Screaming Shadows: International Religious Freedom Report and India

Image for representation/ HT

In the most recent report/reference to the report by the Commission on International Religious Freedom (CIRF), US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo said that “there were reports of religiously motivated killings, assault, riots, discrimination, vandalism, and actions restricting the rights of individuals to practice their religious beliefs and proselytize.” The report further points out specific cases of violence against religious minority groups, highlights that many times government officials and leaders belonging to parties like the BJP are allegedly involved in these violent acts.  Further specifications on religious tensions caused due to the beef ban, the Babri Masjid case, violence against alleged forced conversions by Christians and Muslims and how women are particularly affected by these religious intolerances have been mentioned. The report however also points out that since 2018, there has been a reduction of such crimes by twelve percent. The report also stated that “the very governments perpetrating or tolerating these abuses often decry “interference in internal affairs” when they are rightfully admonished for their deplorable religious freedom and human rights records”, which is again a hypocritical statement considering that is the same stringent attitude that the United States shows when anybody raises a finger at serious issues within the country – be it of their migration laws or of their healthcare system.

To that statement by Mike Pompeo and the report as a whole, the Ministry of External Affairs of India replied by stating that “India is proud of its longstanding commitment to tolerance” and that “we (India) see no locus standi for a foreign entity to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights”. India is a land of cultures and nurtures and graciously carries religious diversity on its land from the very beginning of time. However, with the events taking place recently, there has been an increase in violence and acts that exemplify the reduction of religious freedom within the country.

The report brings out three problems that can be the root causes of the inability to curb such intense religious tensions within the country. First, that of extremism and the communal hatred that develops through the idea of so (and due to lack of proper education). Second, the (alleged) involvement of politicians and government officials (especially those that belong to big parties) in communal violence that gives people a validity card to take things in their own hands through violent means. And finally, and most importantly, the increase in religious intolerance and crimes against religious minorities within India.

The increase in crimes against religious minorities in India can mean two things, them being that either the law enforcement and the process of tracking these crimes has been getting better, thus more crimes get recorded due to easier accessibility for legal procedures and a more robust public service system. Or, that crimes have simply increased to a huge extent from what they were before. Although both these derivatives make sense, it is likely that the increase in efficiency of the government in recording and giving people easier access to report crimes can be the reason we see a huge shift in numbers for such crimes. It is easy to forget that such intolerances existed even before such reports were made and that people’s access to resources makes these problems just more visible to the public at large. The use of social media and crime scenes, such as those of mob lynching, and selective criminal outrages, that are altered to bring outrage from a specific audience also play their hands in escalating situations. Often religious outrages come from behaviours that link to “the domino effect”. One problem or outrage can escalate into mass movements of hatred, and that is one of the problems that need to be curbed within India. Despite all of these factors, there is no denying that serious cases of such crimes have been prevalent in India. With 111 people being murdered and 2,384 injured in 822 communal clashes during 2017 – it is no doubt that these crimes account for a call for serious actions.

Another outcome that shows some possible linkage to that of the first reason mentioned above are the election results of 2019. Social media often sees a huge outcry of crimes against Muslims, Christians, etc., by Hindu extremists and usually the BJP is pulled into its loop due to its history of having a few political leaders saying outrageous comments or of them being involved with violence against certain communities. It can never be definitely said so, but many people blame this as a result of selective publicity of crimes. However, it is interesting to note that the BJP still took the majority of the seats in the government these elections. Very specifically to note that the number of seats won by the BJP from Muslim majority constituencies has increased since their first term. Therefore, even if BJP being in power can be charged as a result of a Hindu majority nation, we see shifts in minority communities, especially those of Muslims who have in fact elected BJP leaders. This shows that even though there are allegations and conditions of increased crimes against religious groups, these minority groups (some, if not all) probably feel that the new government is proving itself to be more accountable and can see some evident advantages by voting for them. The report relevantly pointed out “In 2018, the government also invested more of its budget in minority development projects. For example, the central government granted the Ministry of Minority Affairs a 12 percent increase in its budget, and it was reported that all of the new minority development projects combined constituted a 62 percent increase for minority affairs”.

