US panel wants India on religious freedom blacklist

WASHINGTON • A US government panel on Tuesday called for India to be put on a religious freedom blacklist over a “drastic” downturn under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, triggering a sharp rebuttal from New Delhi.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom recommends but does not set policy, and there is virtually no chance the State Department will follow its lead on India, an increasingly close US ally.

In an annual report, the bipartisan panel narrowly agreed that India should join the ranks of “countries of particular concern” that would be subject to sanctions if they do not improve their records.

“In 2019, religious freedom conditions in India experienced a drastic turn downward, with religious minorities under increasing assault,” the report said.

It called on the US to impose punitive measures, including visa bans, on Indian officials believed responsible and grant funding to civil society groups that monitor hate speech.

The commission said that Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, which won a convincing election victory last year, “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”.

It pointed to comments by Home Minister Amit Shah, who notoriously referred to mostly Muslim migrants as “termites”, and to a citizenship law that has triggered nationwide protests.

It also highlighted the revocation of the autonomy of Kashmir, which was India’s only Muslim-majority state, and allegations that Delhi police turned a blind eye to mobs who attacked Muslim neighbourhoods in February this year.

The Indian government, long irritated by the commission’s comments, quickly rejected the report.

“Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said.

“We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly,” he said in a statement.

The State Department designates nine “countries of particular concern” on religious freedom — China, Eritrea, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan. The commission asked that all nine countries remain on the list. In addition to India, it sought the inclusion of four more — Nigeria,

Russia, Syria and Vietnam. Pakistan, India’s historic rival, was added by the State Department in 2018 after years of appeals by the commission.

In its latest report, the commission said that Pakistan “continued to trend negatively”, voicing alarm at forced conversions of Hindus and other minorities, abuse of blasphemy prosecutions and a ban on the Ahmadi sect calling itself Muslim. — AFP