a part of Delhi in clashes between Hindus and Muslims.
Critics say the law discriminates against Muslims and it has deepened concern that Modi’s administration is undermining India’s secular traditions.