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Should India be on Religious Oppression Watch List?

India Currents, Debate, Rajeev Srinivasan and P. R. Ganapathy Posted: Oct 12, 2009

No, the report is one-sided.

Americans are good at making up greatand deceptivemarketing names; the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is one. The name implies it monitors religious freedoms internationally. Not quite: this group, consisting overwhelmingly of evangelical Christians, appears interested only in the right of various Christian cults to propagate in other countries.

The USCIRF is quiet on whether non-Christians have any rights in the United States itself. To me it appears the commission believes America is a purely Christian nation, even though the Founding Fathers were emphatically secular. Indeed some of themnotably Tom Paine and Thomas Jeffersonhad a horror of Christian dogma, and said so in no uncertain terms.

The USCIRF said nothing when Khem Singh, an elderly Sikh priest, was starved to death in a California prison. It did not intervene when Indian actor Shahrukh Khan was subject to religious profiling. Nor did it worry about the rights of 600 mostly Hindu priests who were imprisoned by Sri Lankan authorities. In its latest report, the USCIRF does not shed tears for Tibetans and Uighurs savaged by China; nor for Hindus and Sikhs oppressed by the Taliban. They were deafeningly silent when the Times of India published reports of Hindus fleeing rape, kidnapping, and forced conversion in Pakistan.

The report sheds crocodile tears for those who died in Gujarat in 2002, but says nothing whatsoever about the 59 Hindu pilgrims whose burning alive in a train set off retaliatory riots. It also wails about riots in Orissa against Christians in 2008, but is silent about the root causethe gangland-style execution of an 84-year-old Hindu monk, a nun, and a child in his ashram.

The USCIRF is severely biased. It appears to be an extension of a fringe evangelistic crowd in the United States that appears to have odd end-of-the-world notions based on biblical prophesies. These notions also include some mandate to convert everyone in the world to their beliefs, although they prudently stay away from China and Saudi Arabiacountries that do not take kindly to soul-harvesting. By focusing on India, they are seeking some low-hanging fruit.

It is no wonder the report categorizes India alongside gross human rights violators as Somalia and Sudan, but chooses not to accuse China or Pakistan. Indians have this touching need for approval from whites, so why not use that to push ones agenda? Smart of the USCIRF, but this also means their report is trash. n

Rajeev Srinivasan wrote this opinion from London, UK.

Yes, the concerns are valid.

The decision of the USCIRF to put India on a watch list over the inadequate protection of religious minorities has many Indians incensed. Instead of a reflexive attack of the commissions motives and a they did it first, defense of the Indian governments past behavior, it behooves us to study whether some of the criticisms contained in the report are valid, and whether we might find some of its suggestions useful, as India seeks to improve itself as a nation.

A careful and open-minded reading of the report shows that the USCIRF is concerned about the systematic breakdown of institutional machinery in preventing religious atrocities. We have known that elements of the law and order machinery displayed apathy or even actively colluded with the perpetrators on several occasions. The judicial process takes years to bring the guilty to book. Mainstream political parties continue to grant tickets to indicted individuals in election after election.

Communal conflict has been an undeniable, yet regrettable, part of Indias post-independence history. Perhaps thats why weve become so inured to every new atrocity. But Indias constitutional machinery must remain untainted. The police and courts must be a reliable protector of the fundamental rights enshrined in the constitution, rights that were remarkably enlightened, and which have stood the test of time.

The USCIRF report should give us cause for reflection. Not because were afraid, but because a well-meaning friend (perhaps also flawed and slightly biased) has held a mirror to our faces; to allow us to look at ourselves for what we have become.

The recommendations contained in the report are detailed, sensible, and worthy of serious consideration as we seek to become a more perfect union, to borrow a phrase from the American constitution.

The common adage in India goes, dont worry about the ball, just attack the player. It is easy to attack the USCIRF itself as partisan (after all, it was set up under intense lobbying pressure by evangelical groups) and its report as biased. While there are obvious omissions, we have never set our standards for Human Rights from the Taliban, Somalis or Chinese and I dont think we should start now.

Let us read it with an honest and open mind, evaluate its suggestions and take the best ideas. There are, certainly, a lot of those. To attack the report and dismiss it altogether will be a lost opportunity for reflection and self-improvement.

P.R. Ganapathy writes from New York.

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