America Must Practise What It Preaches on Religious Freedom

Published: 05th May 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th May 2015 11:32 PM   |  A+A-

The latest report card of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) on India has evoked sharp reaction from the NDA government. Apart from putting India to 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 US Commission has asked  President Barack 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. India is a sovereign country and no government or nation, how so ever powerful has any business to tell India how to manage its internal affairs. However, the USCIRF is a bipartisan commission which makes policy recommendations to the President and the Secretary of State of the United States 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. As far as Narendra Modi is concerned, the commission had displayed its animosity in the past also. It was among the organisations that recommended the US State Department to deny a visa to Narendra Modi.

Despite its laudable goal of tracking religious freedom of all kinds, one should remember that the International Religious Freedom Act which created the commission came out of evangelical groups like Christian Solidarity International and International Christian Concern. That was the time when Republicans had recently taken control of Congress after five decades. Many were strongly supported by evangelical churches.

Created by US law to appease evangelical bigots at home, the commission’s outpourings are used by the US state department — selectively — to rap countries that are difficult to handle diplomatically. It thus pontificates annually on the state of religious freedom everywhere. Everywhere, but the US and other developed countries of the largely Christian west.

USCIRF gets to point fingers in all directions, except at home, where the moral majority can make any kind of wild statements about non-Christian religions and is protected by the First Amendment. It also turns a blind eye towards  the worst offenders, especially when they are Uncle Sam’s closest allies.Thus while an Iran may face sanctions for various transgressions,  Saudi Arabia – the fountainhead of worldwide Wahabi terrorism and probably the world’s most religiously illiberal state – gets a free pass and presidential waivers from any punitive action under the US International Religious Freedom Act under which the USCIRF was created.

The Hindu American Foundation has criticised some of the commission  members for their negative comments about Hinduism. While Imams, Bishops and Rabbis have been commissioners, no one from a non-Abrahamic faith has ever been a commissioner.

In fact, the USCIRF is also a bundle of contradictions on the idea of religious freedom. 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 tribals heavy states like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha are meant to check attempts to convert innocent tribals by fraud or force. In a nation of one billion people with so much diversity, there are bound to be stray incidents which disrupt the harmony in society. Those incidents are looked at with a magnifying glass. But it is the insolence of the United States that is truly maddening.

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