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Religious Freedom

Religious Freedom

It is the third year in a row that the US Commission on International Religious Freedom ( USCIRF) criticized India in its annual report 2020 for gross violation of religious freedom in India. The report said India was "engaging in and tolerating systematic, ongoing and egregious religious freedom violations". India rejected the comments by USCIRF as ‘biased and tendentious’.

For the first time within 15 years, India has been designated a “country of particular concern”. In fact, USCIRF report in 2006 had appreciated India for the ‘positive developments’ in affecting freedom of religion. The 2013 report had said, “There has been no large-scale communal violence against religious minorities in India since 2008. Criticism against India started appearing in the report of USCIRF since the BJP came to power at the Centre in 2014.

The report has highlighted some issues and events as the reason for its harsh criticism. Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) Assam’s National Register of Citizens (NRC) continued advocacy of nation-wide NRC by the leaders of the ruling party, Home Minister Amit Shah’s reference to the migrants as “termites”, and Yogi Adityanath’s pledge to take ‘revenge’ against the Anti-CAA protesters are some of them. The report has criticized the failure of the government to stop the riots in Delhi in February. “In February 2020, three days of violence erupted in Delhi with mobs attacking Muslim neighbourhoods. There were reports of Delhi police, operating under the Home Ministry’s authority, failing to halt attacks and even directly participating in the violence”, the report said.

The USCIRF has recommended that the US government imposes “targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for severe violations of religious freedom by freezing those individuals’ assets/or barring their entry into the United States”.

One of the members of the commission, Tenzin Dorjee, has put his dissenting note.   “India does not belong to the same category as authoritarian regimes like China and North Korea. India is the largest democratic nation in the world, where the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act) has been challenged openly by the opposition Congress Party and lawmakers, civil society, and various groups,” said Commissioner.

It is a fact that compared to the authoritarian countries India’s basic structure as a secular state remains. The violations of freedom of religion in India are not as serious as in the authoritarian countries. Hence it is not fair to paint a democratic country like India with the same brush that is used for authoritarian countries. At the same time it is also a fact that since 2014 the fear and insecurity among the minorities in India, particularly among the Muslims, have increased due to various factors. Some of the policies of the BJP government, failure of the BJP government to stop hate speech against the minorities and lynching of innocent people by the cow vigilantes have definitely contributed to enhance fear and insecurity among the religious minorities.

No county wants criticism from other countries, creating negative image at the international level. Like any other country India also has the right to defend itself on the face of criticism and clarify the issues from its perspective.  At the same time criticism from other countries is an occasion for introspection and self correction. Many of the issues mentioned in the Report of USCIRF were raised by the opposition parties and in India and widely discussed in the Indian media. Hence the Central government has to be ready for a re-examination of the issues highlighted in the report.

While the whole world and India are fighting against the pandemic Covid 19, the virus of hatred has been spread against a particular community through the social media. Muslim community was presented as solely responsible for spreading coronavirus in India. Fake videos depicting Muslim vendors selling fruits and vegetables after spitting on them were circulated on the social media platforms. The spread of this communal virus was so intense that the Prime Minister and the leader of RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, had to intervene to advice the hate mongers.

As part of a televised address to members of RSS on 25th April, Mohan Bhagwat said, “All 130 crore Indians are our family. We are one... We should not blame the entire community for the mistakes of a few individuals. People who are more mature in both communities should come forward and start a dialogue to remove prejudices among people’s minds.”

Articles 25 to 28 of the Indian constitution speak about the right to freedom of religion guaranteed to the citizens of India. It is the responsibility of the government to protect these rights. Article 25 specifically says that the state should not discriminate against any religion. “The State shall not discriminate against any citizen on the ground of religion only and that the State shall have no religion of its own and all persons shall be equally entitled to the freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practise and propagate religion.”

The freedom of religion guaranteed to every citizen of India in the constitution is nothing but a reiteration of the age old belief and practice of Indians. Coexistence of different religions in India is a precious heritage of India. The Rig Vedic saying Ekam Sat Vipra Bahudha Vadanti”  ( “There is only one truth and learned persons call it by many names”.) could be the basis of the coexistence of many religions and the respect for each other for millennia.  

It is pertinent to quote what Guy Sorman has written in his book, ‘The Genius of India’ while writing about the spirituality of Sri. Ramakrishna Paramahamsa and Swami Vivekananda. “All religions are alike; where they differ is the way in which each one perceives man’s relationship with God: The Jews know God through the holy texts, the Christians believe in God because he came on earth, the Muslims obey God because he spoke to them and the Hindus experience divinity because they are part of it.”

The world is facing a crisis worse than a world war in the form of Covid 19. More than three million people have been infected and about 2.5 lakh people died due to the pandemic. Facing this huge challenge requires concerted and collaborative efforts all nations and people belonging to different religions. Religions have a tendency to divide people on the basis of their rituals, rules and dogmas. A close scrutiny of religions can reveal that all religions in their origin were focusing on certain core values and a way of life. Seeing God in all beings, especially in human beings, is stressed in all religions. Rituals, laws and dogmas were added later. Spirituality in the form of practising core values of forgiveness, compassion, love, justice and respect for every human person is the essence of all religion.

Along with drifting away from the original teaching religions began to be mixed with politics. History is a witness to the fact that religion was misused by rulers and politicians to polarize people. Commercialization of religion has been another distortion that has taken place.

Conflicts and strife among the followers of different religions are found not only in India but also in other countries. It is the result of drifting away from spirituality taught by religions. In order to ensure religious freedom for individuals and maintain brotherhood and harmony, it is essential for all religions to go back to the original teaching i.e. spirituality. Spirituality promotes plurality and respect for each other. Leaders in all religions need to restrain the fundamentalists and fanatics who preach that their religion is the only true religion and all should accept their faith. Prejudice against other faiths is against genuine spirituality.

Legalism, ritualism and dogmatism are blocks to spiritual growth. Promoting critical thinking is the antidote to the three blocks. It can also prevent the faithful from sliding into blind faith and superstitions. De- politicization and de-commercialization of religion are the other requirements for promoting spirituality, harmony and peace.

Freedom of religion includes not only the freedom to profess and practise a faith of one’s choice by a person, but also it includes the freedom to choose the mode of practising one’s own faith. Fundamentalism is the biggest enemy of religious freedom.   History is a witness to the violence and bloodshed caused by religious fundamentalists. Leaders of all religions, while demanding for religious freedom, should not leave any stone unturned to stamp out fundamentalism, a virus more dangerous than Covid 19, among the flowers of their respective faiths. Only then humanity will be able to enjoy genuine peace and harmony.

(The writer can be reached at jacobpt48@gmail.com )

(Published on 04th May 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 19)