Religious freedom conditions continued a “downward trend” in India last year as Hindu-nationalist groups sought to “saffronise” it through violence, intimidation, and harassment of non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits, a US federal government appointed commission has alleged.
The US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) in its latest report has placed India in the Tier 2 countries of particular concern along with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhastan, Laos, Malaysia and Turkey.
“Conditions for religious minorities have deteriorated over the last decade due to a multifaceted campaign by Hindu-nationalist groups like Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sang (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) to alienate non-Hindus or lower-caste Hindus,” the USCIRF said.
The victims of this campaign include Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains, as well as Dalit Hindus, who belong to the lowest rung in the Hindu caste system, the USCIRF said in its latest annual report on international religious freedom.
“These groups face challenges ranging from acts of violence or intimidation, to the loss of political power, to increasing feelings of disenfranchisement and otherness,” it said.
“In 2017, religious freedom conditions continued a downward trend in India. India’s history as a multicultural and multi-religious society remained threatened by an increasingly exclusionary conception of national identity based on religion. During the year, Hindu-nationalist groups sought to ‘saffronise’ India through violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits,” it said.
Approximately one-third of state governments enforced anti-conversion and/or anti-cow slaughter laws against non-Hindus, and mobs engaged in violence against Muslims or Dalits whose families have been engaged in the dairy, leather, or beef trades for generations, and against Christians for proselytizing, it said.
“Cow protection” lynch mobs killed at least 10 victims in 2017. Forced conversions of non-Hindus to Hinduism through “homecoming” ceremonies (ghar wapsi) were reported, and rules on the registration of foreign-funded NGOs were used discriminatorily against religious minority groups, the report said.
At the same time, the report said that despite an overall deterioration of religious freedom conditions in 2017, there were positive developments. “Some government entities have made efforts to counter increasing intolerance in the country,” the USCIRF said.
The active and independent judiciary, exemplified by India’s Supreme Court, decided several cases during the year that protect the rights of religious minorities, it said. In its report, the USCIRF has urged the US government to integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral discussions with India, including the framework of future Strategic Dialogues, at both the federal and state levels.
It also urged the US Government to press the Indian government to allow the USCIRF to visit the country and to invite the United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief to visit India.