Former V-P Hamid Ansari, U.S. lawmakers express concern over human rights situation in India

As part of a reflective celebration of India’s Republic Day, a Democratic Senator and three Democratic Congressmen expressed their concerns about democracy and human rights in India.

The remarks were made at a Congressional briefing, Protecting India’s Pluralist Constitution, organised by Hindus for Human Rights, the Indian American Muslim Council and 15 other organisations.

Former Vice-President of India Hamid Ansari also delivered a video message at the event.

Ed Markey, Senior Senator from Massachusetts, said that as the world’s largest democracy, India had for long been committed to universal human rights and the rule of law, but there were concerns now.

“That commitment includes the protection of religious freedom and refraining from actions that limit the rights of minorities,” Mr. Markey said.

“That is why I remain concerned about Prime Minister Modi’s government’s efforts to peel back the rights of religious minorities in India. Laws on religious conversion, citizenship and other restrictive measures fly in the face of India’s inclusive secular constitution and core tenants of any democracy,” he said.

Mr. Markey said that while honouring the strong ties between the two countries, the U.S. would continue to speak up when a fellow democracy was “unable to protect” all of its people.

Mr. Ansari also shared his concerns.

“In recent years, we have experienced emergence of trends and practices that dispute the well-established principle of civic nationalism and interposes a new and imaginary practice of cultural nationalism … It seeks to present an electoral majority in the guise of a religious majority and monopolise political power. It wants to distinguish citizens on the basis of their faith, give vent to intolerance, insinuate otherness, and promote disquiet and insecurity,” he said.

Mr. Ansari said these trends need to be contested both legally and politically.

U.S. Congressman from Massachusetts, Jim McGovern, who co-chairs the bi-partisan Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, also spoke about the strength of the U.S.-India relationship and the need to speak up for human rights. He listed various concerns, including the linking of “citizenship to religious identity [the CAA].”

“Here in the United States, we are facing our own challenges of rising authoritarianism. For exactly that reason, criticism of human rights abuses must not be reserved only for our adversaries,” he said.

“We cannot be silent when measures are taken that discriminate against whole populations, or when inflammatory language is used that could incite violence against those populations,” Mr. McGovern said.

Also speaking at the event was Jamie Raskin, a Congressman from Maryland, and significantly, the chair of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. He is also a member of the bi-partisan Tom Lantos Commission.

‘Continuing struggle’

“I want to recognise the fact that there is a continuing struggle for human rights in India, as there is a continuing struggle for human rights in every country on Earth, but there have been a lot of problems with the issue of religious authoritarianism and discrimination taking place in India against the Muslim minority and indeed against Hindu minorities that are dissenting from officially orthodox views, and for free thinkers and Christians and others,” Mr. Raskin said.

Nadine Maenza, the current chair of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), a federal commission, which had recommended for the last two years that India be downgraded to the poorest ranking in terms of religious freedom (‘Country of Particular Concern’), also spoke at the briefing.

Ms. Maenza explained the reason for this recommendation, saying, “Since 2014, the BJP-led Indian Government has increasingly institutionalised its ideological vision of a Hindu state, at both the national and State levels through a foundation of laws and structural changes hostile to the country’s religious minorities.”

She also highlighted the CAA and the NRC, saying the combination of the two could render Muslims stateless – a concern that has repeatedly been voiced by those in India who oppose the laws. Other concerns were the closing of space for civil society, with laws such as the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act) and the FCRA (Foreign Contribution Regulation Act).

Ms. Maenza raised the issue of Father Stan Swamy – the Jesuit priest who died of COVID-19 complications after contracting the virus while being detained under the UAPA – and Khurram Pervez, the human rights activist from Jammu and Kashmir who was arrested by the National Investigation Agency (NIA) in November.

Mr. Pervez was the Chair of the Board of Asian Federation Against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD) and his arrest had caused international outrage.

Mr. McGovern also said he was following the case of Mr. Pervez as did Kerry Kennedy, President of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (and niece of former U.S. President John F Kennedy). She called Mr. Pervez’s arrest “a prime example of the crackdown on civic space in India,” and said Mr. Pervez was a friend of the Kennedy family.

Congressman Andy Levin, 61, who holds an Asia-related post in the House of Representatives , said he had been visiting India since he was 17 and “ deeply” loves India and was concerned that the world’s largest democracy was “backsliding” since 2014. He also said he was closely following the developments in India.

“As a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Vice Chair of its Asia Subcommittee, a long-time human rights activist and a proponent of democratic values all over the world, please know that I’m closely following events in India in any way. The country is in danger of becoming less free and less representative for all the people who live there,” he said.

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