On 10 June , the US Ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom , Samuel Brownback, presented in Washington the ‘2019 International Religious Freedom Report.’ This Report which is mandated by the US Congress is an annual exercise, which documents major instances of the violation of religious freedom across the world and makes necessary recommendations to the US Government. The Report was released by the US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo at the State Department.
The Introduction to this Report states that, “the US Department of State submits this annual report to the Congress in compliance with section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-292), as amended. This report covers the period between January 1 and December 31, 2019.U.S. embassies prepare the initial drafts of country chapters based on information from government officials, religious groups, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, human rights monitors, academics, media, and others. The Office of International Religious Freedom, based in Washington, collaborates in collecting and analyzing additional information, drawing on its consultations with foreign government officials, domestic and foreign religious groups, domestic and foreign nongovernmental organizations, multilateral and other international and regional organizations, journalists, academic experts, community leaders, and other relevant U.S. government institutions”.
Adding, “ The State Department’s guiding principle is to ensure that all relevant information is presented as objectively, thoroughly, and fairly as possible. Motivations and accuracy of sources vary, however, and the Department of State is not in a position to verify independently all information contained in the reports. To the extent possible, the reports use multiple sources to increase comprehensiveness and reduce potential for bias. The views of any particular source are not necessarily those of the United States government. The report is designed to spotlight examples of government and societal action that typify and illuminate issues reported in each country. Specific inclusions or omissions should not be interpreted as a signal that a particular case is of greater or lesser importance to the U.S. government, or that a case is the only available example. Rather, the goal is to shed light on the nature, scope, and severity of actions impacting religious freedom through illustrative examples”.
The State Department Report in its Chapter on India said that there were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice and speak about their religious beliefs. Immediately after the release of Report, Ambassador Brownback in responding some queries from foreign journalists expressed his concern about the lack of Religious Freedom in India saying, “ we do remain very concerned about what’s taking place in India. It has historically been a very tolerant, respectful country of religions, of all religions. The trendlines have been troubling in India because it is such a religious subcontinent and seeing a lot more communal violence. We’re seeing a lot more difficulty. I think really, they need to have a – I would hope they would have an – interfaith dialogue starting to get developed at a very high level in India, and then also deal with the specific issues that we identified as well. It really needs a lot more effort on this topic in India, and my concern is, too, that if those efforts are not put forward, you’re going to see a growth in the violence and of the increased difficulty within the society writ large.” Responding to a question, Brownback hoped that the minority faiths are not to be blamed for the COVID-19 spread and that they would have access to the healthcare and the foods and the medicines that they need during the crisis.
The remarks coming from the topmost US diplomat on ‘Religious Freedom’ is significant because it is the first US State Department Report on Religious Freedom which has been released after President Donald Trump signed the ‘ Executive Order Advancing International Religious Freedom’ on 2 June. The order is historic because for the very first time ‘Religious Freedom’ an intrinsic part of US foreign policy as the opening paragraph states , “ Religious freedom, America’s first freedom, is a moral and national security imperative. Religious freedom for all people worldwide is a foreign policy priority of the United States, and the United States will respect and vigorously promote this freedom. As stated in the 2017 National Security Strategy, our Founders understood religious freedom not as a creation of the state, but as a gift of God to every person and a right that is fundamental for the flourishing of our society”.
The brief Executive Order has seven sections which significantly impacts on every dimension of the relations US has with other nations. Interestingly, Section 4 states , “ Integrating International Religious Freedom into United States Diplomacy. (a) The Secretary shall direct Chiefs of Mission in countries of particular concern, countries on the Special Watch List, countries in which there are entities of particular concern, and any other countries that have engaged in or tolerated violations of religious freedom as noted in the Annual Report on International Religious Freedom required by section 102(b) of the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (Public Law 105-292), as amended (the “Act”), to develop comprehensive action plans to inform and support the efforts of the United States to advance international religious freedom and to encourage the host governments to make progress in eliminating violations of religious freedom:
The Executive Order helps to lift the U.S. government’s advocacy of religious freedom abroad into high-level foreign policy. It expands upon the work that Congress began in 1998 when it sought to ensconce the promotion of religious freedom into U.S. foreign policy through the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA), which established an office of religious freedom in the State Department, added an advisor on religious freedom to the National Security Council, and created the independent and nonpartisan ‘ U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF).’ USCIRF aims to monitor the implementation of the right to freedom of religion or belief around the world, following international law standards (as per the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights). USCIRF makes policy recommendations to the United States President, the Secretary of State, and Congress.
