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U.S. report on religious freedom bound to ruffle feathers in Delhi

India reacted coldly to the report of the U.S. commission on religious freedom that criticises the government, and said that it was based on a “limited understanding of India, its constitution and its society.”

“We take no cognizance of this report,” a statement from the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said.

The Congressional body, the U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), released its annual report for 2015 on Thursday, placing India amid more than 30 countries that meet a “systematic, ongoing, and egregious” standard for failing to protect religious freedoms.

India has been on the list since 2009 as a country in the “Tier 2” category. Marking concern over “Hindu nationalist” groups for programmes of forced conversion, “Ghar Wapsi”, attacks on churches and “hate campaigns” against Muslim minorities, the U.S. commission has retained India’s status as a “Tier 2 Country of concern” on religious freedom.

The reaction of the MEA is a departure from the past, when the government had made no comment, as it was an internal report of the U.S. legislature.

However, the language used this year is particularly critical of the government, for not taking on the groups it alleges are carrying out attacks on minorities.

In the 5-page focus on India, the commission recommends that the U.S. government should “integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India”, referring even to the strategic dialogue level.

For the first time, the USCIRF report says that the U.S. must urge the Indian government to “publicly rebuke” officials and religious leaders making derogatory statements about religious communities.

It advocates that the U.S. Ambassador visit areas where “communal violence has occurred or is likely to occur” which could be seen as interference in the internal affairs of India.

U.S. report on religious freedom bound to ruffle feathers in Delhi

While diplomats dismiss the prospect of India-U.S. relations being strained over the religious freedom report and its recommendations, given the upsurge in ties with two state visits between New Delhi and Washington by President Obama and Prime Minister Modi, it is bound to ruffle feathers in Delhi. This week also saw tense moments as a U.S. delegation led by Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman, raised the issue of the Home Ministry’s strictures against the Ford Foundation.

 The U.S. expressed concerns over what it sees as the targeting of the Ford Foundation, which has worked in India since 1952.

With its references to PM Modi, the USCIRF report is likely to cause more friction between India and the U.S. For example, the report notes Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech to Catholic bishops in February 2015, where he spoke of ensuring “complete freedom of faith”, as a “positive development.”

However in a stinging personalised addition, it says, “This statement is notable given longstanding allegations that as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002, Mr. Modi was complicit in anti-Muslim riots in the state,” referring to his visa revocation in 2005 by the State Department as “the only person known to have been denied a visa based on this provision.”

The Congressional commission is an independent bipartisan body that has no legislative or executive powers itself. It significantly influences the State Department’s own annual report on religious freedom, and is cited whenever the U.S. government chooses to invoke its International Religious Freedom Act.

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