Yesterday, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a quasi-governmental body that monitors “violations of religious freedom abroad,” released its annual report and included India, for the third year in a row, on its “watch list” alongside countries such as Afghanistan and Russia. I am still baffled, and clearly miffed, as to how the world’s largest secular democracy managed to find a spot on the same “watch list” as Afghanistan.
Sure, India has had its share of inter-religious problems, the 2002 Gujarat riots being the most commonly cited. But so have countries like Malaysia, with its downtrodden minority Hindu population, and Sri Lanka, neither of which USCIRF considered “watch list” worthy. So, let’s examine a few points, which my colleagues at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) presented to USCIRF during their testimony in March:
- India provides separate personal and family laws for Muslims and Christians
- India subsidizes the annual Hajj pilgrimage for Muslims – which runs into the $100 millions
- Except for the Hindu majority in India, all religious communities are able to control their places of worship, free from government interference
So why does India get this undeserving distinction? It seems that USCIRF is concerned about the “Freedom of Religion Act(s),” also erroneously referred to as “anti-conversion” laws. HAF testified that first, these laws are rarely enforced, and second, they haven’t impinged on a person’s ability to willfully convert. Based on the growing number of converts reported by various Christian evangelical groups, the laws have clearly failed in their attempt to protect vulnerable populations from predatory proselytization.
But again, in Malaysia, ethnic Malays are born Muslim and aren’t free to convert. Hindu parents tend to have difficulty registering their children as Hindus. All minorities are increasingly forced to deal with Islamic sharia courts, despite a parallel court system. A peaceful protest rally of over 50,000 Malaysian Hindus and Indians was violently and brutally suppressed by the country’s government in 2007. In its annual human rights report, HAF regularly covers these and other violations of religious freedom that minorities in Malaysia face. So why then, despite these serious restrictions on religious freedom, isn’t USCIRF concerned about Malaysia’s “Freedom of Religion Act?”
Of course, maybe we’re overreacting. One of my good friends has worked on the Hill for a couple of years now, and when I asked if he had any contacts at USCIRF, he replied, “At who???”