Religious freedom in India worsened in the year 2021, a report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) said, adding that the government introduced policies that "negatively" impact religious minority communities like Muslims, Christians, Sikhs and Dalits.
USCIRF is an independent American government organisation that monitors the universal right to freedom of religion and makes policy suggestions to the White House.
The report said that the Indian government was systemizing its "ideological vision of a Hindu state" through the use of existing laws and by introducing new laws and "structural changes hostile to the country's religious minorities." The report said that the Indian government led by the BJP in 2021 "repressed critical voices" of the religious minorities and activists and journalists who reported on them.
Earlier in April this year, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US was monitoring the alleged spike in human rights abuses in India by some officials. "We regularly engage with our Indian partners on these shared values (of human rights) and to that end, we are monitoring some recent concerning developments in India including a rise in human rights abuses by some government, police and prison officials," Blinken had said.
Here are the key takeaways from the USCIRF report that alleges a threat to religious freedom in India:
Prosecuting critical voices
The USCIRF report said that the Indian government in 2021 used several laws like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Sedition Law to silence "critical voices." "In 2021, the Indian government repressed critical voices—especially religious minorities and those reporting on and advocating for them—through harassment, investigation, detention, and prosecution under laws such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Sedition Law," the report stated.
The report further added that laws were being invoked to "create an increasing climate of intimidation and fear in an effort to silence anyone speaking out against the government." The report cited Stan Swamy as an example of people who were arrested on what it termed as "dubious" charges. Swamy died in jail in 2021 after he was arrested in October 2020 for his alleged role in the 2018 Bhima Koregaon violence.
Use of UAPA highest in J&K
The report said the government "cornered" journalists and human rights activists with arrests, complaints and criminal investigations. It said that individuals like human rights activist Khurram Parvez were "targeted" for documenting or sharing information of violence against Muslims, Christians, and other religious minorities.
Parvez was arrested on November 22, 2021, by the National Investigation Agency (NIA). The report quoted the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights as saying that the use of UAPA was the highest in the "Muslim-majority state of Jammu and Kashmir"
Hurdles Against NGOs
The report said that the government clamped down and created hurdles for religious and charitable nongovernmental organizations to receive funds under India's Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA) guidelines. The report also highlighted that human rights organisations and others that document violence against religious minorities were forced to shut down.
The report said that "numerous groups that document religious freedom violations" and help marginalized religious communities have had to shut their operations owing to the FCRA restrictions.
It found that licenses of nearly 6,000 organizations, including religious and humanitarian organizations such as Missionaries of Charity and Oxfam India, were not renewed under the FCRA by the end of 2021, the report added.
Laws creating a culture of impunity
The USCIRF found that several government actions like the anti-conversion law have created a "culture of impunity" for campaigns of threats and violence by mobs and vigilante groups against religious minorities like Muslims and Christians. "Anti-conversion laws have increasingly focused on interfaith relationships. Existing laws in approximately one-third of India's 28 states limit or prohibit religious conversion. Since 2018 (and continuing in 2021), multiple states have introduced and enacted laws or revised existing anti-conversion laws to target and/or criminalize interfaith marriages," the report said.
The report further added that states and national governments "demonized and attacked the conversion of Hindus to Christianity or Islam."
"In October 2021, Karnataka's government ordered a survey of churches and priests in the state and authorized police to conduct a door-to-door inspection to find Hindus who have converted to Christianity," it said. The report mentioned Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath's warning of invoking the National Security Act against those who were found involved in "conversion activities" in June, 2021.