USCIRF Opening Statement

March 10, 2011
Honorable Commissioners,
Thank you for inviting the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) to speak to you today about religious freedom in India. Before we get to the three specific questions raised in your invitation to us, we would like to clarify that:
  • HAF is not a proxy for any of the following: Indians, the Government of India, or Hindus in India. We are here as representatives of an American human rights and advocacy organization concerned about the human rights of Hindus in the Hindu Diaspora. We observe events in India closely, but do not represent the views of any particular faction, political party, sect, ideology, interest group or government.
  • HAF has expressed its dissatisfaction with the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) decision last year to place India on the USCIRF’s “Watch List.” The rationale for putting India on the Watch List was as follows: “Because the governmental response at the state and local levels continues to be largely inadequate and the national government has failed to take effective measures to ensure the rights of religious minorities in several states” ( USCIRF also stated, “Infrastructure for investigating and prosecuting cases of religiously-motivated violence or harassment exists in India, but the legal system’s capacity and will is severely limited and is utilized inconsistently. These deficiencies have resulted in a culture of impunity that gives members of vulnerable minority communities few assurances of their safety, particularly in areas with a history of communal violence, and little hope of perpetrator accountability.”
We will first answer specifically the three questions posed to establish:
  • First, that “Freedom of Religion Laws” or “Anti-Fraudulent Conversion Laws,” which in the question posed have been incorrectly characterized as “Anti-Conversion Laws,” have seldom been enforced, have not affected the freedom or ability of individuals to convert, and have not been effective in protecting vulnerable populations from being forcibly or fraudulently converted as a result of lack of enforcement. (Click here for details)
  • Second, that while we concur that the Indian law enforcement infrastructure’s capacity for investigating and prosecuting crime, not just religiously-motivated crime, is not without its limitations, we find the allegation that the system’s “will” to investigate and prosecute cases of religiously-motivated violence and harassment as “severely limited” and the use of the label “a culture of impunity” both suspect and not supported by evidence. India as a whole has not had any major religiously motivated violence in the past two years, despite the gruesome terrorist attack on Mumbai in November 2008 that killed at least 164 and injured more than 300. With regard to the Orissa violence of 1999, and 2007/2008, the Gujarat violence of 2002, and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, there is copious evidence of comprehensive investigation and arrest by law enforcement, as well as prosecution and conviction by courts of those who have allegedly abetted or committed religiously-motivated crimes. (Click here for details)
  • Third, that, despite its limitations, the Indian judicial system in its entirety, from law enforcement to prosecution and conviction, does deliver justice consistently to victims of religiously-motivated crimes and does punish perpetrators of religiously-motivated crimes. (Click here for details)
We will also take this opportunity to provide testimony and resources towards promoting a deeper understanding of ground-realities in India, including but not limited to:
  1. India's unique brand of secularism which provides unprecedented religious accommodations to its religious minority populace, including pilgrimage subsidies by the government, autonomy from governmental intrusion in their respective religious institutions (excluding Hindu institutions, many of which remain under government control), as well as religion-based personal laws. Additionally, some religious minority communities have been classified as “backward communities,” and thus benefit from India’s generous affirmative action programs. Some state governments also have generous reservations for religious minorities, namely Christian and Muslim for government seats, government-related jobs and government-run educational systems. Most religious minority status educational institutions also have 50% reservation for their respective religions. (Click here for details)
  2. India's diverse religious representation in government, media, and other public institutions of influence and power. (Click here for details)
  3. India's historic and unrivaled ethos of religious pluralism. This religious pluralism is a direct extension of the inherent pluralistic teachings of Hinduism, and in turn, other Dharmic traditions borne of it, including Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism. (Click here for details)
  4. A tumultuous history of violence, subjugation of the religious majority, and forced or state-abetted conversions has not been erased from the collective conscience of Indians, and thus continues to color inter-religious relations. India first faced Islamist violence, dating as far back as the 8th century to the time of the Mughal invasions and rule through the mid-19th century; then colonization by European nations that heavily promoted Christian proselytism and conversion, much of which was conducted by demonizing Hinduism; and in modern times both domestic and Pakistan-sponsored terrorism over the past 60 years and aggressive and active foreign missionary campaigns of conversion within its borders. (Click here for details)
  5. India is geographically at the center of what many Christians have targeted as the “10-40 Window,” for a primarily “Western” nation-funded campaign of aggressive church-planting and conversion. Each year, millions of dollars and thousands of foreign missionaries are entering India and other targeted countries as tourists to engage in what can be characterized as nothing less than predatory proselytization. (Click here for details)
Historically, U.S. foreign policy has tragically missed the mark on the role of religion as a driver of geo-political instability and domestic tensions and too often developed on oversimplified, misinformed, or ideological understandings of the significant interplay between the various historical, political, religious, and socio-economic complexities on the ground. This has led sadly to holding back U.S. diplomatic efforts, rather than forwarding them. We believe the listing of India on the Watch List falls into this category. The USCIRF’s allegation of a “culture of impunity” prevailing in India ignores: India’s complex history and the division of India into the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and secular India in 1947; present political, religious, and socio-economic dynamics; and the law and order and the inter-religious peace that has primarily prevailed in India -- a richly diverse country of over 1 billion.
We view today’s opportunity as a positive step by USCIRF to explore more deeply religious freedom in the Indian context -- a step which is crucial to U.S. diplomatic efforts with India, especially as a democratic ally in a volatile region in which U.S. has vested security, military, economic, and strategic interests. It is our sincere hope that the testimony and resources provided will provide a greater appreciation for the religious freedom enjoyed by all Indians and a more nuanced understanding of the variety of factors affecting inter-religious relations in India.
We look forward to a continuing dialogue between USCIRF and the Hindu American Foundation on our shared concern of religious freedom and human rights not only in India, but around the globe.