Boston, United States – In April this year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), an independent, bipartisan federal government commission, recommended India be placed on a religious freedom blacklist for the second year in a row.
In its annual report for 2021 (PDF), the commission, which makes religious freedom and foreign policy recommendations to the US president, the US Congress, and the Department of State, called for India, the world’s largest democracy, to be designated as a “country of particular concern” (CPC) for “egregious religious freedom violations”.
India shares the CPC list with 14 other countries, which include Saudi Arabia, China, Iran, Myanmar, Eritrea, Nigeria, North Korea, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Syria, Russia, Vietnam and Turkmenistan.
The report also recommended that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken should impose targeted sanctions on Indian government agencies and officials responsible for the “severe religious freedom violations” by freezing their assets, including barring their entry into the US.
Since taking power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government has been accused of persecuting minorities, especially its 200 million Muslims.
The current USCIRF chair Nadine Maenza, who earlier served as a commissioner and vice-chair of the commission and has been vocal against the deteriorating religious freedom situation in India, spoke to Al Jazeera about the attacks on minorities, the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC), the jailing of activists and protesters, and steps President Joe Biden should take to address these concerns.
Al Jazeera: What is your assessment of the current state of religious freedom in India?
Nadine Maenza: Religious freedom conditions in India are greatly concerning. The Indian government, led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), promotes Hindu nationalist policies resulting in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom which negatively impact non-Hindu religious communities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits (formerly known as “untouchables”) and Adivasis (Indigenous).
Al Jazeera: How do you look at the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the National Register of Citizens (NRC)? What concerns you the most?
Maenza: The CAA, combined with the proposed nationwide NRC, risks disenfranchising Muslims across the country as it provides a pathway to citizenship for non-Muslims from neighbouring Afghanistan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan but has no remedies for Muslims caught up in NRC processes. Those who are unable to prove their citizenship through documentation are subject to statelessness, deportation, and even detention.
Due to socioeconomic factors, many individuals are not able to provide proof of citizenship through documentation. As a result, approximately 1.9 million persons were left out from the Assam NRC list in 2019, with the majority excluded being Muslim. However, Hindus excluded from the NRC list are likely to be protected through the 2019 CAA.
Al Jazeera: What are your observations on the arrest of anti-CAA protesters, activists and student leaders?
Maenza: USCIRF is extremely concerned about the Indian government’s crackdown on civil society. The misuse of policies such as the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) and the Financial Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA), enables the Indian government to silence or restrict individuals and NGOs from reporting on and combatting religious persecution.
Al Jazeera: USCIRF has recommended the US designate India as a CPC. What is stopping the Biden administration from implementing the recommendation of its own bipartisan federal commission?
Maenza: USCIRF typically recommends more countries be designated as CPCs than the State Department will designate. Part of the discrepancy is because USCIRF can focus on religious freedom conditions alone without needing to balance other bilateral issues.
Al Jazeera: In recent years, the Indian government has been dismissive of USCIRF’s reports and its recommendations to place India on a religious freedom blacklist. Does this concern you?
Maenza: Our mandate requires us to monitor religious freedom conditions and make policy recommendations to the US government. USCIRF will continue to be an independent voice that isn’t impacted by the Indian government’s reaction or other issues in US-India bilateral relations.
Al Jazeera: Religious persecution of minorities in India is often attributed to “non-state actors” and not as much to the ruling BJP? How valid is that argument?
Maenza: India’s BJP government promotes Hindu nationalist policies that negatively affect India’s non-Hindu communities, including Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits and Adivasis. Both the Indian government officials and the non-state actors continue to use social media and other forms of communication to intimidate and spread hatred and disinformation against minority communities.
Al Jazeera: India’s continued refusal to grant visas to USCIRF officials reflects on its claims as an open democracy. How does this compare with other countries where USCIRF is not welcome?
Maenza: USCIRF wants the US-India relationship to be as productive and meaningful as possible – and we believe that religious freedom should be an important part of that relationship. We want to have a constructive discussion and dialogue with the Indian government. That is why we have long wanted to travel to India and continue to be interested in travelling there. As a pluralistic, non-sectarian, and democratic state, and a close partner of the US, India should have the confidence to allow our visit, which would give it the opportunity to convey its views directly to USCIRF in a constructive dialogue.
Al Jazeera: Will USCIRF recommend the inclusion of human rights and religious freedom as part of any future US-India dialogue?
Maenza: USCIRF has repeatedly recommended that the US government make religious freedom an important part of US-India bilateral relationship and advance human rights of all religious communities in India and promote religious freedom and dignity and interfaith dialogue through bilateral and multilateral forums and agreements, such as the ministerial of the Quadrilateral.
Al Jazeera: What actions would you recommend the Biden administration should immediately take to address the human rights and religious freedom situation in India?
Maenza: USCIRF in its 2021 annual report recommends that the White House and State Department continue to raise religious freedom concerns in the US-India bilateral relationship and the US Congress should highlight concerns through hearings, briefings, letters and Congressional delegations.