03/05/2016 1:16 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST

Religious Tolerance In India Deteriorated In 2015: U.S. Commission

A woman worships a cow as Indian Hindus offer prayers to the River Ganges, holy to them during the Ganga Dussehra festival in Allahabad, India, Sunday, June 8, 2014. Allahabad on the confluence of rivers the Ganges and the Yamuna is one of Hinduism’s holiest centers. (AP Photo/Rajesh Kumar Singh)

NEW DELHI -- Religious tolerance in India deteriorated in 2015, and religious freedoms of minorities were violated by Hindu nationalist groups, "tacitly supported" by members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, according to a U.S. government agency which monitors religious freedom.

In it annual report, released on Monday, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, said, "India is on a negative trajectory in terms of religious freedom."

BJP President Amit Shah as well as lawmakers Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj are mentioned in the report -- Shah for supporting anti-conversion laws, which are used to harass Christians, and the two other BJP leaders for fueling hate against Muslims.

The "independent and bipartisan" USCIRF was behind the U.S. government's decision to revoke Narendra Modi's tourist visa in 2005, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, alleging his complicity in the religious violence which ravaged the state in 2002.

Modi, now India's Prime Minister, has been cleared off wrongdoing in connection with the Gujarat riots by Indian courts, and last year, a U.S. court also threw out a "genocide" case against Modi, upholding the U.S. government's contention that he was entitled to immunity as a sitting head of government.

While the U.S. government has consistently made some noise over religious freedom, these concerns have not interfered with its plans to build a closer strategic relationship with India. Last week, the U.S. House Speaker Paul Ryan invited Modi to address a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress, when he visits in June.

Meanwhile, the USCIRF has said that it will monitor the situation in India over the next year and then determine whether it should be designated as a “country of particular concern."

"Since the BJP assumed power, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by BJP politicians and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by affiliated Hindu nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), Sangh Parivar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)." - USCIRF Report

In its report, USCIRF highlighted attacks on religious freedoms of Muslims, Christians and Sikhs, restrictions on cow slaughter, anti-conversion laws, forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups, and the failure to redress past large-scale violence.

In its recommendations, USCIRF urged the "Indian government to publicly rebuke government officials and religious leaders that make derogatory statements about religious communities."

"The Indian courts are still adjudicating cases stemming from large-scale Hindu-Muslim communal violence in Uttar Pradesh (2013) and Gujarat (2002); Hindu-Christian communal violence in Odisha (2007-2008); and Hindu-Sikh communal violence in Delhi (1984)." - USCIRF Report

USCIRF and India

In February, the Modi government said that communal violence has increased by 17 percent from 2014 to 2015, but the Indian government has never taken kindly to criticism from outside.

While the government doesn't relish the bad publicity, it tends to dismiss criticism from the U.S. and other foreign agencies as ignorant of the complexities of Indian society. Then, there are those who believe that the U.S. is really in no position to preach given its own myriad problems on race and religion, and the fact that some its allies are gross human rights violators.

The Indian government did not take cognizance of USCIRF's report in 2015.

"Our attention has been drawn to a Report of the USCIRF which has passed judgement on religious freedom in India. It appears to be based on limited understanding of India, its constitution and its society," said Vikas Swarup, official spokesperson for the Ministry of External Affair, last year.

Writing in the FirstPost, last year, its former Editor-in-Chief R Jagannathan described USCIRF as "busybody created by US law to appease evangelical bigots at home."

In March, the Modi government denied visas to a delegation from USCIRF which wanted to "discuss and assess religious freedom conditions" in India.

But this isn't unique to the BJP leadership. The USCIRF was also denied visas by the Indian government in 2009, when the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance government was in power at the Centre.

Still, the U.S. didn't take kindly to its representatives being denied visas. A month after the U.S, government expressed its disappointment, Katrina Lantos Swett, a member of the USCIRF delegation, was permitted to attend a conference of Chinese dissidents in Dharamshala, last week.

But Swett said that she had traveled as a representative of Lantos Foundation on Human Right, and not for the USCIRF.

While the USCIRF episode garnered a lot of attention, a visit from another American institution, funded by the U.S. Congress, went unnoticed.

The Economic Times reported today that U.S. Institute of Peace, organized a meeting between young people from 14 conflict-ridden countries and the Dalai Lama in Dharamshala, last week.

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