WASHINGTON — Religious discrimination in India, the world’s largest democracy, has reached a “frightening” level, and some experts warn that the country must change its course or face targeted sanctions from the U.S. government.
“India has done better in the past and has to change course because the cycle of downward spiral in a country of that importance and the number of people who are involved. It is quite frightening,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper, chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, or USCIRF, told lawmakers on Tuesday.
“Religious discrimination should not be a matter of national pride,” he said.
The USCIRF has recommended that India, along with Afghanistan, Syria, Nigeria and Vietnam, be added to the U.S. government’s list of Countries of Particular Concern, or CPC, because of the worsening limits on religious freedom in these countries.
It also has called for targeted economic and travel sanctions against Indian government agencies and officials that are allegedly involved in violation of religious freedom.
The scathing criticism comes only weeks after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the White House and addressed a joint session of Congress.
In 2005, the U.S. State Department revoked Modi’s tourist/business visa because of his alleged role in religious and communal violence in the Indian Gujarat state in 2002.
“So, we’re hoping that now that the trip has taken place and the victory lap has been earned and taken, there will be a serious review,” Cooper said.
Human rights groups have accused Modi’s government of fostering discriminatory religious nationalism targeting Muslim, Christian and Sikh religious minorities.
Amid recurrent incidents of religiously inspired violence, 12 out of 28 states in India have passed legislation criminalizing religious conversion.
Known for his disdain for news conferences, Modi nonetheless appeared at a joint news conference with President Joe Biden at the White House on June 22 where he was asked about discrimination against religious minorities by his government.
“I’m actually really surprised that people say so,” Modi responded, adding that India is governed under a constitutional democratic order.
“There’s absolutely no space for discrimination,” he emphasized.
Last year, the U.S. government did not list India as a country of particular concern despite a USCIRF recommendation to do so.
“We are beginning our process for determining [CPC] designations this year,” Rashad Hussain, ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom at the U.S. State Department, told the congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Hussain did not specifically say whether India would be designated a CPC this year.
The United States and India, both considering China as a strategic challenge, have expanded bilateral economic, military and political relations. With $120 billion in trade in 2022, the United States has become India’s largest trading partner.
U.S. lawmakers express concerns about the worsening state of religious freedom worldwide, ranging from China to Nicaragua.
“Today, I am more concerned than ever about the further deterioration of religious freedom,” said Representative Christopher Smith, pointing out that about half of the world’s population is unable to practice faith freely.
Some lawmakers accused China of committing “genocide” against religious minorities, particularly the Uyghur Muslims — allegations the Chinese government has repeatedly denied.
While lawmakers called on the State Department to hold the perpetrator regimes accountable, experts said the U.S. should adopt a holistic approach and avoid worsening the plight of vulnerable religious communities in different parts of the world.
“It’s critical [for] the U.S. to support vulnerable communities … Uyghurs in China, atheists in Pakistan and Baháʼís in Iran,” said Susan Hayward, associate director of religion and public life at Harvard Divinity School.
“U.S. advocacy for religious freedom must be conflict-sensitive, so as not to render already vulnerable communities more vulnerable nor exacerbate religious dimensions of conflict,” Hayward said.