Recently, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) released its annual report. The commission monitors religious freedom across the world on the basis of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The report is submitted to the US government, which then takes appropriate policy decisions vis-à-vis the countries where religious freedom is being undermined. The latest report pertains to the period 1 February 2015-29 February 2016. Given below is a summary of the report:
In the period under consideration, there was a spurt in violations of religious freedom in India. The minority communities were victims of atrocities, oppression and violence at the hands of Hindu nationalist groups that allegedly enjoy the tacit approval of the ruling BJP and use religiously divisive and provocative language to put different communities at loggerheads.
The federal and provincial governments have enacted numerous laws prohibiting cow slaughter and foreign funding of NGOs. The Indian Constitution gives the minorities the right to equality and freedom of conscience and religious beliefs but the governments and the so-called nationalists are violating their rights. The USCIRF has again thus placed India in the Tier-II category where it has been since 2009. If the situation deteriorates further and religious freedom continues to be violated, the commission may ask the US government to declare India a “country of special concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).
According to official data, Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST) together make up around 200 million people. According to Rita Izsák-Ndiaye, UN’s Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, the number and intensity of crimes against Dalits had gone up in India in the year 2015. The Hindu Dalits were subjected to religious discrimination. There were many incidents of the members of “upper castes” preventing SCs and STs from entering Hindu temples. In seven villages of Tiruppur district, Tamil Nadu, Dalits were not allowed to enter temples or participate in “aartis” because of the belief that this would “pollute” the temples. Most of the cases filed in the district court against the ban on entry of Dalits in temples were pending. Izsák-Ndiaye says that as of June 2015, 13 cases pertaining to ban on entry of Dalits in temples in eight districts of Gujarat were pending for five years or longer. Additionally, non-Hindu Dalits, especially Christians and Muslims, are not given reservations in government jobs and in educational institutions, thus hindering their economic and social progress.
India is a multi-religious, multi-ethnic, secular democratic country. India, home to one-sixth of the global population, is the world’s biggest democracy. Around 80 per cent of the Indians are Hindus, 14 per cent are Muslims, 2.3 per cent are Christians, 1.7 per cent are Sikhs, one per cent (around 80 lakh) are Buddhists and less than one per cent (50 lakhs) are Jains. Around one per cent Indians are atheists. The country has been witnessing large-scale violence against religious minorities from time to time. Around 40 people were killed and more than 12 women and girls were raped during violence in Muzzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh in 2013. The riots led to the displacement of more than 50,000 people.
Since the BJP came to power at the Centre, the party’s leaders have been making insulting comments about minority communities, and the Hindu nationalist groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Bajrang Dal and VHP are indulging in forcible conversions of minorities, besides physically attacking them. The BJP is a Hindu nationalist party, which has been established with the support of the RSS and there is a close relationship between the two. These groups believe in the ideology of Hindutva and want to convert India into a Hindu state.
Religious freedom has always been an issue in India but it has gained prominence since the BJP came to power. Since the terror attacks on India in 2008 and 2010, Muslims (men and youth) are being subjected to arbitrary arrests and detentions, which, the government says, is necessary for combating terrorism. According to one report, over the past year, violence against Muslims has increased and they have been victims of targeted hate campaigns. Muslims are routinely charged with being terrorists, spying for Pakistan, converting Hindus, marrying Hindu women and slaughtering cows. In addition, members of the Muslim community and their leaders say that mosques are being kept under surveillance. In view of these allegations of the Muslims, a delegation of USCIRF had decided to visit India in March 2016 but the Government of India declined visas to them. John Kirby, spokesperson for the US Department of State, had expressed disappointment at the decision.
The claim of the members of the BJP and the RSS that the increase in Muslim population is a threat to Hindu majority in India is exacerbating religious tension. BJP MPs like Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj are provoking the Hindus by demanding a law to control the growth of the Muslim population. A video of a meeting of the Sangh Parivar held in February 2015 has come to the fore in which the participants are being urged to “control the Muslims and annihilate demons”. Many national and state leaders of the BJP are seen in the video. The Muslims claim that they rarely report to the police when members of RSS threaten them because of the perception that the police are partisan.
Most of the Indian states (24 of 29 in 2015) have banned cow slaughter under the provisions of Article 48 of the Constitution. These laws have weakened the Muslims and Dalits economically. In September 2015, a mob of 1000 people reportedly lynched Mohammed Akhlaq for allegedly killing a cow in Bishara village of Uttar Pradesh. No additional information about the action taken on the charges of murder and rioting in the case was available till the end of the period under consideration. In October 2015, Jahid Rasool Bhatt was burnt to death in Kashmir for allegedly taking cows for slaughter. Over the last two years, members of the BJP and the RSS have provoked Hindus to launch violent attacks on Muslims and Dalits for violation of the law against cow-slaughter ban.
The Hindu nationalist groups also announced that they planned to bring thousands of Christian and Muslim families back into the Hindu fold as part of their so-called “homecoming” campaign. The so-called Hindu nationalists had begun collecting funds for this campaign, but after the furore at the national and the international levels, the RSS put it off. But reports of forcible conversions of members of the religious minorities on a small scale kept coming in from India in 2015.
Dalit suffering underreported
As could be expected, the Government of India rubbished the report and questioned its credibility. Would it not have been better had the government taken action to mitigate the factors responsible for creating such a situation and allayed the fears of the Dalits and minorities? No matter which party is in power, the government is not ready to listen to the minorities and the Dalits. The Congress government had reacted in exactly the same manner at the meeting of the UN Human Rights Council in Durban, South Africa.
But the report does not throw enough light on the atrocities against Dalits and the issues concerning them. Many such incidents were reported from India in the period 1 February 2015 to 29 February 2016. But these do not find mention in the report. Therefore, SCs and the STs need to form independent bodies for compiling and analyzing the incidents of atrocities against them and placing them before the international community.
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