“The USCIRF is little more than a US busybody created to appease the US evangelical fundamentalist lobby. The US government uses USCIRF when its recommendations are in tune with its national interests and foreign policy. Otherwise, it is ignored. Likewise, we should ignore it. A joke deserves a laugh and embarrassed dismissal, not serious rebuttal or the expending of angry energy.” – R. Jagannathan
The United States Commission of International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) is a bit of a joke. It is a busybody created by US law to appease evangelical bigots at home. Its outpourings are used by the US state department — selectively — to rap countries that are difficult to handle diplomatically. It thus pontificates annually on the state of religious freedom everywhere. Everywhere, but the US and other developed countries of the largely Christian west.
It is only we in India who work up a lather over it, for under the skin we are all very touchy about any “firang” who criticises us for anything. And so it has been this time, when USCIRF came out with its annual report for 2015 yesterday (30 April), where it placed India in the unflattering category called Tier 2: “countries where the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are serious and are characterised by at least one of the elements of the ‘systematic, ongoing, and egregious’ standard, but do not fully meet the CPC standard.”
CPC is short for “countries of particular concern”, the USCIRF’s gold standard (Tier-1) on religious intolerance. We didn’t make the cut to Tier 1 because USCIRF feels there is still some hope for us despite the arrival of Narendra Modi as PM. The current CPC list – which is more or less permanent – includes Burma (USCIRF apparently hasn’t heard that Burma has been renamed Myanmar), China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. It also wants to add eight more to this august list: Central African Republic, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Syria, Tajikistan, Vietnam – and (ahem) our own neighbour Pakistan.The Indian government, luckily did not go overboard with its criticism of the USCIRF report and dismissed it being based on a “limited understanding of India, its Constitution and its society.”
The reason why the list is a joke is simple: while USCIRF gets to point fingers in all directions (except at home, where the Moral Majority can make any kind of wild statements about non-Christian religions and is protected by the First Amendment), it can actually do zilch about the worst offenders, especially when they are Uncle Sam’s closest allies.
Thus while an Iran may face sanctions for various transgressions (trying to go nuclear, oppressing minorities, etc), Saudi Arabia – the fountainhead of worldwide Wahhabi terrorism and probably the world’s most religiously illiberal state – gets a free pass and presidential waivers from any punitive action under the US International Religious Freedom Act (which created USCIRF).
Ditto for two other close (but religiously intolerant) pals: Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, who get waivers because they serve an “important national interest of the US.” Pakistan, which has been recommended for joining the CPC Hall of Fame by USCIRF, will, even if so designated by the US state department, get the same waiver. As an earnest, the US has just rewarded Pakistan with another billion-dollar dollop of military assistance to buy “attack helicopters, missiles, and communications equipment,” among other things. Pakistan can run with the jihadi hare and hunt with the US anti-terror hound, but it will always receive the US President’s special bum-chum waiver from sanctions. The state department knows when to dust up the USCIRF and when to leave it on the dungheap.
India, where the evangelical lobby has huge market share hopes, is in Tier-2 because we are frenemies of the US. We are potential pals since we are the only nation big enough to counter-weigh China; but we are also the bad boys who worship too many strange gods and who want to politically resist easy evangelisation. If Uncle Sam’s Religious Cohorts are kept out of the biggest soul-harvesting market outside China, or hindered in their work by Freedom of Religion laws, they will list you as villain. They will tut-tut and huff-puff, but beyond its water off a duck’s back.
The real joke is that none of the standards used to designate religious rogue states as Tier-1 or Tier-2 apply to the US or western Europe.
Consider what USCIRF has held against India, and check how much this may also apply to what is going on in the US on the intolerance front.
One of the major points of criticism against India is that after the 2014 elections, there have been attacks on minorities. The ‘church attacks’ and ‘ghar wapsi’ programme of the Sangh parivar come in for particular mention, apart from the bigoted statements of Sangh-linked politicians. USCIRF says: “Since the election, religious minority communities have been subject to derogatory comments by politicians linked to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and numerous violent attacks and forced conversions by Hindu nationalist groups, such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP).”
This statement takes at face value the first reports in the Indian media on Sangh parivar activists, but not the later ones which poked holes in the “minorities under attack” story line. Also, the reference to forced conversions is off the mark. Even the Agra ghar wapsi, where some Muslims were apparently lured with promises of Aadhaar cards, was at worst an inducement to convert, not an attempt to do so by force. So the USCIRF clearly has chosen to give credence to loosely documented reportage by evangelicals back home.
There is little doubt that the incandescent statements of Sakshi Maharaj, Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti and some other Sangh loudmouths have been supremely bigoted, but does America lack its own Sakshis and Sadhvis? Who calls Hinduism “demonic”? Who thinks that Kali is that “black, ugly statue”? Who says with contempt that “none of their 9,000 gods is going to lead me to salvation. We are fooling ourselves if we think we can have some big kumbaya service and all hold hands and it’s all going to get better in this world. It’s not going to get better.”
As we noted in a recent post, these outpouring of hate came from evangelical leaders like Pat Robertson and Franklin Graham, who have been busy demonising Hinduism. Their bigotry has vitiated the atmosphere of tolerance in the US, and as many temples in the US have been vandalised as have churches in India (read about it here). Gurdwaras have been attacked, Sikhs killed, and Indians racially targeted by US cops.
USCIRF has much work to do in its home base, too.
The USCIRF is also a bundle of contradictions on the idea of religious freedom. It cannot simultaneously criticise both the Freedom of Religion Acts enacted by some Indian states and the ghar wapsi programme. Ghar wapsi is a religious conversion/reconversion programme, which, given the USCIRF’s own focus on “religious freedom”, ought to be a kosher activity. The Freedom of Religion Acts in some tribals-heavy states like Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha are meant to check attempts to convert innocent tribals by fraud or force. You can’t oppose both Freedom of Religion (FoR) laws and ghar wapsi, even assuming you think FoR laws are a roadblock to conversions, and hence religious freedom itself.
On the other hand, consider how many American states have themselves mangled the idea of religious freedom. Conservative American states like Indiana have legislated extremely illiberal Religious Freedom Restoration Acts, which are less about religious freedom and more about giving licence to personal prejudices about homosexuals and transgenders.
In Europe, far-right forces have risen – and governments are turning conservative. France banned the use of religious symbols in schools, and the hijab. Full-face veils are banned in many European countries. But these intrusions into personal choice don’t seem to register with USCIRF.
This is not to let India off the hook. We are nowhere near achieving secular or human rights nirvana. However, there is no need for breast-beating and fuming every time a USCIRF criticises us – often with laughable motives.
The USCIRF is little more than a US busybody created to appease the US evangelical fundamentalist lobby. The US government uses USCIRF when its recommendations are in tune with its national interests and foreign policy. Otherwise, it is ignored.
Likewise, we should ignore it. A joke deserves a laugh and embarrassed dismissal, not serious rebuttal or the expending of angry energy.
USCIRF is a burden for US taxpayers at a time when their country is struggling to retain its superpower status with a struggling economy. We need not burden ourselves with its hypocritical output. – FirstPost, 1 May 2015
» R. Jagannathan is a journalist and the current editor-in-chief of all Network18 publications including the online news website FirstPost.com and Moneycontrol.com as well as Forbes India.