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|September 19, 2000||
US panel holds session on religious freedom in India
Amberish K Diwanji in Washington
A day after Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee left Washington for India, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom held a hearing on India and Pakistan, including a special session on Kashmir.
The decision to hold the hearing within 24 hours of the prime minister's departure was "not a coincidence," according to the commission's director of communications, Lawrence J Goodrich. "While we had no intention of causing any embarrassment to the prime minister on his visit, we also timed it to gain maximum media advantage by holding it just after he left Washington," he told rediff.com.
Chairing the hearings was Elliot Abrams, president, Ethics and Public Policy Centre, Washington. The session on India included Professor Emeritus Ainslie Embree of Columbia University, Professor Arvind Sharma of McGill University, Dr Mumtaz Ali Khan of the Muslim Forum for Social Justice and John Dayal of the All India Christian Council.
While Professor Embree gave an overview of the religious situation, including how Hindus view conversion, Professor Sharma specifically spoke on the Hindu view of conversion and religious freedom, pointing out that most Hindus were against conversion.
He said the problem occurred with Western thinking that assumed that a man could only follow one religion. He pointed out that a Hindu does not mind if you pray to Allah or Jesus; what he minds is if you stop worshipping Hindu gods to worship other religions' gods.
Dr Khan said that Muslims suffered from a series of disabilities, marginalised due to poverty and illiteracy. She said that under the Bharatiya Janata Party regime, the sense of insecurity had increased though Muslims in India do look up to Vajpayee.
Dayal said a sharp distinction had to be made between Hinduism and Hindutva (which was Hindu nationalism).
He said violence against Christians would only end when there is political will and when the highest in the land make it clear that India will not tolerate hate campaigns against Christians or other minorities.
After the session on the state of minorities in India, the next session was specifically on the situation in Kashmir. Speaking at the session were Dr Ghulam Nabi Fai of the Kashmiri American Council, a pro-independence outfit based in the United States, and Dr Vijay Sazawal of the Indo-American Kashmir Forum and Professor Embree.
Dr Sazawal spoke on behalf of the Kashmiri Pandits who have been displaced from Jammu and Kashmir, and killed in large numbers, leading to an ethnically cleaned Kashmir valley. On the other hand, Dr Fai spoke about the crimes committed on Muslim Kashmiris by security forces based in the state to fight insurgency.
There was also a session on the plight of minorities in Pakistan, followed by a situation analysis hearing on India and Pakistan.
During the last session, the speakers took pains to point out the difference between India and Pakistan, stating that while in India the minorities were protected by laws but their application was weak, in Pakistan, the laws themselves discriminated against the minorities, offering them little hope.
Dr Marshall Bouton of the Asia Society, Professor Sumit Ganguly of the Centre of Asian Studies, Texas University, Professor Tamara Sonn, College of William and Mary, and Robert Oakley, former ambassador to Pakistan spoke at the session.
Later, commission chairman Elliot Abrams told rediff.com that hearing was only to gather information about the state of religious freedom in India and Pakistan.
He was at pains to explain that the commission under no circumstances equated the situation in Pakistan with that in India. "The only reason we had both countries heard on the same day was because some of data pertaining to Kashmir involved both nations," he said.
Abrams said the commission intended to send a team to India later to study the ground situation. "What we have heard so far is statements by persons whom we have called from India or Pakistan, or are based in the US," he said.
The chairman added that the commission would also study reports sent in by human rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.
When the commission's director of communications was asked whether the evidence and reports submitted would be verified, Goodrich replied in the positive. "Our experience shows that most reports or evidence submitted is, unfortunately, true," he added.
He said that another reason for visiting some countries was to meet members of communities that did not get representation at the hearing. "We can't call everyone, so it is better to go down and meet the others, which we will do when we visit India," he stated.
Abrams said the report guides the US administration and Congress in framing foreign policy. "The United States is committed to dealing with countries that respect religious freedom and our report will inform the government about which countries are not up to the mark," he added.
When asked why a hearing on Kashmir was made part of the religious freedom hearing, he stressed that the commission was not looking into the political crisis in the state. "We are not seeking to offer a political solution or even seek information. What we have sought to know is the plight Of the Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir, both of whom are unable to practice their faiths," he said.
The commission has 10 members, including the chairman, who is appointed by the speaker of the House. The 10th member is the ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, ex-officio, who is appointed by the US president. This post is vacant after Robert Seiple quit the commission a month ago. The members are selected on a bipartisan basis, with Republicans and Democrats nominating the members. Of the current nine, the Democratic Party selected five.
The commission has to draft its report on the religious freedom situation of all countries and submit its report by May 1, 2001.
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