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For US body, India is same as Somalia and Afghanistan

August 13, 2009 08:45 IST

Obviously incensed after being denied visas to visit India, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom -- a 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 -- has released it 2009 country report on India, which it had earlier held back and placed India on its "Watch List".

The reason it says :  "The government's largely inadequate response to protecting religious minorities".

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

It 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."

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 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 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.

It noted that "during the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat, India's National Human Rights Commission found that the Indian government not only failed to prevent the attacks against religious minorities, but that state and local officials aided and participated in the violence."

"In both Orissa and Gujarat, court convictions have been infrequent, perpetrators rarely brought to justice, and thousands of people remains displaced," the USCIRF said.

The report said the "deficiencies in investigating and prosecuting cases have resulted in a culture of impunity that gives members of vulnerable minority communities few assurances of their safety, particularly in areas with a history of communal violence, and little hope of perpetrator accountability."

The report calls on the Obama Administration to urge the government of India to "take new measures to promote communal harmony, protect religious minorities, and prevent communal violence by calling on all parties and religious or social organization to publicly denounced violence against and harassment of religious minorities, women, and low-caste members, and to acknowledge that such violence constitutes a crime under Indian law".

The USCIRF issues its annual reports on religious freedom each May, but this year the India chapter was delayed because the USCIRF had requested to visit India this summer, and there was an expectation by the Commission's leadership that a delegation would visit India before the elections. But weeks went by and after the elections when New Delhi declined to accede to the visa requests, the USCIRF decided to go ahead and issue its India report.

In fact, last month, reacting angrily to being denied the visas, a USCIRF official, who did not want to be identified, told, that since it was definitive that a Commission delegation would not be afforded the opportunity to visit India, the report that had been held back would be released in a few weeks, as soon as the annual changeover of its leadership occurs with Leo taking over from Felice D Gaer.

The official told at the time, that the Commission had wanted to visit "not just Gujarat and Orissa, but also Mumbai and Delhi, and we had planned to have meetings with government officials to discussion the situation (of religious freedom and rights)."

"Of one particular interest was the judiciary system -- how come some of the perpetrators of some of these acts of violence against Muslims and Christians and others as well have not been prosecuted," he said. "Why is the judicial system in the world's largest democracy not providing justice and some sort of redress for these victims."

Regretting the denial of visas, the USCIRF said the intent of the Commissioners visit to India was "to discussion religious freedom conditions with officials, religious leaders, civil society activists and others in the world's largest democracy."

It pointed out that "as a US government body, visits by the Commission must have official status," and hence "USCIRF obtained US State Department support, made travel arrangements, and requested meetings with a variety of officials."

Despite the imprimatur of the US State Department, it complained, "the Indian government did not issue the USCIRF delegation visas," it said.

It explained that the "aim of the long-requested trip was to discuss religion freedom conditions in India, home to a multitude of religious communities that have historically co-existed."

It said since, "India has experienced an increase in communal violence against religious communities in recent years." the agenda of the USCIRF Commissioners were " to discuss the Indian government responses to this, and its development of preventive strategies at the local and national levels."

"According to information before USCIRF, the Indian justice system has prosecuted only a handful of persons responsible for communal violence and related abuses since the mid 1980s," it said.

USCIRF officials said the denial became clear when  New Delhi had not offered alternative dates for a visit, and recalled that the USCIRF had first tried to obtain visas for India in 2001.

"This would have been the Commission's first visit to India," it said, and added, now with the denial of visas to the USCIRF, "India joins Cuba as the only other nation to have refused all USCIRF requests to visit."

At the time the official told that the statement by lumping India with Cuba was not trying to insult India, but only stating a fact.

"We are not comparing India to Cuba -- there is a huge difference. But the fact of the matter is, there are only two places we have not been allowed in."

"I mean, we have applied to other places and been told, No, but eventually we got in," the official said, and noted, "Vietnam is an example. Sometimes we get in and sometimes we don't. But these are the only two places, we've applied and never got in."

Outgoing Commission chair Gaer, said of the denial of visas that, "We are particularly disappointed by the new Indian government's refusal to facilitate and official US delegation to discuss religious freedom issues and government measures to counter communal violence, which has a religious component."

She said "our Commission has visited China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and over 20 other countries," but lamented that "India, a close ally of the United States, has been unique among democracies in delaying and denying USCIRF's ability to visit."
She said, "We wanted to hear from all sectors of Indian society, and allow these diverse perspectives to shape our report."

The official at the time that the report on India will now rely on what the USCIRF has heard from religious and human rights groups in India and others, now that "we cannot depend on first hand, on the ground report that we had hoped to bring out."

"Basically, we wanted to comment on India after we've been there and done interviews and done some investigation and looked around. Of course, we have people on the ground that are reporting to us, and obviously there are other reports as well out there that we are using, and we are gathering information in every way we can. But it would have been better if we had first-hand information so that it would have been an authentic USCIRF report," the official said.

A month  before the Indian election, this same official had denied that the Indian government had invited the USCIRF, which some newspapers speculated was a political maneuver by the Manmohan Singh government to have the USCIRF visit Gujarat and embarrass the BJP-led government of Narendra Modi, who was leading the charge against the Congress Party.

At the time the official said of these reports, "We were all kind of surprised because they hadn't been so far as we knew (an invitation) and we had applied two weeks ago."

In 2002, the USCIRF recommended to the State Department that India be designated a 'Country of Particular Concern' following events in Gujarat that resulted in an estimated 2,000 deaths. Although India was removed from the CPC list in 2005, the USCIRF has continued to monitor, report and comment publicly on events in India, including last year's violence in Orissa, attacks in Mumbai, and other events.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America, warning against the visit of a USCIRF delegation to India, had said, such a trip would be an irony since it would signal that while President Obama "is trying to build and repair relationships with all the nations of the world, particularly the Islamic world ruled by kings and dictators, it does not care if its relationship with a peaceful, democratic nation is jeopardized."

It said a visit to India by the USCIRF would be "incomprehensible an that India "as "the largest functioning democracy in the world with an independent judiciary, a statutorily constituted Human Rights Commission, and independent press and other supporting organizations, would appear to be quite capable of taking care of the religious freedoms and human rights of its citizens."

The VHP-USA said, "India not only offers freedom of religion under its constitution, but does not discriminate based on religion," and obviously taking a swipe at Pakistan, added, "Similar freedoms are not available in neighboring countries."


Aziz Haniffa in Washington,DC