On 28 April, the USCIRF released its Annual Report 2020 and the remarks in the Chapter on India are far more scathing as it exposes the many violations in religious freedom in the country.
On expected lines, the Indian Government dismissed the USCIRF Report. In an official rebuttal, an MEA spokesperson stated, “we reject the observations on India in the USCIRF Annual Report. Its biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels. It has not been able to carry its own Commissioners in its endeavour. We regard it as an organisation of particular concern and will treat it accordingly” .
A few days ago in a written statement to Parliament the External Affairs Minister said,
“We have also denied visa to USCIRF teams that have sought to visit India in connection with issues related to religious freedom, as we do not see the of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pronounce on the state of Indian citizens constitutionally protected rights,” after stating that the US government body was known to make “prejudiced” observations about India. “We do not take cognizance of these pronouncements and have repudiated such attempts to misrepresent information related to India.”
On the one hand, is the USCIRF Report which was systematically pooh-poohed by the current regime over the years; on the other hand, however, is the US State Department Report, the remarks of Ambassador Brownback and now the Executive Order making ‘religious freedom’ as an integral part of US foreign policy. It will therefore be interesting to watch how the US ‘freedom of religion’ policy will unfold with regard to India, in the coming months. The remarks by Ambassador Brownback have certainly put India on the backburner. India was muted in their ‘official’ response to him and his report.
Those who are unhappy with the way religious freedom violations are highlighted, have begun lampooning the US, wondering if the US can take ‘a -holier-than-thou’ attitude with regard to human rights (here religious freedom) when the country has been burning and smouldering over the racism issue. In fact, both the Executive Order and the State Department Report were but into the back pages because of what was happening in the US. True, that the US is not a paragon of human rights, but then surely every country has the right to determine key dimensions of its foreign policy.
There is the standard complaint from the Indian Government of “no interference in our internal matters by a foreign agency/Government!” Sadly, on this score the Government is so selective : if foreigners can invest in India, if India can spend mind-boggling amounts to buy sub-standard arms and ammunition from foreign powers in corrupt deals, if a Sardar Patel Statue is built with Chinese knowhow and materials , if powerful people in the country can contract foreign PR firms as their propagandists, if crony capitalists are hobnobbing with foreigners all the time on their business deals- then surely human rights which are universal- (including freedom of religion) must also be part of the openness and transparency of any democracy anywhere in the world. If ‘Howdy Modi’ and ‘Namaste Trump’ can symbolise bonhomie between the two nations, then surely India should not be frightened of showing the US, the reality of freedom of religion in the country. If there is nothing wrong, then surely there is nothing to hide!
There are plenty of Indian ‘bhakts’ in the United States who support (even financially) the Hindutva extremists here in India -in attacking Christians, Muslims and other minorities. These ‘bhakts’ however, will never want to leave the comfortable shores of the US and live in an India which is deeply polarised. They will not even have the courage whilst they live in the US, to tell the US Government that it should not ‘interfere’ in India’s internal matters! There is enough of official documentation which shows the number of attacks and killings, of false cases foisted and other forms of intimidation (like hate speeches) on the minorities of India. That religious freedom is systematically violated in the country is a non-debatable issue.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights( UDHR) and the Indian Constitution guarantees, “ everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance” .(#18) . Freedom of Religion is a fundamental right enshrined in Constitution of India (#25-28) which emphatically and unequivocally states, that one is free to profess, practise and propagate one’s religion.
Instead of just telling the US “not to interfere” (of course, we ARE Sovereign!) the Government of India needs first to put its house in order immediately: to book those (including their own officials and politicians) who spew venom on minorities and even lynch them; to ensure that freedom of religion is not merely in tokenism or in lip -service but a fundamental right guaranteed to all and which is protected zealously. Until then, we will have to cry with the words of Rabindranath Tagore “ into that heaven of freedom my Father, let my country awake!”
*(Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is a human rights & peace activist and writer. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org(Published on 22nd June 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 26)