CIRF also further points out how the establishment of NRC was seen as derogatory and a method to alienate minorities. It is, however, very far-fetched to say so since the NRC was established as a result of national security concern. India comes under the top twenty countries facing terrorist activities that result from various factors and infiltration of people accounts to help with the process of so. The area around Assam is a very fragile one, with easy access to refugees and other illegal migrants. The establishment of NRC to assure that no more than Indians remain within the country seems like a practical rather than derogatory policy tool. Even if not for monitoring extreme issues like terrorism, issues like refugee infiltration also affect the subcontinent largely. India holds a population of more than a billion people, and evidently enough the country does not have enough resources to feed and sustain all its citizens sufficiently. It is, therefore, a tool to help keep track the actual inhabitants of the land and to differentiate them from those who are probably supposed to be prioritized after Indian citizens.

Another double-edged sword case that the CIRF bring out are the ones about laws against forced conversions and the ones for beef bans. Cases of forced conversions are hard to establish and prove, thus whether discriminatory or not, it is hard to identify if conversions in these cases are forced or not. Beef bans similarly are brought to court with the intention of not killing cattle for various reasons such as their usefulness all through their lives but can be easily overturned to religious issues, as has happened in India. There have been some improvements with the same when the Mumbai High Court overturned the ruling by the Supreme Court in 1958 allowing killing for these animals for religious reasons.

CIRF Recommendations and their possible effectiveness

Image: MMN

CIRF brings out contemporary issues with religious freedom within India (and other enlisted neighbours – Pakistan and China) and gives policy recommendations to the country in order to improve the situation within the subcontinent. India, Pakistan and China can use the recommendations given to the administration, but reaching to that level of unbiased policy-making and advisory can be tough.

The recommendations made by the commission are essential in order for India to strengthen her secularity and protection for religious groups. However, as mentioned at the beginning of the report, India is a country where politics and religion are hard to separate. It gives recommendations such as:

“Pressing state governments to prosecute religious leaders, government officials, and media personalities who incite violence against religious minority groups through public speeches or articles, as was recommended by the National Minorities Ministry in July 2014”.

Why such recommendations might be hard to follow comes down to root three reasons.

First, political parties in India depend on votes from different religious groups in order to be elected as the central power. Second, extremism and extremist views on religious ideologies are currently on its high in India. Third, often the image of a political party affects its influence within the country, so it might be hard to prosecute government individuals that belong to the party in power.  These reasons intertwine with each other to essentially mean that political parties often directly or indirectly play cards that lead them to popularity within certain religious groups. Any political party in power wouldn’t want to prosecute leaders that belong to their party, that involve themselves in extremist ideologies and violence against other religious groups. This simply (and unfortunately) means that political parties will often go to the lengths of denying or burying cases of leaders involved in such violent activities just so they’re not at the edge of losing votes, and for ultimately maintaining the party’s image and influence in the country. Often failures of one state government lead to resentment against the governments in other states with the same political party in power, and state governments might avoid getting into such a situation. The report rightly mentioned how in India, it is increasingly difficult to separate religion and politics, a tactic that is sometimes intentional by those who seek to discriminate against and restrict the rights of certain religious communities.

In order to solve this issue of religious criminal violence in India, other than stricter laws and protection for minorities, there needs to be an acceptance from Hindus that there are extremists from the same ideology that perpetuate these attacks, and that these attacks are wrong. Often people who perpetrate these attacks are uneducated, brainwashed and highly prejudiced over other communities. The ignorance of these facts also is a part of the problem. In other cases where people perpetrate violence in cases of alleged forced conversions, the common man needs to understand that while forced conversions are wrong and unconstitutional (and a way of taking away one’s religious freedom), killing people for doing so isn’t moral, neither constitutional. 

With the recent events, however, of Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling out on Akash Vijayvargiya and making it clear that no such actions from people within the BJP (even though it could lead to defamatory consequences) changes dynamics by possibly tilting towards achieving a proper system that follows these recommendations given by the CIRF. The statement has also been called a strategic move to please the citizens from what is actually happening in the country by the oppositions. This isn’t however the first time such a thing is happening For example, earlier in 2015, in relation to Haryana’s Chief Minister’s comment which said that “Muslims can live in here, but in this country, they will have to stop eating beef”, Modi called out on such comments by people and said that ‘self-proclaimed cow vigilantes’ were antisocial elements of the country who needed to be dealt with sternly. After Anant Hegde’s comments praising Nathuram Godse and calling Rahul Gandhi a “hybrid specimen (having Christian and Muslim roots both)”, he was dropped from the cabinet by Modi, supposedly for this unpleasant behaviour. If Modi means those statements with the recent case or not, can only be concluded through further courses of action that the BJP will take.

