The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCRIF) has just released its latest report that is based on data from the year 2018. The report classifies India amongst “countries of particular concern” and clubs it with internationally tarnished violators of religious freedom – Burma, China, Eritrea, Iran, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Vietnam. The report unambiguously identifies the Indian government’s allowance and encouragement of mob violence against Muslims, Christians and Dalits. So, it came as no surprise when the government of India used its external affairs ministry to reject the report and argue that “it’s biased and tendentious comments against India are not new. But on this occasion, its misrepresentation has reached new levels.”
Swift denial and grandstanding, the kind demonstrated by India’s external affairs ministry, is a time-tested cliché that all the countries that India has been clubbed with adopt. But observers familiar with India’s post-colonial history and society will find absolutely nothing out of the ordinary in the latest USCRIF report. The report highlights mob violence against religious minorities and lower-caste Hindus, at times with government encouragement. It also documents the enforcement of anti-conversion (from Hindu to non-Hindu religion) and/or anti-cow slaughter laws as discriminatory against non-Hindus and Dalits, and a ploy to target and perpetrate violence against Muslims. The report goes on the state that “Prime Minister Narendra Modi seldom made statements decrying mob violence, and certain members of his political party have affiliation with Hindu extremist groups and used inflammatory language about religious minorities publicly.”
The USCRIF report laments that victims of large scale attacks in recent years have “not been granted justice” and crimes committed against religious minorities, in past years, have not been adequately accounted for or prosecuted. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) are clearly identified as organizations that have significantly contributed to the rise of religious violence. Additionally, those targeted by the RSS and the VHP face challenges ranging from intimidation to loss of political power, feelings of disenfranchisement, limits on access to education, housing and employment.
The recommendations in the report that are meant for the US government and merely suggests working with the government of India to press, encourage, assist and advocate for justice, and provide training when required. In other words, it is only a document with seemingly no punitive implications for those identified as culprits. Additionally, the Liberal World Order has been seriously dented with Donald Trump becoming the president of the United States. Many serious scholars/intellectuals, in the United States itself, see President Trump as an advocate of white supremacy, and in turn white nationalism.
In a closed-door meeting, Trump was reported to have referred to Haiti, El Salvador and an assortment of African Nations as “shithole countries.” He has referred to immigrants from Latin American, in general, and particularly from Mexico, as “rapists” at his campaign rallies. President Trump’s popularity amongst his voters is based on his promise to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, anti-black and brown immigrant policies, and blatant islamophobia or “Muslim ban.” And he is a democratically elected president. In other words, when the United States and its president symbolize bigotry and racism, a report that critiques bigotry in India (even though much needed and genuine) loses its symbolic value and desired effect.
Additionally, President Trump understands India very differently from the USCIRF. Earlier this February, Trump described India as a tolerant country where “millions upon millions of Hindus and Muslims and Sikhs and Jains, Buddhists, Christians and Jews worship side by side in harmony,” and India’s “unity is an inspiration to the world.”
In other words, Trump has pandered to the Right-Wing groups in India. Probably with the expectation that their American counterpart (Indian/Hindu-Americans) may support Trump’s presidential bid financially as well as at the ballot in the 2020 elections, or maybe just because he shares their islamophobia.
But do the existing contradictions make the USCIRF report irrelevant? Certainly not! It provides an opportunity to the persecuted, the disempowered. First, it needs to be understood that just like the Indian state and society, the US too is not a monolith. There are factions within the government, within the opposition party and civil society that care about religious freedom and are willing to confront majoritarianism and supremacist ideologies and violence. Thus, the USCIRF report creates the opportunity for development of international solidarity and collaboration between concerned groups in the US and in India that oppose the persecution of non-Hindus and lower castes.
Second, in a globalized world, the counter-strategies of the oppressed or the persecuted must become multi-scaler – USCIRF report can be facilitative. The activities of the RSS/VHP/BJP are already multi-scaler: they organize events from local to block, district, state and national levels in India. Additionally, multiple surrogates of RSS and VHP operate across the world to mobilize money and support for their projects and campaigns in India that include the activities documented by the USCIRF report. The victims of RSS/VHP/BJP persecution and violence have been resisting them at multiple scales, nationally: from peaceful demonstrations on streets to contesting cases in the Supreme Court of India. Yet, large sections of Muslims in contemporary India feel that the judiciary and the police are biased against them. The judiciary’s lack of credibility amongst Indian Muslims is a new phenomenon.
In my scholarly opinion, the Indian judiciary is responsible for the collapse of its credibility. But the USCIRF report presents religious minorities in India an opportunity to re-scale there counter-movement internationally. Since RSS/VHP have been identified in the report for their violent crimes. A well-organized international campaign to have these organizations declared as terrorist groups and their assets frozen are the logical next-move that may be begging attention. Such an effort may take time to materialize. Instead, it may or may not ever materialize. But I pose the question to those that suffer: isn’t it worth trying? After all, there is nothing morally wrong about developing global solidarity to isolate hate.