NEW DELHI: India has turned down a travel request for members of a U.S. government panel seeking to review its religious freedom, saying such foreign agencies had no standing to assess the constitutional rights of citizens.
Since taking power in 2014, the Indian government has faced criticism for attacks on Muslims and the panel has called for the world’s biggest democracy to be designated a “country of particular concern”, along with China, Iran, Russia and Syria.
The call by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was made in an April report urging sanctions against officials of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government after it excluded minority Muslims from a new citizenship law.
Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar said the government firmly repudiated the surveys of the commission, which had little knowledge of the rights of Indian citizens, describing it as biased and prejudiced.
“We have also denied visas to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom,” he told a lawmaker from Modi’s ruling group in a June 1 letter. The step was taken because the government saw no grounds for a foreign entity such as the USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens’ constitutionally protected rights, he added.
Media has reviewed a copy of the letter to Nishikant Dubey, an MP who had raised the issue of the panel’s report in parliament.
The U.S. embassy in New Delhi referred all queries to the commission based in Washington D.C., which was not immediately available to respond.
The commission is a bipartisan U.S. government advisory body that monitors religious freedom abroad and makes policy recommendations to the president, the secretary of state, and Congress. However, these are not binding. India would not accept any foreign interference or judgement on matters related to its sovereignty, Jaishankar added.
Observing that historically India has been a very tolerant, respectful country for all religions, a top Trump administration official has said that the US is very concerned about what is happening in the country in terms of religious freedom. The remarks of Samuel
Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom, came hours after the release of the ‘2019 International Religious Freedom Report’ on Wednesday.
Mandated by the US Congress, the report documenting major instances of the violation of religious freedom across the world was released by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department.
India has previously rejected the US religious freedom report, saying it sees no locus standi for a foreign government to pronounce on the state of its citizens’ constitutionally protected rights.
Brownback, during a phone call with foreign journalists on Wednesday, said India has been a country area that spawned four major religions itself. We do remain very concerned about what’s taking place in India. It’s historically just been a very tolerant, respectful country of religions, of all religions, he said. The trendlines have been troubling in India because it is such a religious subcontinent and seeing a lot more communal violence, Brownback said.
We’re seeing a lot more difficulty. I think really they need to have a – I would hope they would have an – interfaith dialogue starting to get developed at a very high level in India, and then also deal with the specific issues that we identified as well.
It really needs a lot more effort on this topic in India, and my concern is, too, that if those efforts are not put forward, you’re going to see a growth in the violence and of the increased difficulty within the society writ large, said the top American diplomat on international religious freedom.
Responding to a question, Brownback hoped that the minority faiths are not to be blamed for the COVID-19 spread and that they would have access to the healthcare and the foods and the medicines that they need during the crisis. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has criticised any form of discrimination, saying the COVID-19 pandemic affects everyone equally. “COVID-19 does not see race, religion, colour, caste, creed, language or border before striking. Our response and conduct thereafter should attach primacy to unity and brotherhood,” Modi said in a post on LinkedIn in February.
The Indian government, while previously rejecting the US religious freedom report, had said, “India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion”. The Indian constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens, including its minority communities.
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. We see no locus standi for a foreign entity/government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said in June last year.