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'Religious body report won't affect Indo-US ties'

Last updated on: September 10, 2009 09:30 IST

The decision by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom to place India on its 'Watch List,' for what it said was "the government's largely inadequate response to protecting religious minorities," will not impact in any way on the growing US-India strategic partnership, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Robert Blake has said.

But, the pointman for the subcontinent in the Obama Administration, however, urged New Delhi to enter into a dialogue with the Commission.

In the question and answer session that followed his address, inaugurating the fall semester of the South Asia Program of the Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, Blake asked if this designation could retard the sustained momentum of US-India relations, said, "I wouldn't say it's going to stop the momentum in US-India relations. But, religious freedom is an important issue to the United States. It's also an important issue to the Indian government."

The top US official argued that in fact, "The Indian government takes a very principled position on the issue of religious freedom in general."

Blake said "the problems that we've seen in India have been at the state level, and there, there have been some quite serious problems in places like Orissa".

He asserted that "we, in the United States, have responded very quickly to that—we've expressed our concern. We've sent our consuls-general to those areas to find out more information about that."

Blake said as far as the Obama Administration is concerned, "We welcome the dialogue that we have with the Commission on religious freedom issues, and we think it's very important for governments like India to have their own dialogue with that Commission."

"So, I say, it's an important issue, but it's not something that…we have many, many different equities in our relationship now," he reiterated.

Last month, the USCIRF, obviously incensed that New Delhi had declined to issue visas for a Commission delegation to visit India, released it 2009 country report on India, which it had earlier held back and in justifying placing India on its 'Watch List,' said, "India earned the Watch List designation due to the disturbing increase in communal violence against religious minorities -- specifically Christians in Orissa in 2008 and Muslims in Gujarat in 2002-- and the largely inadequate response from the Indian government to protect the rights of religious minorities."

The USCIRF is the US Congress mandated body that monitors religious freedoms and rights worldwide and then provides independent policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State and the Congress.

A country that is designated on the USCIRF Watch List requires "close monitoring due to the nature and extent of violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the government."

The other countries currently on USCIRF's Watch List are Afghanistan, Belerus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, Laos, the Russian Federation, Somalia, Tajikistan, Turkey, and Venezuela.

The USCIRF decision ignited anger among the Hindu majority of the Indian American community and activists were preparing to descend on Washington,DC and meet with the Commission's hierarchy to register their protest.

In releasing the India country report, he newly minted chair of USCIRF, Leonard Leo, making his debut in presiding over the first Watch List designation of his tenure, said, "It is extremely disappointing that India, which has a multitude of religious communities, has done so little to protect and bring justice to its religious minorities under siege."

He said that USCIRF's India chapter had been "released this week to mark the one-year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa."

It recalled that last year in Orissa, the murder of Swami Saraswati by Maoist rebels in Kadhamal had sparked "a prolonged and destructive campaign targeting Christians in Orissa, resulting in attacks against churches and individuals."

"These attacks largely were carried out by individuals associated with Hindu national groups, and resulted in at least 40 deaths and the destruction of hundreds of homes and dozens on churches," the USCIRF said, and added, "tens of thousands were displaced and today many still remain in refugee camps, afraid to return home."

Leo argued that "India's democratic institutions charged with upholding the rule of law, most notably state and central judiciaries and police, have emerged as unwilling or unable to seek redress for victims of the violence".

He said it was incumbent upon the government of India to do much more to "ensure future violence does not occur and that perpetrators are held accountable".

The USCIRF said that while the India country report had been released to coincide with the one year anniversary of the start of the anti-Christian violence in Orissa, the state and central judiciaries and police, had also not brought the perpetrators of the Gujarat violence to justice.

Aziz Haniffa