Sunday, June 23, 2024

US Reiterates India Needs to do More for Religious Tolerance

Washington, DC – The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) – a US Congress-established body – threw its weight on Friday behind the utterances of President Barack Obama concerning freedom of religion during his three-day trip to India in late January, concerns he reiterated at the February 5 National Prayer Breakfast.

On both occasions, the President mentioned Gandhi’s vision of religious tolerance. During the last speech of his India trip, Obama told an audience largely made up of students at a town hall meeting in India’s capital New Delhi, “In both of our countries, in all countries, upholding this fundamental freedom (of religion) is the responsibility of the government, but it’s also the responsibility of every person.”

Citing the “wisdom of Gandhiji, who said, “for me, the different religions are beautiful flowers from the same garden, or they are branches of the same majestic tree,” Obama quoted the Indian Constitution on freedom of religion, saying: “Your Article 25 says that all people are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right freely to profess, practice and propagate religion.”

“India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along the lines of religious faith — so long as it’s not splintered along any lines — and is unified as one nation,” said Obama, adding, “And it’s when all Indians, whatever your faith, go to the movies and applaud actors like Shah Rukh Khan. And when you celebrate athletes like Milkha Singh or Mary Kom.”

At the National Prayer Breakfast, Obama said, “Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation.”

The President’s concerns came at a time of increasing abuses against India’s minority religious communities. Hindu nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have assaulted these communities and forced community members to convert. In just the last three months, five churches were attacked in Delhi; Hindu nationalists reportedly forcibly converted Christians and Muslims; and a mob of more than 5,000 people attacked the Muslim-majority village of Azizpur, Bihar, killing three Muslims and setting about 25 houses on fire.

“President Obama’s timely comments underscore the importance of India getting religious freedom right,” said USCIRF Chair Katrina Lantos Swett. “This is a challenge that India must and can address, given its diversity and long history of democratic values. India’s history includes both Article 25 of its constitution – which provides for freedom of conscience and the free profession, practice, and propagation of religion – and its international commitments. India can meet this challenge by protecting religious minorities and holding accountable the perpetrators of religiously-motivated harassment, intimidation, and violence,” concluded Lantos Swett.

In addition, on February 5, police detained hundreds of Christians demonstrating against attacks on churches in New Delhi, including John Dayal, a human rights activist, who testified on April 4, 2014, before the Tom Lantos Commission on “The Plight of Religious Minorities in India.”

Asked to comment on these arrests and other incidents, Marie Harf, the State Department spokesperson, said, “We believe in universal rights of religious tolerance and being able to peacefully make our voices heard,” adding, “I think the President probably sends the strongest message that any American official could, and I would let his words speak for themselves.”

“India is one of the United States’ most important partners,” added Lantos Swett. “It is the world’s largest democracy with nearly 1.22 billion people, a deeply pluralistic society, and the birthplace of numerous religions. This society includes the world’s third-largest Muslim population and a Christian population larger than several European countries. Our two nations share many values, and upholding religious freedom must be one of them,” Lantos Swett said.

Since 2009 USCIRF designated India as a Tier 2 country. In its annual report, USCIRF has been highly critical of the status of religious freedom in India and has often compared it at par with some authoritarian regimes.

Author profile
Tejinder Singh

Tejinder Singh was the Founder and Editor of India America Today, and is the inspiration for Global Strat View.

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