The latest report card of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on India has evoked sharp reaction from the government. Apart from putting India in Tier 2, reserved for countries that don’t quite merit the Countries of Particular Concern alarm status but are regarded as engaging in or tolerating some kind of “systematic, ongoing and egregious” violation of religious freedom, the commission has asked the Obama administration to press the Indian government to publicly rebuke officials and religious leaders who make derogatory remarks about communities and to boost religious freedom standards in India.
The outrage is predictable. No nation, howsoever powerful, has any business telling India how to manage its affairs. The USCIRF, however, is a bi-partisan commission which makes recommendations to the President and Secretary of State but does not set policy. In this case, it has suggested integrating concern for religious freedom into bilateral contracts and visits by the ambassador to areas where communal violence has occurred. The commission was among the organisations that recommended denial of visa to Narendra Modi.
Despite its laudable goal of tracking religious freedom, one should remember that the International Religious Freedom Act, which created the commission, came out of evangelical groups. That was the time when Republicans had taken control of Congress. Many were supported by evangelical churches.
Created by the US law to appease evangelical bigots at home, the commission’s outpourings are used—selectively—to rap countries that are difficult to handle diplomatically. It, thus, pontificates annually on the state of religious freedom everywhere but the US and other Western countries.
The Hindu American Foundation has criticised some of the commission members for their comments on Hinduism. While Imams, Bishops and Rabbis have been commissioners, no one from a non-Abrahamic faith has ever held the post.
The USCIRF is also a bundle of contradictions. It cannot simultaneously criticise both the Freedom of Religion Acts enacted by some Indian states and the Ghar Wapsi programme. The Freedom of Religion Acts in some tribal-heavy states like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha are meant to check conversion attempts by fraud or force.
On the other hand, US states like Indiana have legislated illiberal Religious Freedom Restoration Acts that are more about giving licence to personal prejudices about homosexuals and transgenders.
In a nation with so much diversity, there are bound to be stray incidents which disrupt the social harmony. Those incidents are looked at with a magnifying glass. But it is the insolence of the US that is maddening. Every day, there is news of some white cop gunning down a black man and they have the effrontery to be pointing fingers at other nations.
The recent killing of a black man in Baltimore has once again exposed the fallacy of US claims to being an equal society. Over the past two years, notably in 2014, killings of unarmed Afro-Americans by white police officers have reignited debate over police brutality and racism, sparking protests and riots.
In the last three months, there has been a spate of attacks on Hindu temples in the US. However, President Obama, who had criticised religious intolerance in India, hasn’t reacted to these acts.
No one will dispute that the statements of Sakshi Maharaj, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and other loudmouths have been supremely bigoted, but the US too has its share of extremists who call Hinduism “demonic” and think Kali is that “black, ugly statue”. firstname.lastname@example.org