India and the US profess to be natural and strategic partners but do not agree on everything. Religious freedom in India is a touchy issue that briefly disrupts pleasant bilateral atmospherics from time to time. We saw one round of exchange last week about the annual report of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) which has, in sharp language, said that religious tolerance “deteriorated” in India in 2015 and that religious freedom is on a “negative trajectory”. The ministry of external affairs, in suitable diplomatese, said the report failed to show a proper understanding of India. It coolly stated that a foreign entity has no locus standi to comment on India’s citizen rights – therefore pronounced India was “taking no cognizance of the report”.
On past form, both sides will quickly move on to more tangible discussions than let concerns such as democratic rights and values detain them. The MEA may get plaudits for its contemptuous dismissal but the NDA government cannot afford to dismiss the issues raised by the report, which have in any case been raised by several Indian civil liberties groups and activists. The situation on intolerance and religious freedom is as dire as the report portrays. Muslims face harassment and are targets of violence and hate campaigns often by politicians and powerful right-wing organisations. As the report says, “Muslims often are accused of being terrorists; spying for Pakistan; forcibly kidnapping, converting, and marrying Hindu women; and disrespecting Hinduism by slaughtering cows”. Christians are harassed by the use of anti-conversion laws in some states. Vigilante violence is on the upswing; and the lack of judicial capacity and weak policing means that victims have little or no recourse to justice.
The report raises several other issues worth noting. Logic suggests that the source of a claim or its political motivation should have no bearing on its evidentiary value. Whether or not Americans raise it, India should place a price of the quality of its democracy, a crucial factor for social cohesion and peace. This kind of attention on civil tensions in India is troubling and only bound to increase if policymakers continue to treat it as a non-issue.