U.S. Senator, Congressmen flag rising threat to India’s Constitution, plurality


A U.S. senator and three members of the House of Representatives expressed concern Jan 26 at the growing violation of human rights, civil and political liberties, and religious freedom in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s watch.

The growing persecution of religious minorities and rights defenders and a rash of anti-democratic legislation threaten and undermine India’s pluralist Constitution, they said at a special congressional briefing to commemorate the country’s 73rd Republic Day.

Expressing concern at the Modi regime’s “efforts to peel back the rights of religious minorities”, Senator Ed Markey, D-Mass, said “laws on religious conversion, citizenship and other restrictive measures fly in the face of India’s inclusive [and] secular Constitution”.

He warned: “As the government continues to target the practices of minority faiths, it creates an atmosphere where discrimination and violence can take root. In recent years, we have seen an uptick in online hate speech and acts of hate, including vandalized mosques, torched churches, and communal violence.”

Representative Jim McGovern, co-chair of the powerful Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission of the House of Representatives, listed several warning signs of India’s alarming backsliding on human rights.

“For the first time in 2019, a law was passed that links citizenship to religious identity,” McGovern, D-Mass Second district, said. “There is every reason to fear that this change, combined with the proposal for a National Register of Citizens, institutionalizes discrimination against Muslims.”

The concern about discrimination based on religious identity was so great that “the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recommended that India be designated a country of particular concern”, he said, referring to the premier federal commission that tracks religious persecution around the world.

Condemning the abuse of harsh anti-terror laws to crack down on journalists, activists, lawyers and others, he said, “This kind of misguided anti-terrorism legislation is not a sign of a healthy democracy. We cannot be silent when measures are taken that discriminate against whole populations or when inflammatory language is used that could incite violence against those populations.”

Rep Andy Levin, D-Mich Ninth district, said he had loved India ever since he first visited the country when he was 17 and is closely monitoring the recent threats to Indian pluralism.

“India, as the world’s largest secular democracy, was a source of pride to me as a ‘Bharatwala’, a friend of India,” Levin said. “Regrettably, today, the world’s largest democracy is seeing backsliding, human rights under attack, and religious nationalism. Since 2014, India has fallen from 27 to 53 on the Democracy Index. And Freedom House downgraded India from free to partly free.”

Levin is a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and vice-chair of its Asia subcommittee, a longtime human rights activist and proponent of democratic values. “(India) is in danger of becoming less free and less representative for all the people who live there,” he said.

Rep Jamie Raskin, also a member of the Tom Lantos Commission and chair, House Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, spoke of India’s continuing struggle for human rights, especially under Modi, which affects not just the Muslim, Christian and Sikh minorities, but also Hindus who dissent against the Hindu supremacist movement.

“There have been a lot of problems with the issue of religious authoritarianism and discrimination in India,” Raskin, D-MD Eighth district, said. “We want to make sure India… stays on the path of respecting religious liberty, freedom, pluralism, toleration and dissent for everybody. We don’t want to see discrimination against any minority religious group or any majority religious group for that matter. That is the road to authoritarianism and destruction of civil liberty.”

Nadine Maenza, USCIRF chair, spoke on the commission’s recommendation to label India a country of particular concern for the past two years. She said it was based on repeated offenses by the government against vulnerable minority populations.

“Since 2014, the BJP-led government has institutionalized its ideological vision of a Hindu state through a foundation of laws and structural changes hostile to the religious minorities, which include Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Dalits, and Adivasis,” she said.

Ever since Modi became prime minister, “Hindu nationalist groups have launched inflammatory campaigns decrying interfaith relationships, including calling for censorship of media depictions of these relationships,” she said. “Mobs [have] acted with impunity and at times were assisted by authorities in targeting religious minorities.”

Maenza said sectarian violence is enabled by hate speech and disinformation propelled by government officials. “Civil society lacks the freedom to document or raise their voices against gross human rights and religious freedom violations,” she said.

Former Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari expressed concern over the situation. “In recent years, we have experienced emergence of trends and practices that dispute the well-established principle of civic nationalism and interpose a new and imaginary practice of cultural nationalism,” he said. “It wants to distinguish citizens on the basis of their faith, give vent to intolerance, insinuate otherness, and promote disquiet and insecurity.”

He called for action against these offenses: “These trends need to be contested legally and contested politically.”

Kerry Kennedy, president of the Robert F Kennedy Human Rights and a daughter of the late Senator, reflected on her longtime friendship with Kashmiri human rights defender Khurram Parvez, whose recent arrest under India’s draconian anti-terror law was decried by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

“Khurram’s most recent arrest is a prime example of the crackdown on civic space in India and across the globe – where regimes target journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders who play a critical role of holding governments accountable for abuses,” Kennedy said.

Carolyn Nash, Asia advocacy director at Amnesty International USA, criticized President Joe Biden’s “warm relationship” with Modi during the recent democracy summit, especially in the face of the Indian government’s “profound fear of activists and critics”. She said India’s draconian anti-terror law, the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), “violates an individual’s right to fair trial. It imposes stringent bail requirements and intentionally slows the investigative process.”

She said the law was made “more problematic” in 2019 with amendments that give greater leverage to authorities to designate an individual a terrorist.

“The definition of terrorist is overly broad and this allows the law to be used to label and detain just about anyone the government wants to target,” she said. “It’s important to note that this sweeping definition of terrorism is intentional…. It’s designed to create a pervasive climate of fear that chokes free expression and dims the light that activists and journalists have worked so hard to shine on human rights abusers.”

Archbishop Peter Machado of Bangalore spoke of the growing number of anti-conversion laws that extremists use to harass, attack and imprison religious minorities on flimsy claims of forcing Hindus to convert to other religions. “In the name of freedom of religion, [India] has been bringing more and more laws and regulations to restrict our freedom of religion,” he said.

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, former President of Mauritius, spoke of her Indian heritage and the strong fraternal ties she had experienced within the diverse Indian community while growing up. These ties were rooted in the values of the Indian Constitution, which she described as “unique in content and spirit”. She said it was “unfortunate” that the Constitution that made India a sovereign, socialist, secular, democratic republic and safeguarded human rights was “being trampled upon almost on a daily basis”.

The briefing was co-hosted by Amnesty International USA, Genocide Watch, 21Wilberforce, Hindus for Human Rights, Indian American Muslim Council, International Christian Concern, Jubilee Campaign, Dalit Solidarity Forum, New York State Council of Churches, Federation of Indian American Christian Organizations of North America, India Civil Watch International, Students Against Hindutva Ideology, Center for Pluralism, American Muslim Institution, International Society for Peace and Justice, Association of Indian Muslims of America, the Humanism Project (Australia).

The briefing was moderated by Sravya Tadepalli, board member, Hindus for Human Rights.