US watchdog recommends blacklisting of India over religious freedom

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WASHINGTON: The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom reiterated its request to the Biden administration to designate India as a “country of particular concern” under the US Religious Freedom Act, citing its transnational repression against religious minorities.

The US religious freedom watchdog, an independent federal government commission, said “recent efforts by the Indian government to silence activists, journalists, and lawyers abroad pose a serious threat to religious freedom”.

“USCIRF implores the US Department of State to designate India a Country of Particular Concern due to India’s systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of freedom of religion or belief,” it said in a statement over India’s targeting of religious minorities overseas.

USCIRF Commissioner Stephen Schneck said the Indian government’s alleged involvement in the killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada and a plan to kill another Sikh activist, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, in the USA was “deeply troubling”.

The Indian embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Indian government routinely denies any discrimination in the Hindu-majority country.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said this month that an Indian national had worked with an unnamed Indian government employee on the plot to assassinate a New York City resident who advocated for a sovereign Sikh state in northern India. India’s government has denied involvement in the plot.

The issue is highly delicate for both India and the Biden administration as they try to build closer ties in the face of an ascendant China perceived as a threat to both democracies.

USCIRF said it had recommended each year since 2020 that the State Department label India a country of particular concern, a designation under the 1998 US Religious Freedom Act. The act allows a range of policy responses, including sanctions or waivers, but they are not automatic.

USCIRF Commissioner David Curry said India’s extension of domestic repression to target religious minorities from India living abroad “is especially dangerous and cannot be ignored”.

India’s foreign ministry dismissed the recommendation when it was first issued in 2020, criticising “biased and tendentious comments.”

The USCIRF said Indian authorities had used spyware and online harassment campaigns to target and intimidate journalists and activists abroad advocating on behalf of religious minorities.

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US in June, comments from the head of Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) information and technology department, Amit Malviya, prompted an online campaign against Wall Street Journal journalist Sabrina Siddiqui for questioning about religious freedom conditions in India, it said.

“Within its own borders, Indian authorities have repeatedly used draconian legislation like the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act and anti-conversion laws to systematically crackdown on religious minorities, journalists, and activists,” said Curry.

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