Somebody should tell the United States that the Cold War era is over. The world has changed irrevocably, as has the geopolitical power equation. US exceptionalism, the cornerstone of Washington’s foreign policy, is dead. Therefore, the assumptions and policy-making based on this condition need to change, or the policies will face increasing irrelevance and invite global scorn.
The US state department’s 2018 Report on International Religious Freedom has caused much anger and outrage in India because it suggests that minority rights, institutions and religious freedom are in danger, with lynch mobs and cow vigilante groups roaming the country in gay abandon and Christian missionaries being targeted and persecuted. In short, it paints a picture of lawlessness in India and accuses the BJP and its leaders of inciting violence against Muslims.
The report is equal parts erroneous, ridiculous and amusing and is not worthy of a fraction of the attention it has received in India, so far.
The Ministry of External Affairs has rightly pointed out that the rights of minorities in India, applicable for every citizen in the country, is protected by the Constitution, and it is really not within the jurisdiction of a foreign government to comment or pass judgement on it.
“India is proud of its secular credentials, its status as the largest democracy and a pluralistic society with a longstanding commitment to tolerance and inclusion. The Indian Constitution guarantees fundamental rights to all its citizens, including its minority communities. It is widely acknowledged that India is a vibrant democracy, where the Constitution provides protection of religious freedom and where democratic governance and rule of law further promote and protect the fundamental rights. We see no locus standi for a foreign entity/government to pronounce on the state of our citizens’ constitutionally protected rights,” read the MEA statement.
India has no need to defend its record as a secular, democratic nation, fully capable of protecting the religious freedom of its citizens. However, we need to look at the web of reasons that compel the US to release such periodic statements to have a fuller understanding of America’s misplaced moral superiority. It’s interesting to note that while Washington judges every country in the world, the report is silent on the status of religious freedom at home.
The Secretary of State of the US Mike Pompeo released the report on Friday. He is slated to visit India on Tuesday. Pompeo, according to Indian media, called the issue of religious freedom a “deeply personal” priority. We shall reflect on whether this ill-timed commentary may affect his visit, but we need to first put the report and the US policy of preaching religious freedom abroad in perspective.
To begin with, the US report on religious freedom does what such assessments are wont to do — cherry-pick data, add a bit of statistical sleight of hand and present a narrative that serves a political purpose.
The report relies on reports by NGOs to claim: “The government sometimes failed to act on mob attacks on religious minorities, marginalised communities and critics of the government. Some senior officials of the Hindu-majority Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) made inflammatory speeches against minority communities. Mob attacks by violent extremist Hindu groups against minority communities, especially Muslims, continued throughout the year amid rumors that victims had traded or killed cows for beef. According to some NGOs, authorities often protected perpetrators from prosecution.”
The report then goes on to cite data released by the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on 6 February to claim: “There were reports of religiously motivated killings, assaults, riots, discrimination, vandalism and actions restricting the right of individuals to practice their religious beliefs and proselytise… Communal incidents increased by 9 percent from 2015 to 2017, with 822 incidents resulting in 111 deaths and 2,384 injuries in 2017.”
It is interesting that the US has cited an MHA report to float a narrative that India has become more intolerant under the BJP-led NDA government. According to data furnished by the MHA this year, in response to an Right to Information query, around 10,399 instances of communal violence took place in India from 2004 to 2017. These incidents claimed 1,605 lives and injured 30,723 more.
A year-wise breakdown of data provides an interesting picture. The maximum number of such communal incidents occurred in 2008, when 943 cases were reported, resulting in the loss of 167 lives, the highest till date. The period corresponds with the Congress-led UPA regime that was ousted in 2014 after two consecutive terms.
A more detailed break-up revels there were 822 cases in 2017, 751 instances of communal violence in 2015, 823 cases in 2013, 668 in 2012, 701 in 2010 and 849 in 2009 — the second-highest cases of communal violence.
This data debunks the claim in America’s report on religious freedom that intolerance against religious minorities increased under the “Hindutva” BJP rule, since most instances occurred when a so-called “secular” government led by the Congress was in power. It also raises pertinent questions about the validity of an assessment that is based on reports by NGOs and the media, reports that have very little credibility.
However, it would be erroneous to assume that the US report is based on an agenda of promoting true religious freedom and human rights across the world. What the report actually does, under the guise of “protecting religious freedom”, is promote Christianity and spread protestant values. This is clear in the way the report highlights anti-conversion laws in India and notes the regulation in various states that ban religious conversion.
The premise of the report is based on an assumption that banning religious conversion violates religious freedom. This is a problematic concept because non-proselytising religions such as Hinduism — that has most practitioners in India — will be at a disadvantage against Abrahamic religions, which receive funding from rich nations to “profess, practice, and propagate religion freely”, as the report states.
However, the US state department report gets around this indefensible position by taking the high moral ground on human rights. In reality, however, “the US campaign for international religious freedom is very much a religious campaign. It seeks to spread Protestant-Christian values across the world but does so under the guise of promoting and protecting human rights”, as Belgian political scientist Jakob de Roover wrote in 2015.
According to De Roover, a professor at the Department of Comparative Science of Cultures at Ghent University in Belgium, who analysed the US Commission for International Religious Freedom report, the Christian belief that every individual should worship the “true god” gives the US the moral justification to convert individuals from “false” to “true” religions. Hence, “the fact that missionary work involves abusing the Hindu traditions as ‘false religion’ or their devas and devis as ‘false gods’ is considered much less problematic than putting restrictions on conversion”, he wrote.
This hypocrisy becomes clear when we consider that President Donald Trump dismissed a request by the United Nations for an inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation into the murder of Saudi Arabian dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi because it may “jeopardise American weapons sales” to the Gulf nation. The American moral presumably moves differently when it comes to selling weapons to rogue states that send agents abroad to kill dissidents on foreign soil.
Be that as it may, there is a much deeper concern beyond the hypocrisy and misplaced moral superiority of the US when it comes to motivated pieces of nonsense such as the state department report on religious freedom. The issue of religious freedom is an important element of US foreign policy, but critics have questioned the underlying purpose of the International Religious Freedom Act, 1998, as “an exercise in neocolonialism”.
This brings us to the visit by Pompeo, whose department sees India as a crucial cog in this administration’s US India-Pacific policy. US proclivity to lecture the world no longer works in a multi-aligned geopolitical environment where America’s moral and military superiority is not a given. The US must shed its arrogance, wake up and smell the coffee.