US Congressmen Question "Hidden Agenda" at Hearing on India
Washington, D.C. (April 4, 2014) - Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Brad Sherman (D-CA) raised serious concerns about the timing of today’s Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission (TLHRC) hearing on Religious Freedom in India. Both representatives, who are members of TLHRC, suggested that the hearing may have been timed with the upcoming Indian democratic election and urged committee members not to attempt to influence it.
“Any attempt by the United States to have an effect on the Indian elections will backfire,” said Sherman while questioning panelists.
Leaders of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) echoed similar concerns, noting the unbalanced panel of four witnesses, all of whom expressed concern over the election of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, Narendra Modi, as Prime Minister. A witness that would have offered a Hindu perspective to ground realities and the multi-dimensional nature of inter-religious tensions in India was not included, despite requests by the Foundation and some members of the TLHRC. In a number of states in India, such as Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab, Nagaland, and Mizoram, Hindus comprise a minority and have been subjected to violence and discrimination. Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton, a panelist at the hearing, noted that Hindus have been ethnically cleansed from the Kashmir Valley.
“While the promotion of international religious freedom should be a US policy priority, the testimony made it clear that the witnesses today simply had an axe to grind with the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate,” stated Jay Kansara, Associate Director of Governmental Relations, who was in attendance at the hearing.
HAF submitted testimony, which was entered into the record by Rep. Joe Pitts (R-PA), co-chair of the hearing with Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN). The Foundation’s testimony outlined its perspective on the state of religious freedom in India while noting that it does not take positions on politics or elections in any country. HAF specifically criticized Rep. Pitts and Ellison’s H. Res. 417 as Hinduphobic and highly prejudicial, and expressed particular concern over the resolution’s call to empower religious minority courts to conduct trials and hear appeals -- a suggestion HAF contended threatens to undermine the secular Indian judicial system.
“Like any other member of Congress committed to human rights, I see eye to eye with the national and international community that what happened in Gujarat calls for justice and accountability,” said Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-AS), Ranking member of Subcommittee on Asia Pacific Affairs, and member of TLHRC. “But India, like the United States, has an independent and transparent Judiciary and, after an investigation that has been ongoing for more than a decade, India’s Supreme Court and its Special Investigation Team have not found any evidence against [Mr.] Narendra Modi.”
Rep. Pitts submitted testimony from the U.S. India Political Action Committee and the Sikh Coalition. Other TLHRC members remarked that they had not been informed by Commission staff ahead of the hearing and thus, were unable to offer comments that may have differed from the co-chairs.
Kansara also expressed criticism over the endorsement of H.Res. 417 by US Commission on International Freedom (USCIRF) Commissioner Katrina Lantos Swett as well as several of the panelists’ endorsement of the broadly criticized Communalism Bill of 2011 in India. The proposed Communalism Bill, according to HAF leaders, India observers, and legal experts in India, violated fundamental principles of equal protection under the law and due process by creating two classes of Indian citizenry.
I do not believe the timing of this hearing is a coincidence. The national elections in India begin on Monday and continue until May 12. I am concerned that the goal of this hearing is to influence the outcome of India's national elections, which is not an appropriate role for the US Congress. Such interference with India’s elections would undermine our shared goals.
The United States of America should always stand for religious freedom for all people in all countries and should always work to that end. In this regard, we need to be especially careful not to directly or indirectly contribute to sectarian strife in India or other countries. I am concerned that this hearing is an attempt to foment fear and loathing purely for political purposes, and that it's being done to influence India's national elections. This is wrong and it will contribute to further sectarian division in India and will undermine the national interests of the United States.