The annual reports issued by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) are usually greeted with anger and criticism in South Asia, where India and Pakistan have often been rapped by the panel for failing to do enough to protect the rights of minorities.
The USCIRF, created under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA) of 1998, has issued an annual report since 2003. The US state department also issues annual reports on global religious freedom that document violations in every country while the USCIRF’s report examines a selected list of countries and recommends nations to be designated as “countries of particular concern”, which the US executive branch must consider.
Here are 10 things about this year’s report-
1. The USCIRF has placed 17 countries, including Syria, Iran, Iraq, Myanmar, North Korea and Pakistan, in “Tier 1” – these are the nations that meet the IRFA’s standard for “countries of particular concern” or CPCs. Nine of these countries have already been designated CPCs by the state department and the USCIRF has recommended that eight others, including Pakistan, also “meet the CPC standard and should be so designated”.
2. CPCs, according to the US commission, are those countries whose governments engage in or tolerate “particularly severe violations of religious freedom that are systematic, ongoing and egregious”. Some countries hit with the CPC tag, such as Iraq and Syria, are those where governments are non-existent or incapable of addressing violations by non-state actors.
3. India is placed with nine other countries, including Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Russia, in “Tier 2”, defined as those where “violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and are characterised by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ CPC standard”.
4. The USCIRF said in its report that religious tolerance “deteriorated and religious freedom violations increased in India” during 2015. It further noted that India is “on a negative trajectory in terms of religious freedom”. These concerns led to the US panel placing India in Tier 2, where it has been since 2009.
5. The report said that India’s minorities, “especially Christians, Muslims, and Sikhs, experienced numerous incidents of intimidation, harassment, and violence, largely at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups”. It alleged that members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) “tacitly supported these groups and used religiously-divisive language to further inflame tensions”.
6. The report further stated that “higher caste” individuals and political leaders had “prevented Hindus considered part of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Dalits) from entering religious temples”.
7. The alleged violations, “combined with longstanding problems of police bias and judicial inadequacies, have created a pervasive climate of impunity, where religious minority communities feel increasingly insecure, with no recourse when religiously-motivated crimes occur”, the report said.
8. The report said that in addition to a national strategy to guide US efforts to safeguard religious freedom, elected leaders and American officials need to communicate clearly and regularly that religious freedom is a foreign policy priority for the country. It noted that President Barack Obama, during his January 2015 visit to India, gave a major speech highlighting the need for religious tolerance and freedom.
9. The report noted that the IRFA “makes inadmissible to the United States foreign officials who are responsible for or directly carried out particularly severe religious freedom violations”. It said this provision is “known to have been invoked only once: in March 2005, it was used to exclude then-chief minister Narendra Modi of Gujarat state in India due to his complicity in riots in his state in 2002”.
10. The USCIRF said it will continue to monitor the situation in India closely during the year ahead to determine if the country “should be recommended to the US state department for designation as a ‘country of particular concern” under the IRFA.