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US religious freedoms body wants India labeled a ‘country of concern’

The White House is being urged to take action against New Delhi for alleged attempts to “silence religious minorities”

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a federal government body, has urged the White House to designate India a “country of particular concern” under the US Religious Freedom Act, citing alleged efforts to “silence activists, journalists, and lawyers abroad” as a “serious threat” to religious freedoms. 

The Indian government’s alleged involvement in the killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada and the plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the United States are deeply troubling,” Stephen Schneck, the commissioner of the organization, was quoted as saying in a USCIRF release. According to Schneck, these represent “a severe escalation of India’s efforts to silence religious minorities and human rights defenders.” 

David Curry, the commissioner of the USCIRF, claimed that New Delhi has used “draconian legislation” like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and anti-conversion laws to “crackdown on religious minorities, journalists, and activists” within its own borders. Curry added that extending this “repression” to religious minorities from India “cannot be ignored” and urged the White House to continue its engagement with senior Indian officials to “ensure religious minorities can live and express themselves without fear of reprisal.” 

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The statement comes in the wake of India’s standoff with the US and Canada over attacks on Sikh activists promoting the Khalistan cause, which seeks to create a separate state carved out of India.  

Last month, a US court linked an Indian government official to the assassination attempt against New York-based Khalistan activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun that was foiled by the FBI. Indian national Nikhil Gupta, who allegedly tried to recruit a murderer-for-hire to kill Pannun and who was allegedly directed by a government official from New Delhi, was arrested in the Czech Republic and is awaiting trial in the US.  

The case appears to be linked to the assassination of another prominent Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada’s British Columbia province in June, which Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau linked to “agents of the Indian government.”  

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While India vehemently denied Ottawa’s allegation, it has acquiesced to Washington’s demand for an investigation by forming a high-level committee to establish all “relevant aspects of the matter.” The development comes at a time when Washington is trying to build closer ties with New Delhi as a counter-balance to Beijing’s ascendancy in Asia. 

The USCIRF has reiterated its demand to the State Department to designate India as a “country of particular concern” each year since 2020. In its annual report released earlier this year, it claimed the Indian government promoted and enforced “religiously discriminatory policies,” including laws targeting religious conversion, interfaith relationships, the wearing of hijabs, and cow slaughter.   

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New Delhi has repeatedly rebuffed these charges since they were first made. “These comments reflect a severe lack of understanding of India and its constitutional framework, its plurality and its democratic ethos,” a spokesperson for India’s External Affairs Ministry said in 2022 in response to the USCIRF’s allegations.

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Meanwhile, the USCIRF’s latest statement also claimed that the Indian authorities have used “spyware” and “online harassment” to target journalists. It mentioned Amit Malviya, who is in charge of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s information and technology department, claiming he had spurred an online harassment campaign against Wall Street Journal journalist Sabrina Siddiqui, who asked a question on what the Indian government is doing to “uphold” the rights of the minority-Muslim community during a rare press conference given by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington in June.  

Responding to Siddiqui’s query, Modi asserted that “that democracy is in our spirit, and we live it.” “There is no question of discrimination on the grounds of caste or religion,” he added. Later, reports in various media outlets claimed that Siddiqui was harassed online over the episode. The White House promptly condemned the “harassment” and termed it “unacceptable.”


READ MORE: US delegation brings ‘human rights concerns’ to India

Days before Modi embarked on his US visit, a letter signed by 75 Democratic senators and members of the House of Representatives urged the White House to raise “human rights” issues with the Indian prime minister, claiming that “credible reports” reflect “troubling signs” in the country toward the “shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance.”

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