In what could possibly become a source of setback in relations between Washington and New Delhi, India denied visas for a delegation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
“We are deeply disappointed by the Indian government’s denial, in effect, of these visas," said Robert P George, Chairman of USCIRF in a statement. "As a pluralistic, non-sectarian and democratic state, and a close partner of the United States, India should have the confidence to allow our visit.”
The bipartisan group was tasked with discussing and assessing the religious freedom conditions in India — which is probably why the commission was not issued visas.
A disturbing surge in religious tensions and inter-caste violence witnessed last year in the country has sparked international debate over whether Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s India is as secular as the world likes to believe.
It’s a well-documented fact that violent religious conflicts, especially between Hindus and Muslims, have occurred unabated ever since the Partition of Indian subcontinent in 1947.
However, since the current ruling political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, is essentially a nationalist Hindu organization, it's not at all surprising that violence against religious minorities, particularly Muslims, has skyrocketed ever since he came into power.
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The case that helped bring India’s rising religious into international spotlight happened when a Hindu mob lynched 51-year-old Indian Muslim, Mohammad Akhlaq, after he was accused of storing and eating beef, which is banned in India because cows are considered sacred by Indian Hindus, who make up about 80% of the population. A forensic test revealed that the meat found in Akhlaq's fridge was actually mutton.
And this was just one case. Similar cases of religiously motivated murders by Hindu extremists emerged later, including the one in which a group of "upper-caste" men burnt two children belonging to the Dalit community — the lowest of the low castes in the country — to death.
But Modi did nothing. In fact, he hesitated to even condemn some of the aforementioned acts of violence.
In its World Report 2016, Human Rights Watch criticized the Indian government over its failure to address and tackle increasing attacks on free expression and against religious minorities.
“Instead of denial and retaliation, the authorities should encourage tolerance and peaceful debate and prosecute those committing or inciting violence,” said Meenakshi Ganguly, HRW’s South Asia director.
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The fact that India won't let the USCIRF visit is even more upsetting considering how countries with some of the most appalling human rights records, including Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, Myanmar and even India’s neighbor Pakistan, have let the U.S. government commission visit.
But by refusing visas, Modi’s government proves it has something to hide.