In diplomatic parley, it was a definite rap on the knuckles. The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in his “India Policy Speech” at the India International Centre on 26 June, which for the most part dealt with joint strategic ventures like security and counter-terrorism, veered off course to deliver a homily: “India is the birthplace of four major world religions. Let’s stand up together for religious freedom for all, let’s speak out strongly together in favour of those rights for whenever we do compromise those rights, the world is worse off…”

This aside was undoubtedly a nuanced reference to the recently released United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) 2019 annual report which was highly critical of India.

But is the USCIRF report a credible document to formulate one’s opinion?

The answer is in the negative. In fact even a cursory perusal tells you that the report is a shoddy hatchet job; a garbled erratic account of contradictory statements, questionable incidents extracted from third-party sources and expedient snippets of selective data highlighted to corroborate a pre-determined view; one that references the same suspect anti-national sources emanating from India who have made “Defamation of India” their international project.

The executive summary sums up the annual report as follows: “In 2018, religious freedom conditions in India continued a downward trend. India has a long history as a secular democracy… Yet, this history of religious freedom has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives—including, at times, the government’s allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities…”

To justify its presumptuous and sweeping conclusion of a “downward trend”, the report selectively focuses on statistics for the years 2016 and 2017 from the National Crimes Records Bureau (NCRB): “…111 people were murdered and 2,384 injured in 822 communal clashes during 2017 (as compared to 86 people killed and 2,321 injured in 703 incidents the previous year).”

However, when the same data end points are analysed by extending the time frame back to 2008, a different picture emerges. There has been a decline and not an increase in communal violence-related deaths since the NDA came to power in 2014; in fact, the highest recorded annual mortality from communal violence—167 (2008) and 133 (2013)—occurred during the tenure of the UPA government.

The report then proceeds to expand on this supposed intolerance by addressing issues like cow slaughter vigilantism, anti-conversion laws, NGO restrictions, the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB).

The section on cow slaughter is a real eye-opener and brings to the fore the glaring deficiencies of this report.

The statistics (deaths and number of incidents) quoted are not the result of independent research, but information lifted from second or even third hand sources like the Human Rights Watch (HRW) and IndiaSpend. Also, it is important to note that the HRW report in question was authored by Jayshree Bajoria, and edited by Meenakshi Ganguly, a well-known Hindu basher.

On its website, IndiaSpend states that it is a non-profit organisation and a project of the Spending & Policy Research Foundation located in Mumbai that utilises “open data to analyse a range of issues with the broader objective of fostering better governance, transparency and accountability in the Indian government”. Information on the website has a definite anti-Narendra Modi slant.

So, when we drill down we discover that data presented by the USCIRF report was not independently arrived at, but information gleaned from second or even third hand sources that eventually lead back to Indian sources well known for their ideological bias towards the current government.

As I have pointed out earlier (Cow vigilantism is a criminal aberration, The Sunday Guardian, 16 July), while not denying that there have been some unacceptable deadly violence related to cow slaughter vigilantism, it is also true that these incidents are nothing more than normally occurring criminal aberrations of society which are being exploited for political ends.

ANTI-CONVERSION LAWS

Criticism of India’s anti-conversion laws is not really valid. Mahatma Gandhi once said “But no propaganda can be allowed which reviles other religions. For that would be negation of toleration… If I had the power and could legislate, I should stop all proselytizing.”

Conversion is an anathema to all Hindus and not Hindu nationalists alone. For Hindus conversion is religious intolerance and anti-conversion laws have been passed in Indian states since 1968 (Madhya Pradesh). It is not a new development.

NGO REGISTRATION

The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) of 1976 was updated in 2010 under the UPA government; with the new revision the government could shut down any internationally funded NGO engaged in “any activities detrimental to the national interest”.

The USCIRF report alleges that the “government has also used this provision to shut down thousands of international NGOs since 2014… In November 2018, the Indian government demanded that 1,775 organizations provide further explanation for their failure to submit use of foreign funds over the last six years; these organizations included many non-Hindu religious groups, some Hindu trusts managing major temples, and secular human rights groups.”

Since the law was made applicable to even Hindu trusts and secular groups (as indicated in the USCIRF report itself), the charge of this statute being discriminatory is a flimsy one.

ASSAM AND CITIZENSHIP

Comments about the National Register of Citizens (NRC) and the Citizenship Amendment Bill (CAB) exhibit a profound ignorance of the ground reality of the subcontinent.

The NRC and CAB are attempts to address geo-political issues pertaining to illegal immigration and religious persecution of non-Muslims in neighbouring countries. To treat a Hindu fleeing persecution and certain death in Pakistan, Bangladesh or Afghanistan on par with a Muslim voluntarily sneaking into India for economic reasons or otherwise is both morally and legally untenable. To invoke religious discrimination in this context is a stretch.

The mendacity of the document reaches a problematic low when it attempts to put Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains into the minority victim category. No significant violence against Sikhs, Buddhist and Jains has occurred in recent times (since 1984), testifying to the frivolous character of this report; it appears to be a malicious ploy to create a combined anti-Hindu front, rather than a sincere attempt to resolve issues and encourage communal harmony.

In summary, the USCIRF report is a factually, morally and logically challenged document derived from second hand sources of dubious intent. It cannot be taken at face value.

Not surprisingly, the respected Chair of the Commission itself, Tenzin Dorjee chose to dissent. He wrote: “While India must address issues related to religious freedom, I respectfully dissent on the views that India’s religious freedom conditions continued on a downward trend, the government allowed and encouraged mob violence against religious minorities, and some states are involved in ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom.’ India is an open society with a robust democratic and judiciary system.”

That is the truth; the dissent note should have been the majority verdict.

Despite a few aberrations India continues to be an exemplary pluralistic society with few equals in the world. Let nobody tell us otherwise.

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