The latest USIRF mentions anti-conversion laws, love jihad and the burning of churches in Manipur as the main violations in India in the year under review   

By P.K.Balachandran

Colombo, June 27: The US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USIRF) has expressed disappointment over the State Department’s failure to designate India as a “Country of Particular Concern” or CPC, despite major violations of religious freedom.

“The US Department of State failed to designate India as a CPC despite major religious freedom concerns,” the report published on June 26 said.

The USIEF had recommended that India be designated as a Country of Particular Concern in December 2023.

India is the world’s most populated country, with an estimated 1.4 billion people. The majority of its population is Hindu (79.8 percent) with minority Muslim (14.2 percent), Christian (2.3 percent), and Sikh (1.7 percent) communities. Smaller religious groups include Buddhists, Jains, Baha’is, Zoroastrians (Parsis), and an estimated 6,000 Jews.

India’s constitution establishes a secular and democratic state, with Article 25 granting freedom of conscience to all. Section 295 of India’s Penal Code criminalizes the destruction or damage of houses of worship. 

In 2023, the Indian government introduced three bills to reform the country’s criminal code, which could target religious minorities by expanding police powers for “preventative action” and punishments for acts of terrorism.

Violence against Religious Minorities in Manipur.

In May, clashes between tribal Kuki and Meitei communities erupted in India’s northeastern state of Manipur. Violence began after Manipur’s High Court requested that the state government consider providing Scheduled Tribe status to the majority Hindu Meitei people, granting them expanded access to certain benefits. Manipur’s minority Chrisitan Kuki community protested that the move would weaken their political and economic status.

Months of ongoing violence resulted in the destruction of thousands of homes, targeted attacks on places of worship, and the displacement of over 70,000 individuals. Approximately 400 churches belonging to both Meiteis and Kukis were destroyed, and many others looted, illustrating a clear religious dimension to an ethnic conflict. 

Reports indicated that two synagogues belonging to the Bnei Menashe community were damaged. Acts of sexual violence, including gang rape targeting Kuki women by Meitei men, were widely reported and articulated in an August letter by UN special rapporteurs.

UN experts further expressed concern about the role of hate speech and disinformation in inciting violence against the Kuki population. Eyewitness accounts indicate that Hindu nationalist officials pressured Meitei Christian leaders to renounce their faith and observe the indigenous Meitei religion, Sanamahism.

Citizens accused the central government and Manipur police of failing to protect places of worship or dispel communal violence. Prior to the outbreak of violence in May, authorities destroyed three churches in Imphal, claiming they were illegal. Following clashes in May, Union Home Minister Amit Shah stated that law enforcement had executed 40 members of the Kuki community deemed as terror- ists—charges that Kukis dispute.

Anti-Conversion Laws

While India’s constitution protects the right to publicly share one’s faith, 13 out of India’s 28 states continued to enforce anti-conversion laws in 2023. 

Such laws make it difficult for people to convert from Hinduism to another religion and use broad language that leads to the targeting of religious minorities. In January, the state of Himachal Pradesh enacted an amendment to its Freedom of Religion Act, redefining “mass conversion” as involving two or more people and barring members of Scheduled Tribes and Schedule Castes from obtaining certain benefits if they choose to convert from Hinduism. 

Throughout 2023, a number of religious minorities were detained under state-level anti-conversion laws. 

In Chhattisgarh, where a third of the population identifies as Adivasi and less than two percent Christian, 13 pastors were arrested for allegedly forcing Adivasis to convert to Christianity.

In Uttar Pradesh, as of May 2023, over 855 people were reported to have been detained under charges of illegal conversion since the promulgation of the state’s anti-conversion law in 2020.

Love Jihad

Anti-conversion laws increasingly included provisions designed to prevent interfaith marriages and so-called “love jihad.” “Love jihad” is a derogatory term used to describe the alleged occurrence of Muslim men marrying Hindu women for the purpose of conversion. 

In June, the state government of Maharashtra created a 13-member panel to “investigate” interfaith marriages.

Additionally, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), a right-wing Hindu nationalist group, launched a national 11-day “awareness campaign” claiming that interfaith marriage was a form of forced religious conversion.

Key US Policy     

The United States and India continued to maintain strong bilateral ties in 2023. In March, the U.S. Senate confirmed Eric Garcetti as the

U.S. Ambassador to India, filling the post after 20 months of vacancy.

In fiscal year 2023, the U.S. government obligated $130 million for programs in India.

In June, President Joseph R. Biden hosted Prime Minister Modi for a state visit, where he addressed a joint session of Congress for the second time during his tenure. In a joint press conference, Prime Minister Modi failed to answer a question about his government’s treatment of religious minorities. In September, President Biden traveled to India for the G20 summit, during which he reportedly raised issues of human rights in prate meetings with Prime Minister Modi.

In November, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin visited India for diplomatic dialogue on defense cooperation. The same month, the U.S. Depart- ment of Justice released an indictment against an Indian government employee for his alleged involvement in the attempted assassination of a Sikh activist on U.S. soil. 

U.S. officials announced their expectations of the Indian government to conduct a full investigation into the accusations. In a December hearing, members of the U.S. Congress reiterated concern about India’s involvement in acts of transnational repression. Also in December, the U.S. Department of State failed to designate India as a CPC despite major religious freedom concerns.



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