Aakar Patel | India likely to stay on US list of ‘concern’ on human rights

The world is not blind to what is happening in India today and it is uncomfortable with it

The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, is an independent and bipartisan US federal government agency. It monitors the right to freedom of religion abroad and makes policy recommendations to the US President, the secretary of state and the US Congress. And then it tracks the implementation of these recommendations. Independent means it is not part of the US federal government and bipartisan means that both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, have representation on the body.

In 2020, USCIRF put India on a shortlist of 13 nations which were “of particular concern”. The other nations are Pakistan, Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. India landed on the list, the USCIRF report said, because of discrimination against Muslims through the law (it cited CAA and NRC), restrictions on propagation and violence on the issue of cow slaughter the lynchings. The USCIRF recommended that the US government “impose targeted sanctions 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”. It may be remembered that after the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat, the state’s chief minister was put on a US visa ban list, and that was because of the USCIRF’s recommendation. The decision to put India on the list came with some dissent. USCIRF commissioners Gary Bauer (a Republican) and Tenzin Dorjee (a Tibetan refugee) wrote that they were concerned by what was happening in India but the US should not sanction India but instead engage with it. The recommendation for sanctions was not taken up by the administration.

In 2021, the USCIRF again retained India on the “countries of particular concern” list, saying that religious freedom in India continued down “negative territory”. It cited the pogrom in Delhi, the State’s violence against CAA protests, the suspension of work by Amnesty International India (of which I am part) under State attack and the acquittal of all in the Babri Masjid case, among other things. Once again it recommended sanctions against Indian government officials and agencies. Once again, this recommendation was not taken up by the new Biden administration.

This time nobody in USCIRF dissented. One commissioner, Johnnie Moore wrote: “I love India. I have floated early in the morning down the Ganges in Varanasi, walked every alley in Old Delhi, stood in awe of the architecture in Agra, sipped tea next to the Dalai Lama’s temple in Dharamsala, circled the shrine in Ajmer, and looked in awe at the Golden Temple. All along the way, I have met Christian brothers and sisters who serve the poor selflessly, often in difficult circumstances.
Of all countries in the world, India should not be a ‘country of particular concern’, or CPC. It is the world’s largest democracy and it is governed by a pristine Constitution. It is diversity personified and its religious life has been its greatest historic blessing.

“Yet, India does seem to be at a crossroads. Its democracy — still young and freewheeling — is creating through the ballot box difficult challenges for itself. The answer, of course, is for India’s institutions to draw upon their rich history to protect their values. India must always resist allowing political and intercommunal conflict to be exacerbated by religious tensions. India’s government and people have everything to gain and absolutely nothing to lose from preserving social harmony and protecting the rights of everyone. India can. India must.”

Next month, the USCIRF will make its recommendations for 2022. It is in this background that we should examine the comments made by the US secretary of state a few days ago at a press conference where S. Jaishankar and Rajnath Singh were present. Antony Blinken said: “We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values, and to that end we are monitoring some recent concerning developments in India, including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police, and prison officials.”

Our government was upset enough by this for Mr Jaishankar, after he returned to India, to say that India was also concerned by the human rights situation in the United States. This was seen as a great comeback, and perhaps it was. But it does not address the issue that is building up in the US. Given the events of the past few months, it is possible and perhaps even likely that India will remain on the list of nations that the US government will be asked to engage with and sanction on human rights.

For us as a sovereign nation, we can swallow what is said about us and ignore it or push back vocally as Mr Jaishankar did. However, we must be prepared for this to continue. The world is not blind to what is happening in India today and it is uncomfortable with it. India’s outstanding reputation as a democracy and a friendly and well-meaning nation can no longer cover up the daily events which tarnish it.

Naturally, we can assure the world that what is happening is an aberration and that the government is against it, but that is not what we have chosen to do. We have chosen this path that we have taken. For this reason, there will be many in Mr Jaishankar’s ministry who are waiting to see what the USCIRF says next month, and what it recommends and whether, this time, the US administration chooses to again ignore or to act.

Next Story