Internal Matters

How the Modi government deflects international censure

An Indian paramilitary personnel directs a young school girl to take another route during restrictions imposed by Indian authorities in Srinagar, in August 2017. There has been an aggressive push by New Delhi to manage perceptions in the United States on India’s actions in Kashmir. masrat zahra
01 June, 2020

A recent United States Commission on International Religious Freedom report, published in April, designated India a “country of particular concern” and recommended that the US government use “targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious rights.” During the release of the report, the vice-chairperson of the USCIRF, Nadine Maenza, said that the deterioration of religious freedoms in India was “perhaps the steepest and most alarming” of all the adverse developments identified around the world. The commission accused the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government of having “allowed violence against minorities and their houses of worship to continue with impunity and also engaged in and tolerated hate speech and incitement to violence.” The report was also critical of the home minister, Amit Shah, for referring to illegal immigrants as “termites” and not taking sufficient action to stop lynchings in the country.

The spokesperson for India’s ministry of external affairs, Anurag Srivastava, rejected the USCIRF report as “biased and tendentious,” and argued that the observations made in it were “neither accurate nor warranted.” He questioned the commission’s “locus standi” in what he said was India’s internal matter, and added that such “comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels.”

The USCIRF plays two key roles. First, it monitors religious-freedom violations throughout the world; second, it makes recommendations to the US government on promoting religious freedom as part of foreign policy, including through the use of sanctions. How these policy recommendations are implemented has varied from case to case. The dramatic increase in violence against minorities in India, especially Muslims, since 2014, the unilateral and unconstitutional revocation of Article 370 in Kashmir, the proposed nationwide implementation of the National Register for Citizens and the passing of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act have all contributed towards the erosion of democratic values, and have posed an existential threat to the country’s minorities.

This is not the first time the USCIRF has taken note of the country’s intolerant attitude towards its religious minorities. The commission had recommended sanctions against Narendra Modi—when he was chief minister of Gujarat—for the 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms in the state, in which over a thousand lives were lost. The Coalition Against Genocide—a group of nearly forty organisations founded in the aftermath of the Gujarat pogroms “to demand accountability and justice”—consistently lobbied the US Congress to deny Modi a visa at the time. The US government subsequently cancelled his visa in 2005, and he was banned from travelling to the United States for the next ten years. While this move named and shamed Modi internationally, it affected neither his popularity nor his ability to win elections in India.