Arya Sharma/Catch News
In yet another controversial decision, the Narendra Modi-led NDA government has denied visas to a delegation from a US federal agency that monitors religious freedom across the world.
The move has led to widespread criticism of the Modi government, which many hold responsible for dwindling religious freedom in the country since 2014.
The three-member delegation of the Unites States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was scheduled to leave on 4 March for India, for a trip that was planned well in advance. With support from the State Department and the US Embassy in Delhi, the delegation intended to meet representatives of different religious communities, civil society and NGOs.
After the visas for the delegation were denied, Robert P George, chairman of USCIRF, said: "We are deeply disappointed by the Indian government's denial, in effect, of these visas. 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."
He added that the USCIRF has been able to travel to many countries, including those that are among the worst offenders on religious freedom, including Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China, and Burma. "One would expect that the Indian government would allow for more transparency than have these nations, and would welcome the opportunity to convey its views directly to USCIRF."
The visa issue is bound to create some friction in the US-India relationship. In 2015, after his visit to India, US President Barack Obama had pointed that religious faiths of all types are being targetted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs. He added that such acts of intolerance would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi.
Back then, the USCIRF had commended Obama's views on the growing religious intolerance in the country.
Even USCIRF's annual report in 2015 criticised the status of religious freedom in India, comparing it to some of the authoritarian regimes across the world.
The report read: "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 Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP)"
However, Sheshadri Chari, head of the BJP's foreign policy cell, backed the government's decision and claimed that the USCIRF is not a mandatory body of the United Nations and owes it allegiance to the US.
"Why should we allow a foreign government body to conduct such a probe? It is not a universal body and we are not obliged to any country for such investigations," he said.
Attacking the US government, he asked whether the USCIRF is probing human right violations elsewhere in the world. "Have they commented on the denial of religious freedom in Islamic countries? We shouldn't succumb to such arm-twisting by any country, no matter how powerful or rich it is," he said.
Meanwhile, Congress spokesperson Manish Tewari attacked the government on the controversy and said there was no need to deny a visa to anyone.
Tewari says if people want to come and understand the religious and cultural diversity of India, why deny them? "It is because of the atmosphere of intolerance created by this government. They cannot adopt an ostrich-like attitude," he said.
But when it was pointed out that the UPA government had also denied visas to the same organisation, Tewari said: "There is no good reason to deny visas. Everyone should be allowed to come and look around and talk about the essence of India's diversity."
Catch approached Spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs Vikas Swarup for his comments but he said that a formal announcement would be made by the Indian embassy in Washington later.
The Indian embassy in Washington later clarified its position on the denial of visas and released a statement: "We do not see the locus standi of a foreign entity like USCIRF to pass its judgement and comment on the state of Indian citizens' constitutionally protected rights.
"There is no change in the policy of the Government of India with respect to such visits. We look forward to continuing working with the United States Government for sharing of experience and best practice on all issues of mutual interest under the established bilateral mechanisms like the India-United States Global Issues Forum."
Edited by Shreyas Sharma
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