Other recommendations listed in the report “strengthening the training and capacity of state and central police to prevent and punish cases of religious violence, while also protecting victims, witnesses, and houses of worship and other holy sites”.

These recommendations can come effective when religious biases aren’t present in the minds of civil servants, such that these biases don’t affect legal processes. In addition to equipping state and central police, there need to be strengthened systems of education that teach the importance of secularity and that instil morals into students that prevent them from creating biases for other communities and from getting involved in crimes that target minorities. Basic rights and access of religion for all needs to be something that every individual must accept and respect. The government can pull its strings to pass discriminatory laws, but unless acceptance comes from people within, these laws can be useless. Years of cultural and religious tensions, the ones that grew with every religious attack from one community against the other, makes it hard to plant such acceptances into the minds of people. For example, when the supreme court ruled for the allowance of women into the Sabarimala Temple, there was outrage by the men and other religious followers that worshipped in that temple. This clearly shows that if people don’t accept the rights of others, change is hard to bring about.

Another example of this is the recent brutal murder of Tabrez Ansari that left nationwide protests against killing and violence based on religion. Tabrez Ansari was accused of being a thief, beaten by the mob for hours altogether, and after being handed over to the police the next morning he was sent to jail instead of receiving medical aid and assistance.

Authorities in India are also constantly blamed and called out upon for not arresting and stopping ‘cow vigilante’ attacks and other violence led by Hindu extremists only because of the religious bias that they hold. 

The successful processing of all other recommendations is easily pulled back due to similar issues.

South Asia and China – A comparative

Image: The Conversation

The two countries with the most significant amount of crimes against religious groups/minorities that neighbour India are that of Pakistan and China. Pakistan and China come under the countries for a particular concern or Tier 1 countries in the report. India and Afghanistan fall under the tier two countries region.

Pakistan has seen laws related to blasphemy being accredited within the country, and these laws were typically enforced against individuals belonging to a minority faith. There are prisoners held with the government because of these laws. Blasphemy remains one of the most stringent issues in the country. In China, it is well known the torture done to religious ethnic minorities of Uighur Muslims, and how the government pushes them into internment camps. The Chinese see hardly any religious freedom in their state without having a sense of fear within their minds.

The difference India has with these two nations is the constitutional safeguard that its citizens have. As the report pointed out, that “at times when a government or non-state actor deems actions and expressions blasphemous or insulting to religion, it is that declaration—and not the underlying alleged defamation—that incites hatred and violence. Nationalistic and ideological sentiment underpins some of these accusations, and can motivate state and non-state actors to manipulate religion in a way that is detrimental to other”.

India provides its citizens with laws for religious freedom, unlike Pakistan and China, where the governments of these two countries are actively involved in punishing and limiting the religious freedoms of specifical minorities within a country. While there are allegations and cases where people from the Indian government are involved in violent acts against minorities, there is also a system which can call these people to be accountable for these actions. Nowhere in the constitution does the upper hand belong to the government when/if it violates religious rights. There is always a base and stand for people to go against the government, and challenge its decisions. And India can thus prove to be significantly better than Pakistan and China, at the most basic level, where the citizens are given the power to change things if they like to do so. These are the constitutional safeguards that the Ministry of External Affairs were also indirectly referring to, and this is what allows India to efficiently be the largest democracy in the world.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Prashasti Saxena

Prashasti Saxena is a Research Intern at The Kootneeti (22 June 2019 - 28 July 2019). She's a student of International Relations at King's College, London. Her specific interests in the field, circle around tracking and improving development in India, Middle Eastern politics, Terrorism, Extremism and Counterinsurgencies, Mapping security issues and the statecraft of diplomacy. She can be reached at prashasti01@gmail.com || Twitter @saxenaprashasti

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