Sunday, August 16, 2009

Aseem Shukla responds to India "Watch List" designation

The following is by Aseem Shukla, a regularly featured contributor to the joint Newsweek and Washington Post "On Faith" blog, and member of Hindu American Foundation's Board of Directors. The original blog post can also be read here.

Washington, D.C. (August 14, 2009) - This week, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) placed India on its "watch list." By this designation, India, the largest multi-ethnic and multi-religious democracy joins a motley cabal comprised of the likes of Afghanistan, Cuba, Egypt, Somalia and Venezuela. Countries like Bangladesh, that so recently forced the exodus of thousands of Hindus under an Islamist government, enjoy higher status with the Commission than India. How is this possible?

The watch list defines those countries that the USCIRF believes are in danger of being listed among the worst offenders of religious freedom. The government of India reacted predictably to this rather dubious distinction, "regretted" the action, said India guaranteed freedom of religion and aberrations are dealt "within our legal framework, under the watchful eye of an independent judiciary and a vigilant media."

A closer look at the India designation, however, shows the Commission's innate bias, lack of insight, absence of understanding, and loss of credibility. Worse, putting India on the watch list will be perceived as a self-defeating and egregious act that needlessly complicates relations between two diverse, pluralistic and secular democracies.

Created by Congress in 1998, the Commission can only advise the State Department, which has its own list of countries of concern and amiably ignores the Commission's recommendations. But the Commission's pronouncements still carry the symbolism of an official government entity judging the fitness of another's country's human rights record.

There is power in symbolism, and the attention credible human rights groups bring to a cause gives succor to the oppressed and isolate the oppressor . But therein lies the rub-- credibility--and the USCIRF, in its composition, methodology and ideology, is running low on gas.

Let's begin with the India chapter in the USCIRF report itself. In its 11 pages, the document details three specific episodes to justify slamming India: Riots between Hindus and Muslims in the state of Gujarat that broke out after a Muslim mob torched a train full of Hindu pilgrims killing 58 in 2002; riots between Hindus and Christians that left 40 dead in the state of Orissa in 2008 after a Hindu priest, long opposed by fanatic missionaries, was murdered; a brief incident where miscreants attacked "prayer halls" built by the New Life Church -- a revivalist Protestant group -- that had distributed a pamphlet denigrating Hindu Gods and Goddesses and allegedly engaged in mass conversions of Hindus.

These three episodes in a country of a billion condemn an entire nation?

Incredibly, the Commission's India chapter paints a portrait of minority religions on the run in India, pursued by a rabid Hindu majority! This in a country whose last President was Muslim, whose leader of the largest political party is Christian and whose Prime Minister is Sikh. In contrast, behold the shrill outcry when our own President Obama was alleged to be Muslim!

A terrible riot that left hundreds of Muslims and Hindus dead and occurred closer to a decade ago mandates an entire section, but the ongoing attacks by jihadis in India's Kashmir targeting Hindus; several recent bombings in Hindu temples carried out by Islamists, and Hindu temple desecrations in Christian Goa; and an analysis into the incendiary results of attempts to convert Hindus by coercive means fail any mention at all.

Indian Americans know the story of the subcontinent, and without an exploration of these original sins that sparked riots, is to tell half a story--a problem now wholly the Commission's.

India's history--beginning with the bloody partition of the country by religion into East Pakistan (1947)/Bangladesh (1971) and Pakistan in 1947 --created a tinderbox of tension. But a land that gave birth to Hinduism and Buddhism--a Mahatma Gandhi and a syncretic Muslim emperor like an Akbar centuries before were both defined by these traditions--offered a unique experiment that sought to replicate what our own Founding Fathers did here: create a secular, inclusive democracy.

That experiment is put to a singularly arduous trial by the machinations of Pakistan that sees its identity as an Islamic nation threatened by India's pluralism -- its adventures in Mumbai in 2008 and Kashmir massacres are examples. And a small minority of Indian Muslims choose the ideology of the Taliban rather than embrace that of the great Pashtun, Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the patriot whose non-violent struggle against the concept of carving a piece of India into Pakistan is legendary--reactionary Hindu groups form and trouble brews. It is in this context that terrible riots too often validate devious provocateurs--and a point that sadly eludes the USCIRF.

Then there is the explosive issue of coerced conversions in India. Today, the largest aid donor to India is not the government of any country. Nearly half a billion dollars are sent to India under the auspices of Christian missionary organizations. Some of these groups are involved in truly uplifting work amongst the poorest, but the underlying subtext for some churches is a bargain: convert and we will help. The New York Times famously reported on evangelical tsunami aid organizations disproportionately lavishing help on those communities that agreed to convert. Legions of converts testify to the pressure they received in the form of a job, medical aid, education -- if they just agreed to change their faith. Families are turned against families and communities -- a potent brew that also raises tensions that can escalate. And when these evangelical groups proclaim their work and their scores of new converts couched in colorful videos at suburban megachurches, the dollars flow and enrich itinerant missionary mercenaries -- a fact blithely ignored by the Commission.

Examine the makeup of the USCIRF: Six members are Christian, one is Jewish and one Muslim. Not a single non-Abrahamic faith is represented. The chair is Vice President of the far-right Federalist Society, and another commissioner is an executive at the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, which publishes material which calls Hinduism's grand festival of Diwali "devil worship."

Finally, Hindu Americans are wondering today if there is quid pro quo at work. The USCIRF was denied a visa this month to travel to India for a "fact-finding" trip. But the Commission was clear that it would not visit Kashmir (because of threats by Muslim terrorists) nor the Northeast of India where militant Christian terrorists are displacing Hindus and fighting for separatism. It would not look into Hindu temple desecrations in Goa and other attacks. It only wanted to visit Gujarat and Orissa. The Government of India said, "thanks, but no thanks." The USCIRF was outraged at the denial, and we can only ponder whether this was payback.