Undemocratic States: US-India Viewpoints on Religious Freedom

Avnika Dubey, Editor

With over 857 cases of religious rioting and over 2,000 individuals injured in communal clashes, religious riots in India proved to surge throughout 2021 despite the numerous lockdowns in place to address the emergent pandemic.1 Of the riots reported, nearly half were conducted in the nation’s capital of New Delhi – a hotspot of political turmoil – following the announcement of the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act. In the week following, religiously instigated political conflict heightened to unprecedented levels, culminating in over 200 individuals being injured and 53 people losing their lives. The level of violence is only projected to rise as perpetrators are met with impunity and victims are ignored, sowing the seeds of distrust between the government and religious minorities within the country.

Religious freedom has been on attack within India for the past decade as rampant discrimination against religious minorities becomes increasingly enshrined within the legal language of the country. Despite the right to freedom of religion being clearly outlined within the 1949 Constitution of India and the country’s accession to the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights, the plight of religious minorities within the country have only reached unparalleled levels.2 Importantly, the lack of geopolitical accountability against the Modi administration and those perpetuating religious violence condones and exacerbates the incredibly pervasive and longstanding religious persecution against Indian minority communities.

On November 17th of this year, the United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken released a statement decrying the top ten countries positioned on the US government’s official list of nations conducting large-scale religious repression operations. Despite its numerous governmental campaigns popularizing Hindu nationalism, India was a significant omission to that list. This lack of inclusion came at much shock considering the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom’s (USCIRF) recommendations to include the nation as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in addition to thirteen others. Citing numerous instances of violence, harassment, and intimidatory politics against Hindu Dalits, Muslims, Buddhists, Jains, Christians, and Sikhs, the USCIRF – a largely bipartisan and independent body made by Congress with the intent of addressing global religious freedom – has urged for the addition of India to the list of offenders, going as far as identifying the specific groups responsible for organizing campaigns of alienation and perpetuating violence.3 Importantly, each time the USCIRF highlights India’s behavior, there is a lack in geopolitical response on the United States behalf. In 2020, ex-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to accept the organization’s recommendations. This year, that trend was followed with Blinken’s response.

The preservation of India as a strategic and critical ally to the United States serves as the impetus for this international overlook. In fact, the US Department of State explains that “the United States and India have shared interests in promoting global security, stability, and economic prosperity through trade, investment, and connectivity.”4 This partnership remains essential as it strengthens economic relations and international cooperation. In the fiscal year of 2019, U.S.-India bilateral trade in goods and services peaked at nearly $149 billion, helping bolster U.S. industries ranging from agriculture to energy exports. Additionally, reciprocal cooperation between the two nations have resulted in massive geopolitical success at numerous multilateral organizations, using their hegemonic heft to manipulate agendas in the United Nations, G-20 Summit, Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and World Trade Organization. Maintaining the optical partnership between both nations serves as imperative to both countries’ continued success, especially amidst a transition in the hands of power on the global stage. However, this alliance comes at a heavy price – the protection of religious freedom and religious minorities.

Despite global human rights organizations reporting the significant abuses occurring in India, including the “extrajudicial killings by the police, torture, arbitrary arrest and detention, violence against minorities, unjustified arrests or prosecution of journalists, and censorship and blocking of websites,” the response of international leadership remains largely muted.5 The United States has remained especially silent as President Biden continues to foster public relations with the country. A week into his presidency, amidst the outpour of information regarding religious intolerance, President Biden specifically chose Prime Minister Modi as one of the first world leaders to meet with, championing India as a pioneer in the global push for democracy. In the following months, the close relationship between the Biden and Modi’s administrations became established upon both countries’ “commitment to democratic values,” which Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin explains is “reflective of India’s pluralistic society and history of harmony.”5 In maintaining this allusion, the Biden administration has never publicly mentioned the appalling human rights abuses continuing within India.

Fortunately, all hope is not lost. With ardent campaigning from an array of countries positioned in Southeast Asia as well as the European Union, there is an international community of individuals dedicated to holding India accountable and ensuring that human rights are prioritized over political and economic interests. Claire Iver, the head of the EU Office at Front Line Defenders, explains that the global coalition of countries will not stop in their pledge to “speak out against any attempt to undermine respect for [the] universality of human rights and [will continue] to throw their full weight behind courageous human rights defenders throughout the world.”1 However, the United States’ refusal to denounce India’s escalating repression proves incredibly disastrous and serves as a silent indication of its indifference to the brutal policies being enacted within the country. Affirmed by the United State’s lack of condemnation, India continues to pursue policies of repression, placing the lives of religious minorities at further risk each day. To ensure that the calls of the global coalition are answered, and that religious freedom is upheld, it remains imperative for India to be put on immediate and comprehensive review by the global community. The cases of religiously motivated violence must be investigated, the anti-conversion religiosity laws must be repealed, and the perpetrators of violence must be denounced. Only through collective international action can the victims of such atrocities receive justice and experience the quality of lives promised to them within a democratic state.

[1] Deutsche Welle. “India: Religious Riots Surge in 2020, despite Lockdown — Report | DW | 17.09.2021.” DW.COM, 2020. https://www.dw.com/en/india-religious-riots-surge-in-2020-despite-lockdown-report/a-59208560.
‌‌[2] Dr. Ewelina U. Ochab. “Religious Freedom Is on the Decrease in India.” Forbes, January 12, 2019. https://www.forbes.com/sites/ewelinaochab/2019/01/12/religious-freedom-is-on-the-decrease-in-india/?sh=649da11d403b.
[3] Shih, Gerry, and Taniya Dutta. “Religious Violence Flares up in India and Bangladesh.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, October 27, 2021. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/10/27/india-bangladesh-religious-violence/.
[4] “U.S. Relations with India – United States Department of State.” United States Department of State, July 27, 2021. https://www.state.gov/u-s-relations-with-india/.
‌[5] Sunita Viswanath, Peter Cook, and Rasheed Ahmed. “The Biden Administration Is Enabling India’s Human Rights Abuses.” Aljazeera.com. Al Jazeera, December 5, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/12/5/the-biden-administration-is-enabling-indias-human-rights-abuses.

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