Former V-P expresses concern over rights’ situation in India, govt rebuts

Updated on Jan 28, 2022 04:33 AM IST

At a virtual event held in Washington DC on Wednesday, to coincide with Republic Day, on the theme of “Protecting India’s Pluralist Constitution”, speakers, including Hamid Ansari, focused on what they termed as the rise in hate speech against minorities.

A file photo of former vice-president Mohammad Hamid Ansari in New Delhi. (Reuters)
A file photo of former vice-president Mohammad Hamid Ansari in New Delhi. (Reuters)

WASHINGTON: Criticising India’s recent record on protecting human rights, civil liberties and religious freedom, a United States (US) senator, three US Congressmen, the chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), and India’s former vice-president Mohammad Hamid Ansari have warned that the country is steering away from its constitutional values.

At a virtual event held in Washington DC on Wednesday, to coincide with Republic Day, on the theme of “Protecting India’s Pluralist Constitution”, the speakers focused, in particular, on what they termed as the rise in hate speech against religious minorities, the “misuse” of the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act, and the detention of a Kashmiri activist, Khurram Parvez.

The government of India has consistently rejected criticism about its democratic record, defended both its legislative processes and laws, cited the conduct of regular free and fair elections, and pointed to constitutional institutions and protections as evidence of its commitment to democratic principles and values.

The event was organised by a group of 17 US organisations – including the Indian-American Muslim Council (IAMC), a group that the Tripura government, in an affidavit in the Supreme Court about recent communal violence in the state, has accused of having links with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other extremist outfits.

The IAMC has firmly rejected the charge and calls itself an American civil rights organisation.

All the four senior US political figures – Senator Ed Markey and Congressmen Andy Levin, Jamie Raskin, and Jim McGovern – are Democrats, and have, in the past too, raised concerns about India’s democratic record.

Since he demitted office, former VP Ansari, too, has been critical of the National Democratic Alliance-led government. The USCIRF, a federal agency, has, since 2020, recommended to the State Department that India be designated as a “country of particular concern”, for “engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations”, and pushed for sanctions against Indian officials.

Markey, a senator from Massachusetts since 2013, and a member of the House of Representatives from 1976 to 2013, thanked the IAMC for the invitation, and expressed concern at what he called the Modi government’s attempts to “peel back rights of religious minorities in India”. “Laws on religious conversion, citizenship and other restrictive measures fly in the face of India’s inclusive, secular constitution and core tenets of any democracy.”

Markey also accused the Indian government of targeting “the practices of minority faiths”. “In recent years, we have seen an uptick in online hate speech and acts of hate, including vandalised mosques, torched churches, and communal violence.”

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He said it was the “duty of the US” to speak up whenever human rights were “under attack”, but especially so when it happened in India since India was a vital US partner. “We come together to celebrate India’s 73rd Republic Day, we will continue to honour the strong ties shared by our two countries while ensuring that we will speak up when a fellow democracy and strategic partner is unable to protect all of its own people.”

Back in New Delhi, many in the government see Markey as having been long hostile to Indian strategic interests and cite his opposition to the India-US civil nuclear deal when he was a member of the House.

Congressman Jim McGovern – a member of the Democratic progressive caucus in the House and the co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan caucus of the House – said there were “worrying signs” that India was witnessing an erosion of secularism, and with it, democracy.

He cited the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and the possibility of National Register of Citizens as “institutionalising discrimination against Muslims”; alleged that the restriction on foreign funding to Missionaries of Charity (which he acknowledged was now reversed) as “raising the spectre of discrimination against Christians”: and claimed that the “repression and persistent human rights violations in Kashmir” had the potential to “radicalise entire populations” and lead to “unacceptable outcomes” like the killings of several Hindus and a Sikh last October in Srinagar.

McGovern also spoke about the detention of Khurram Parvez under the UAPA. “That act allows authorities to conduct warrantless searches, arrest individuals, and designate them as terrorists without trial or bail. That act has been used against journalists, activists and politicians in Kashmir and throughout India. This kind of misguided anti-terror legislation is not a sign of a healthy democracy.”

Like Markey, McGovern too cited US partnership with India as a reason for the US administration to speak up. “Here in the US, we are facing our own challenges of rising authoritarianism. Criticism of human rights abuses must not be reserved only for adversaries. If democracy is to prevail in India and world, those of us who truly believe in democracy and secularism that makes it possible must make common cause, at home and abroad…Let’s use this Republic Day to renew our shared commitment to liberal democracy.”

Andy Levin, a member of the House committee on foreign affairs and vice chair of the sub-committee on Asia, Pacific and non-proliferation, spoke about his personal connection to India and said he had travelled there as a teenager, and then spent time in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka as a student.

This, he claimed, had made him a great admirer of India’s secular democracy and tolerance and breadth of Hinduism, and was a source of pride for him as a “Bharatwalla, a friend of India”. “Here in the US, our democracy has come under attack in ways we could never imagine… Being patriotic and loving America with all your heart means speaking out against efforts to weaken our beloved system of government. Similarly, I so deeply love India… so it pains me specially to see the secular pluralist values underpinning India’s Constitution endangered like here in the US.”

Levin cited the dip in India’s rankings in terms of democracy and freedom, and asserted that he would, as a Congressman, use his powers to work to keep India “free, open, pluralistic and democratic society that works for all Indian people”.

Jamie Raskin, chair of the House subcommittee on civil rights and civil liberties, thanked Hindus for Human Rights – another co-organiser of the event – for inviting him, said that the separation of the State and Church was essential for the preservation of human rights, and acknowledged that there was a continuing struggle for human rights in India, like in all countries. “But there have been lots of problems with the issue of religious discrimination and religious authoritarianism against Muslims, Hindu minorities dissenting from officially orthodox view, free thinkers and Christians. We want to make sure that India, like America, stays on the path of respecting religious liberty, freedom, pluralism, toleration and dissent for everybody.”

Former VP Hamid Ansari, who was also a long-serving Indian diplomat and chair of the National Minorities Commission, claimed that in recent years, there had been an effort to replace “civic nationalism” with “a new and imaginary practice of cultural nationalism” and present an electoral majority in the guise of a religious majority and “monopolise political power”. “It wants to distinguish citizens on the basis of faith, give vent to intolerance, insinuate otherness and promote disquiet and insecurity. Some of its recent manifestations are chilling and reflect poorly on our claim of being governed by rule of law.” These trends, he said, must be contested “legally and politically”.

Responding to allegations about the organisation’s links to ISI and extremist outfits such as SIMI that got renewed attention in the run-up to Wednesday’s event, Ajit Sahi, IAMC’s advocacy director, said, “The IAMC categorically denies any allegation of being involved with SIMI, Pakistan’s ISI or any terror group… it is a bona fide non-profit registered in Washington DC, and had advocated for civil and political liberties, religious freedom and human rights for two decades.” Sahi said that through this period, no US law enforcement agency had ever suggested that the IAMC may be linked with terrorism, “let alone investigate it”. “Until two months ago, when the IAMC called out the lies of the Tripura Police on the anti-Muslim violence in the state, no Indian law enforcement agency had ever suggested even remotely that the IAMC may be linked with any terror activity or group.”

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    Prashant Jha is the Washington DC-based US correspondent of Hindustan Times. He is also the editor of HT Premium. Jha has earlier served as editor-views and national political editor/bureau chief of the paper. He is the author of How the BJP Wins: Inside India's Greatest Election Machine and Battles of the New Republic: A Contemporary History of Nepal.

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