New York   -   During the year, Hindu-nationalist groups sought to “Saffronize” India through violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindus and Hindu Dalits. Both public and private actors pursued this effort.

United States Commission on International Religious Freedom released its annual report on 21 June 2019.

INDIA CHAPTER - 2019 ANNUAL REPORT

1. Key Findings

a. In 2018, Religious Freedom conditions continued a downward trend in India.

b. A history of religious freedom in India has come under attack in recent years with the growth of exclusionary extremist narratives including, at times, the government’s allowance and encouragement of mob violence against religious minorities that have facilitated an egregious and ongoing campaign of violence, intimidation, and harassment against non-Hindu and lower-caste Hindu minorities.

c. In 2018, approximately one-third of state governments increasingly enforced anti-conversion and/or anti-cow slaughter laws discriminatorily against non-Hindus and Dalits alike.

d. Further, cow protection mobs engaged in violence predominantly targeting Muslims and Dalits, some of whom have been legally involved in the dairy, leather, or beef trades for generations. Mob violence was also carried out against Christians under accusations of forced or induced religious conversion.

e. In 2018, the Supreme Court of India highlighted the deteriorating conditions for religious freedom in some states, concluding that certain state governments were not doing enough to stop violence against religious minorities and, in some extreme instances, impunity was being granted to criminals engaged in communal violence.

f. Prime Minister Narendra Modi seldom made statements decrying mob violence, and certain members of his political party have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and used inflammatory language about religious minorities publicly.

g. Based on these concerns, in 2019 USCIRF again places India on its Tier 2 for engaging in or tolerating religious freedom violations that meet at least one of the elements of the “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard for designation as a “country of particular concern,” or CPC, under the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA).

h. While the Indian government repeatedly has denied USCIRF access to India, the Commission welcomes the opportunity to openly and candidly engage with the government including the chance for a USCIRF delegation to visit India to discuss shared values and interests, including international standards of freedom of religion or belief and related human rights.

2. Recommendations to the U.S government

a. Press the Indian government to allow a USCIRF delegation to visit the country and meet with stakeholders to evaluate conditions for freedom of religion or belief in India.

b. Work with the Indian government to create a multiyear strategy to ebb the flow of hate crimes targeting religious minorities, including by:

1) Pressing state governments to prosecute religious leaders, government officials, and media personalities who incite violence against religious minority groups through public speeches or articles, as was recommended by the National Minorities Ministry in July 2014.

2) Strengthening the training and capacity of state and central police to prevent and punish cases of religious violence, while also protecting victims, witnesses, and houses of worship and other holy sites.

3) Encouraging passage of the Protection of Human Rights (Amendment) Bill, 2018 to establish national and state human rights commissions and human rights courts.

4) Assisting the Ministry of Law and Justice to work with state prosecutors to increase the rate of prosecutions for hate crimes and online hate speech targeting religious minorities.

c. Increase the U.S. Embassy’s focus on religious freedom and related human rights through continued visits to regions impacted by religiously motivated violence and dialogue with religious communities, local governmental leaders, and police.

d. Advocate for the Indian central government to ensure that the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act is not used discriminatorily to target international missionary and human rights groups, and to press states with anti-conversion and anti-cow slaughter laws to do the same.

3. Background of the level of Religious Freedom in India

a. 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 is a significant contributor to the rise of religious violence and persecution.

b. In 2017, the Indian government’s criminal data collection agency, the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), reported that communal violence increased significantly during 2016. However, in 2018, minority rights groups criticized the NCRB’s methodology for failing to include more categories on mob violence or lynching.

c. In 2018, religious minorities remained concerned with their safety and security. In February 2018, Minister of State at the Ministry of Home Affairs Hansraj Ahir reported to parliament that 111 people were murdered and 2,384 injured in 822 communal clashes during 2017 (as compared to 86 people killed and 2,321 injured in 703 incidents the previous year)

d. Role of Hindutva

1) Various nationalist groups in India have expanded the ideology of Hindutva, or “Hinduness,” which has three pillars—common nation, race, and culture—and forms the basis of an oftentimes exclusionary national narrative with a singular focus on the rights of Hindus.In 2017, religious minority leaders and adherents faced intimidation and arrest as a result of these laws.

2) Some Hindutva groups want greater influence of Hindu principles in the state’s decision-making process, more extreme elements have stated they would like to see all non-Hindus expelled, killed, or converted to Hinduism.

3) Some members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have affiliations with Hindu extremist groups and have used discriminatory language about religious minorities. For example, in 2018, state-level BJP member T. Raja Singh was charged by the police for hate speech after stating that “every Hindu should carry weapons like lathis [clubs] and attack other communities’ members if they said anything wrong.”

e. Cow slaughtering while prohibitions on cow slaughter

1) Under article 48 of India’s constitution, the slaughter of cows is prohibited. Accordingly, 21 out of 29 states in India prohibit cow slaughter in various forms, with prison sentences ranging from six months to 14 years. Since 2005, the Supreme Court has accepted the constitutionality of cow slaughter laws. In 2017, several state governments changed their laws to increase the punishment for cow slaughter.

2) In July 2018, a dairy farmer named Rakbar Khan was beaten to death in Rajasthan. While the details of his death continue to be corroborated, it appears that the police were complicit or directly involved, along with a local mob.

3) In December 2018, in another incident in Uttar Pradesh, a mob shot and killed police officer Subodh Kumar Singh and another victim after finding cow carcasses. In response, Uttar Pradesh’s Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath stated that the mob attack was an accident and generally denied the existence of lynch mob killings in his state.

4) In addition, Christians have reported threats to their safety over the past year, as well as increased discrimination and unfair treatment directly related to their religious identity.

f. Women and Religious Freedom

1) In 2018, women and girls in India continued to be the targets of intercommunal honor killings, intercommunal violence, and sexual violence along religious lines.

2) In a 2018 incident known as the Kathua rape case, an eight-year-old girl named Asifa Bano was abducted, gang-raped, and murdered as a message and threat to her Muslim nomadic community in Kashmir.

3) The year 2018 marked a renewed focus on and discussion of restrictions placed on women’s ability to worship at certain religious sites.

4) In September 2018, the Supreme Court of India ordered that Sabarimala temple in Kerala be opened to adult women, striking down a longstanding ban on women between the ages of 10 and 50 from taking the special pilgrimage to the temple. In response, women attempting to enter the temple were physically attacked and others who publicly stated that they would try to enter the temple received hate messages including death threats both online and in-person.

5) Nearly five million women reportedly initiated a counter-protest movement in January 2019, after the reporting period, by forming a 385-mile human chain near the temple to protest in favor of equal access for all.

Since 2001, USCIRF has attempted to visit India in order to assess religious freedom conditions on the ground. However, on three different occasions—in 2001, 2009, and 2016—the government of India refused to grant visas for a USCIRF delegation despite requests being supported by the State Department.